An age preserved in salt

Khushboo Ramnane | Updated on February 07, 2020

Taste of freedom: National Salt Satyagraha Memorial at Dandi   -  PRASHANT NAKWE

A mother introduces her son to the National Salt Satyagraha Memorial to help him learn from history

Stories about loss of what my grandmother once called home often leavened our leisure hours. My grandparents experienced Partition-related strife when they were 10 or 12 years old. My father sometimes discussed his growing-up years in riot-stricken Ahmedabad and how schools, colleges and offices would often remain shut because to curfew. That feeling of displacement and fear trickled down and took root in my DNA, dormant but very much there. Only when I read This Is Not That Dawn by Yashpal did I understand terror and loss as a shared experience on both sides. In this and the many other books I subsequently read, it was the story of resilience, compassion and selflessness, despite the bigotry, that stayed with me.

Naturally then, in a reflex reaction to the tumultuous times our country has been witnessing since early December, 2019, that I took my six-year-old son to the National Salt Satyagraha Memorial in Dandi, a breezy 45-minute drive from Surat, Gujarat. I wanted to revisit and break down civil disobedience for my son, as the memorial honours exactly that. After all, history is not just a subject to be memorised in school. Like Farhat Nasreen reasons in her book If History Has Taught Us Anything, “If we suppose that history repeats itself, then sifting through the most advantageous choices made in the past could unearth clues for better choices in the future. The past, in a way, tips off the present. History acts as very compelling emotion intensifier.”

For the country: A mural showing a girl donating her bangles to Gandhi for the cause of Swaraj   -  KHUSHBOO RAMNANE


The route from Surat to Dandi, via Navsari, passed through sorghum fields and swanky NRI-money-infused South Gujarat villages. A good part of the area — marshland/wetland — is a declared eco-sensitive zone. We couldn’t help but appreciate how immaculately clean the entire area, including Dandi beach, was.

Much before we reached our destination on the coast of the Gulf of Khambhat, a tall triangular structure with a crystal tip swam into view, which we later learnt represents two hands holding salt. For about 10 minutes from this point, we passed through narrow, curvy lanes of homes with swings, and small stores stocking chips and fizzy drinks; craning my neck out of the car window I managed to read some graffiti that declared, ‘Satya ej parmeshwar’ or Truth is god.

“But what new things will I learn here, Mumma,” my son asked wonderingly. It’s usually the planetariums, science, aircraft and music museums that fill our holiday itineraries. I replied that sometimes we need to go back in time to learn from history.

The central building — which houses a media room, a small museum and a salt-making exhibit — is aptly called 241, for the number of miles MK Gandhi walked to pick a fistful of defiant salt in protest against a repressive salt tax imposed by the colonial rulers.

Solar panels prettily designed to look like trees (40 of them) power the memorial complex, and the surplus electricity is sold to the Gujarat government. The 81 life-size statues of the Salt Satyagraha marchers are the pièce de résistance here. The five-metre-high statue of Gandhi overlooks the 14,000-sq-m artificial saltwater lake, symbolising the seashore where Gandhi registered his protest. The chatter of busloads of schoolchildren who had finished the tour just ahead of us got my son excited and ready for ours. We were met by a guide team, hired from nearby villages and specially trained for this job.

On view were 24 murals depicting several highlights of the march from Sabarmati to Dandi — small stories of kindness, inclusion, bravery and resilience. Pointing to a mural showing a young girl donating her bangles, her sole possession, for the cause of swaraj or self rule, my son wanted to know how she would manage with nothing. And where Gandhi is shown to be pained at the separate seating for the so-called untouchables, he wanted to know what was meant by ‘untouchables’. Since he was too young to understand the word, I tried the simpler explanation that people identified themselves based on where they came from, the language they spoke or the gods they prayed to.

Another mural narrates how Hindu and Muslim farmers of Kapletha village formed a bridge by lining their bullock carts together to help the marchers cross the Mindhola river. A section of the memorial, known as Saifee Villa, was where Gandhi stayed after the march and it belonged to the then head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, Syedna Taher Saifuddin. My son wanted to know the meaning of a wall inscription that read it was “dangerous to house Gandhi”. A placard on another mural recalled how an advance party of 16 students cycled to each village on the Dandi route to “create awareness, carry out a census, and make arrangements for the stay”.

At his age my son surely does not comprehend identity based on religion and caste; or the conflicts arising from them. He does not fully understand the import of protests and civil disobedience, yet I felt it was important to initiate such conversations. I spoke to him about rules and why it was not okay to follow rules without reasoning about them. I also understand that at some point in the future it may be important to put into words difficult topics such as standing up against violence and standing for inclusion, because remaining in a bubble, like I did at his age, was not an option anymore.

With these murals as the jumping point, I spoke to my son about different religions and what they all had in common instead of how they were different. We went back to history so he could honour all that had happened before, yet be guided by compassion. I hope he processes these stories and remembers that love and peace are a human’s true nature. More importantly, I hope he objectively chooses his own narrative without getting coloured by my world view.

Khushboo Ramnane is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer

Published on February 06, 2020

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