The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library occupies the house that was once the residence of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and its leader during the first 17 years of its independence. It’s located among the tree-lined boulevards and walled-off properties just south of the Indian Parliament building. On the Sunday that I went to visit the museum and library (and for good measure there’s a planetarium on its grounds too), the parliament seemed to be receiving a visit from some international big-shot. This meant the roads there had been sealed off to traffic, to ensure that the big-shot’s cavalcade of limousines and police-cars could pass in and out of the area in privacy and security. For some reason, though, I emerged from the exit of a nearby Metro station and entered the neighbourhood without noticing any guards or cordons. Unaware of what was happening, I assumed the streets here were so quiet because it was Sunday afternoon.
I hadn’t seen a part of Delhi so devoid of traffic before. So I concluded that if you wanted to go for a stroll in the capital, Sunday was the day to do it.
In the absence of traffic and people, those boulevards had been taken over by the local macaque monkey population. Nonchalantly, they wandered across the asphalt where normally there’d be a thunderous procession of vehicles. Whole monkey-families, adult males and females and wee monkey-bairns, were happily mucking about on the roads. Along one boulevard, where railings enclosed some sort of military compound with rows of barracks, those railings were covered in monkeys, dangling, swinging, climbing and generally monkeying around.
When I arrived at the entrance gates to the Nehru Memorial Museum, I finally realised what was going on. The cavalcade must have been scheduled to pass by there because police cars and motorcycles were parked on either side of the road. Yellow metal barriers with castor-wheels and signs saying DELHI POLICE had been trundled across the lane heading into the Parliament district and a huge line of stalled cars, buses and auto-rickshaws extended back from it, into the distance. Disconcertingly, the police didn’t seem to want any pedestrians out on the pavements either, so they’d locked the museum gates even though it was doing business today. As a result, a dense crowd of people who’d been visiting the museum, including parents with young children, had gathered against the inside of the gates — surprised, annoyed and upset to find that, having concluded their visit, they now couldn’t get out of the place. They looked like inmates in a prison camp.
After I’d waited for a while, a policeman decided it wouldn’t do any harm to unlock one of the gates, open it a crack and let me into the premises. However, the delay meant that I missed the English-language tour of the planetarium, which began at 3.00 PM. So I won’t be saying anything about the planetarium here.
The house – originally known as Teen Murti House, designed by Robert Tor Russel and built by Edwin Lutyens in 1929-1930 – served as the Indian leader’s home for 16 years until his death in 1964. Thereafter, it was turned into a museum in honour of his memory. I liked the museum but I have to say that its organisation is pretty ramshackle. Nehru’s story is presented in a long series of wall-mounted newspaper articles, letters and photographs but there’s no attempt to provide an overarching narrative that links these disparate bits of information together. You have to piece the story together yourself as you follow the trail of personal and journalistic fragments from room to room. And the trail takes a torturous route through the mansion’s numerous rooms. It’s all-too-easy to take a wrong turning, enter the wrong room and miss a chunk of his life story – so that one moment it’s 1920 and the non-cooperation movement has just got going, but then the next moment it’s the late 1940s and suddenly Louis and Edwina Mountbatten are in town.
One thing I hadn’t known was that the young Nehru had links for a time with the esoteric philosophy of Theosophy, popularised by Helena Blavatsky in the late 19th century. His boyhood tutor Ferdinand T. Brooks got him interested in it and he was initiated into the Theosophical Society at the age of 13 by the versatile Annie Besant, a friend of the family who wasn’t just a Theosophist but also a writer, socialist, women’s rights activist, supporter of home-rule for Ireland and India, and member (and later president) of the Indian National Congress. Here’s a wall-display that’s dedicated to her.
During my wanderings in the mansion I saw a great many bookshelves filled with a great many books, which obviously made me warm to their late owner. There’s also a chance to see the bedroom-cum-study once used by Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, who of course was no small presence in 20th-century Indian history herself.
Having viewed the museum, I made my way back to the Metro Station. By this point, the visiting big-shot’s cavalcade had been and gone, the barricades had been removed and the traffic in the neighbourhood was back to rumbling normality. This had forced the monkeys off the roads but they were still brazen about their use of the pavements. Just before the station I encountered a bunch of them ranged across the pavement and strutting along intimidatingly like a Simian re-enactment of the opening-titles scene of Reservoir Dogs.
Later, an Indian colleague told me that monkeys have become a great nuisance in and around the Indian Parliament. And according to an article I found on the Guardian website they’re notorious in the building for their habits of ‘terrorising senior bureaucrats, snatching files and stealing food’:
So there you have it. The Indian Parliament is overrun with monkeys. Unlike, of course, any other parliament in the world.