On a mini vacation to Mangalore, hubby and I decided to visit the museum there. The Shreemanti Bai Memorial Government Museum is located on a hill at Bejai in Mangalore, in a two-storied bungalow built by Colonel V R Mirajkar.
The autorickshaw driver said he knew where the Bejai museum was (he often got fares for it), but he didn’t know a museum actually existed there (he thought it was just a name) 🙂 The first thing we noticed was a canon gun in front of a colonial style building, but the place seemed peaceful and inviting. There were no cars or buses in sight, no students jostling in queues for entrance.
A small entrance room, one desk, no one seated there to greet visitors or demand fees. We stood there and looked around, and a woman emerged and smiled at us somewhat uncertainly. She confirmed the museum was open, and looked slightly shaky as she took out a ticket book. Finally, after calling out to some man inside the building, she handed us tickets and took money, and for a princely sum of Rupees two per head (given as four tickets of rupees one each), hubby and I were officially eligible to enter.
The museum hall was unlit. A man rushed ahead of us and put on the lights and fans and we entered to start admiring the exhibits.
I’m never quite sure how to think about my experience of museums. Some exhibits induce gasps, some an expansive sense of awe and wonder, and some seem, well, like exhibits from any and every other museum. Why does one particular painting make me halt, while other similar ones don’t? I have no idea. I’ve been to museums as a child, then as a mother ferrying her son, and later as a emptied-nest mother, and it’s always unpredictable whether I’ll like a museum or a particular displayed item or walk past disinterested.
The other thing is, a few days after the visit, I usually cannot remember any of the exhibits in detail, but sometimes I carry a sense of wonder about a few of them. That fizzles out in a month or two, confirming my impression that history, culture and art are lost on me.
But the experience of walking through this museum was itself strange. We’d enter a hall, the man scooting ahead of us to put on the lights and fans, then dashing back to the hall we’d just left to close the lights and fans there. As we walked around and examined the pieces displayed, our electricity-switch-handling-guide would stay out of sight so as not to seem to hurry us. Like we were honored guests. It made me savor the experience much more 🙂
And then, we entered a room that looked different: a room with some documents and pictures. Under a tired-looking glass cover, lay archived letters of Gandhi.
I’ve seen Gandhi museums in the past. I remember some of them, at least I remember visiting Old Birla House on Tees January Marg as a child; this house, where Gandhi was assassinated, has been converted into a “Gandhi smriti” where you can see his “personal effects” and the path he took on the day he died, and also see collections of books and letters and many other things. As a child I don’t think I hung around to actually read the displayed letters 🙂 But this time, maybe because I’m older, or maybe it was the lazy time of the day/ my mood, whatever, I started reading the letters in this Mangalore museum. They were typewritten copies, some with stamps to indicate authenticity.
My first reaction was a sense of nostlagia–I remembered those days when there were no photocopiers and this is how we made copies: type out a letter, then get someone to certify that it was a genuine copy. As I read through them, I realized I did not know many of the names mentioned.
Till I found a letter written by Gandhi to Hitler, dated July 1939.
I read that letter one, once, twice, thrice. One isn’t supposed to take pictures inside a museum. I guess I could have jotted down the contents at the back of some bill in my purse; instead, I memorized the letter. It was a short one.
I carried the memory with me later, feeling I’d seen something important, historic. I should have noted down the contents later, but I remembered them perfectly and saw no need to. I was sure I’d never forget them.
Three weeks later, I suddenly thought of the letter and could not remember the contents. I had a sense of what they’d been, and of the date, but the specifics were forgotten.
Strangely, I experienced a great sense of loss. I even went through a five minute phase when I wondered when we’d next go to Mangalore and promising myself that this time I’d note it down.
But this is the day and age of the Internet, so no loss is permanent if it can be archived. Here’s a collection, which includes the letter I’d seen: click here for an archive.
I must admit, though, that reading a letter on the Internet was nowhere as awe-inspiring as seeing it laid flat in that somewhat dusty glass case in that old-world-style museum in Mangalore.