Twenty-year-old Mohammad Kaif Saiyed’s father Anis Saiyed (58) was born at the Gandhi Ashram in Sabarmati and retired in May this year from PTC College at the Ashram’s premises.
From the harmonious neighborhood inside the ashram, the Saiyed now live in Juhapura, known as the largest Muslim ghetto in Gujarat. Although Kaif largely grew up in Juhapura, he is excited about the new development plan for Gandhi’s ashram and its neighborhoods and believes the redevelopment will now put the ashram “on the world map and become a point of landmark of pride for Ahmedabad”.
“My friends here (in Juhapura) know about the existence of the Ashram, but many of them have never been there despite living in Ahmedabad for years. They don’t know what the Ashram is. I think this redevelopment is a great move as more people will visit the place,” says Kaif, who earned her Bachelor of Commerce degree from LJ College of Commerce and plans to pursue a graduate degree in accounting or business management at the stranger.
The Saiyed family moved to Juhapura in 2002 following the Gujarat riots, while Anis’ parents remained in their residence at the Ashram premises until their disappearance in 2011. Shamim, 57, l wife of Anis, says that the residents of the Ashram have never known caste or communal division.
“The Ashram was the safest place during the riots. There are no religious or caste distinctions…we celebrated Diwali and Eid together…we attended each other’s weddings and we were there for each other’s milestones. My wedding reception as well as that of my eldest daughter took place in the premises of the Ashram. But we also felt it was our duty to leave so as not to jeopardize the safety of other residents…” says Shamim.
“After moving to Juhapura, every opportunity we had — weekends, holidays, a day off — we went to the Ashram because it felt like home. Bonds and friendship are different with the people there… But now that everyone is moving away, I’m afraid those friendships will be lost. We’ll probably meet at someone’s wedding but it won’t be like before,” she adds, her eyes bulging.
Anis’ grandfather, Bhaimiya, was among the first to arrive at Gandhi’s ashram in what he believes to be 1944-1945 from Junagadh, to work as a driver. “He originally lived in Sadar Bazaar, but was given residence in the Ashram premises after independence… My father, Mohammad Ali, known as Bachubhai to everyone, was born in ‘Ashram, worked as a driver with Dadasaheb (Ganesh Vasudev) Mavlankar, who took him to Delhi between 1954 and 1962. On his return he continued to work as a driver My siblings and I were also born in ‘Ashram,” says Anis.
Shamim also laments that the skills courses taught in various units of the Ashram premises are no longer continuing. “I took spoken English lessons, learned how to make pots and how to paint them under Manav Sadhna (NGO founded by Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trustee Jayesh Patel and his wife Anar Patel, who is the daughter of former Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel) There is always something or the other being taught,” says Shamim.
The Saiyeds handed over possession of their residence to the authorities in April this year in exchange for monetary compensation of Rs 60 lakh, as part of the government to rehabilitate residents of the Ashram. “Our house was demolished, but not our memories,” say Shamim and Anis.
The family say they last visited the Ashram in May when Anis retired, although he continues to work on the extension. The past few years had made family visits to the Ashram premises infrequent due to Covid-19 restrictions.
After the death of Anis’ parents, Anis continued to use the house as a resting place almost every day… It was also a holiday home for the extended family. “Usually our extended family would come from other districts on their vacations. We would take them to the residence of the Ashram as it would give us an excuse to stay there. My husband and I intended to return to the Ashram residence and open a stationery business there after his retirement (from Anis) and the marriage of our children. But that won’t happen now,” says Shamim.
Anis, who leads the Islamic part of the All Religions Prayer Meeting held at the Hriday Kunj run by the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation Memorial Trust (SAPMT) every year on October 2 and January 30 since 2007, says that despite her three children – two daughters, aged 31 and 22, and Kaif – having grown up largely outside the Ashram, Gandhi’s values were deeply embedded in them.
“You can see the difference. Their understanding of the values of truth and non-violence is something that I feel they implement in their daily lives. We do all our chores without depending on anyone,” he says.
Kaif’s earliest memories of Mahatma Gandhi are of the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya where miniatures fascinated him. “We knew this person, a freedom fighter icon called Gandhiji, but after learning at school, I would come home and ask my dad more about him, and he would talk in detail. I feel like it improved my understanding of Gandhi,” Kaif says.
Kaif’s older sister Binash, who works at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad as an intern after completing a Masters in Commerce from HL College, says her life at the Ashram has always been different from her current residence, but in the right direction.
“Everyone is friendly, there are no borders. The lifestyle is a bit different. For example, here you can get up late, go to bed late, but at the Ashram, there is a certain rigor in the routine. We have to get up early to get water, finish lunch at noon and sleep early. We can hang out at anyone’s house without any security concerns,” says Binash, who left the Ashram when he was two years old but continued to visit the place.