The Sabarmati Ashram, also known as the Gandhi Ashram, is located in the Sabarmati suburb of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on the banks of the River Sabarmati. This was one of the residences of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived there for about 12 years along with his wife. It was here that Gandhi made his base when he led the Dandi march on 12 March 1930 and in recognition of how important that march was, the Indian government established the Ashram as a national monument.
This is not its story.
This is the story of how on the way to Gandhi Ashram (He was somewhat of a hero of mine) I took a wrong turn and ended up in one of the biggest slums in Gujarat. Its name is Ramapir Thekra or simply Thekra slum.
I had spent most of the bus ride squinting out the window, desperately trying to catch what little Indian street names I could as they streaked by. Then looking down to play a little game of Where’s Wally with my crumpled map. The journey was over an hour long through traffic and I was getting pretty good at the game.
Coming into Juna Vadaj Bus Terminus, a sense of resignation came over me. A couple of bus stops back, I had allowed a sliver of confidence to creep into me, counting two more stops to a bus station at which I was to alight. What it turned out to be was a crust of a complex, a post holocaust shell if you will, seemingly abandoned long time ago. It was equipped with its own cow, nonchalantly sitting in the middle of the dust road, complete with squinty eyes that seemed to mock me.
I asked around for directions to the Ashram with negative results. Those that could speak English pointed in contradictory directions, leaving me little faith in believing either had understood what I was saying.
Undeterred I turned back to said crumpled map, and with the sun as a compass and a wildly ambitious idea of where I should be, I headed off in an altogether different direction. North then East.
Passing a big road circle then turning right, I headed down a road running perpendicular to a river (I knew Gandhi Ashram was located on the banks of River Sabarmati) and hoped that if I followed that river downstream it would meet with larger Sabarmati. It was then that I stumbled into the slums.
I was fascinated. The village of makeshift homes, roofs of sometimes canvas sacks, provision shops of holes in mud brick walls, discarded bicycle frames turned into chairs, were all a colorful picture of perseverance. I popped open my lens cap and started snapping photos and that’s when the children came.
At first just one, a boy in a singlet and bright red shorts jumped out and posed, arms crossed, in front of me. I turned the camera around to show him his photo on the small LCD screen and excitement took him. He disappeared into the neighborhood and returned with friends. Loud with laughter they posed too and when they had their fun, the families came. Slowly, out from the canvassed huts, first a father carrying an infant, after a pair of brothers, then whole family units.
They urged me on, to take another photo. One more, always, just one more. I tried to explain that my camera didn’t have film and I couldn’t get them the pictures. They didn’t mind. I was blown away at how delighted they were seeing themselves on the back of a camera screen. It was good enough.
They dragged me to an elderly lady in her makeshift shop who grumbled and shooed me away but immediately smiled when I took a photo of her. They all laughed and teased her. Then, to a posse of boys, who were gambling on a card game, rupees on the ground. Flashing their rupees in a pose that declared in a land of nothing, meager was big.
In a last token of gratitude, just before I left, whilst taking a cigarette to my mouth, one of the boys ran to the old lady at the shop to take a matchbox off her shelf. She handed it to him for me to use. I accepted politely, striking a match to light my smoke and when I returned the box to the boy he returned it to the shelf, ready for sale. I was touched.
Eventually I did make it to the Gandhi Ashram. It wasn’t that far off after all. Perhaps it was Gandhi speaking to me from some far off place, but in the wind that day, I thought I heard his quote.
He seemed to say: “Take care of this moment”.
~ Click on the photos to enlarge ~