A Wreath of White Roses Over the Ruins of Mehrangir, Homi Bhabha's Home

In June 2016, the National Centre for Performing Arts allowed Homi Bhabha's home in Mumbai to be demolished. Scientists, historians and political leaders are all to blame for this sacrilege.

We were overwhelmed with inconsolable grief when the present owner of Mehrangir, Homi Bhabha’s home in Mumbai, demolished it during the first week of June this year. Jamshed Bhabha, Homi Bhabha’s brother and the sole owner of the iconic building, had bequeathed it to the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). In turn, NCPA had needed funds to promote its objectives and had auctioned the house on June 18, 2014.

For us, the story of Mehrangir is over with our virtual laying of a wreath of white roses on its ruins (because we cannot trespass upon the hallowed premises now).

Why white roses? Because Homi Bhabha was a lover of trees, gardens and roses. B.P. Pal, a former director-general of the Indian Council of Agriculture, had developed a variety of white roses aptly called Dr Homi Bhabha Roses. The auction booklet had stated that Homi Bhabha grew various types of beautiful and exotic plants and flowers on his terrace garden in Mehrangir. On Bhabha’s initiative, the erstwhile Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET), started to grow roses and, in 1960, the Trombay rose garden had over 750 varieties. Today, a wreath of white roses says it all.

The writing was on the wall when the cash-strapped NCPA sold the ‘family silver’ – about 900 priceless articles like clocks, textiles, rare rugs and carpets, silverware, glass, pottery, antique furniture, paintings and other artefacts that had been inseparable parts of the Bhabha legacy – at three auctions in 2011. When auctioneers were happy, experts on Bhabha’s legacy as well as historians were upset and critical of the NCPA.

On August 23, 2012, The Daily Mail (UK) quoted Indira Chowdhury of the Centre for Public History, and co-author of A Masterful Spirit: Homi J. Bhabha, thus: “Mehrangir and all that was inside the building are an invaluable part of history. … Every piece of art has a story to tell. For instance, furniture, some of which was custom-built for the Bhabhas, can tell us a lot about human skills.”

According to the article, she also suggested that the government should intervene and convert the estate into a memorial in collaboration with the NCPA. However, it was already too late.

Alongside eminent scientists such as C.N.R. Rao, Anil Kakodkar and Raghunath Mashelkar, I had wanted to save Mehrangir, and I had written a few articles (e.g. here, here and here). However, we scientists failed to convince the government to acquire Mehrangir along with its priceless legacy. We acted very late. And our indifference was inexcusable.

When those in authority at the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) heard of the possible fate of Mehrangir, they wrote letters through “proper channels” to the state government. Prithviraj Chavan, then the chief minister of Maharashtra and recipient of the latest requests, sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to take steps to acquire the house and declare it as a memorial in honour of Homi Bhabha (scientists are government servants; they have limitations.

At the same time, employees of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) filed a PIL even if judicial recourse didn’t promise to help. One can see how futile such efforts were through an Indian Express article published in April 2015. It read that “construction of the bungalow was going on in 1941 and hence it cannot be termed as one of “historical importance” under existing regulations” as under the the Maharashtra Ancient Monument & Archaeological Sites & Remains Act, 1960. I do not blame them. The officials had their limitations and had to work within the law. Chavan, who is a technocrat and a former Minister of State at the Prime Minister’s Office, was apparently unaware of the subtleties of law.

Looking back belatedly, we realise that only a decision by the central government, taken at the highest levels, would have saved Mehrangir.

Homi Bhabha was a great scientist. He was not a community leader nor an SC/ST, OBC or Gujar, Patel, Ezhava, Vanniyar or Modh Ganchi leader. He did not have any separate identity as a Parsi, Hindu or Muslim, nor as a nationalist or as a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family – except that he used to address Jawaharlal Nehru as “My dear bhai” in his letters! Bhabha had no political constituency.

In November 2015, Modi and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis opened a memorial in honour of B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution and one of the country’s tallest leaders; he deserves the honours. Maharashtra purchased the house at 10 King Henry’s Road, in northwest London, where Ambedkar had lived during 1921-1922, for $4.7 million. The state may also spend $1.5 million to refurbish it to start a museum.

Both Bhabha and Ambedkar contributed uniquely to the nation. It is not fair to compare their contributions. A report in The Diplomat explains the political nuances and reasons for the state of Maharashtra acquiring the London building.

Let me congratulate BARC workers for filing the PIL, which kept the flame glowing for some time. The newspaper DNA reported in September 2014 that in one of the hearings “the Centre had submitted that after due consideration, it had been decided that the bungalow could not be declared a national monument.” The Centre has asked the state government to acquire the building. Both had been passing the ball back and forth, and it became clear that neither entity considered Mehrangir’s retention a priority.

When the controversy was at its peak, Anil Dharker, a senior journalist and an NCPA sympathiser, had claimed that Jamshed Bhabha lived in Mehrangir all his life and Homi Bhabha had spent only a few years there – that when his parents bought it, he’d been overseas and later spent a lot of time in Delhi. Obviously, Dharker did not have access to the Tata Central Archives, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Archives or other related documents, which set the record straightMercifully, Dharker did not ask for a ration card or driving licence in Homi’s name to prove that he lived in Mehrangir.

Thanks to the generosity of NCPA office bearers, TIFR received from Mehrangir some priceless letters of the Bhabha family. I saw letters written by Bhabha and his mother, which show that the family moved in to Mehrangir on March 16, 1939. Homi and Jamshed lived with their parents when they came back from England in the same year. The auction document, a collector’s item, published by NCPA thus describes the eminence of Mehrangir:

Mehrangir can boast of visits by some of the most prominent personalities of those times, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, who was a dear friend of Homi Bhabha. Also in 1960, the family entertained the Queen of England in the very dining room which had witnessed visits by many famous personalities.’

A collection of letters belonging to the Bhabha family follows. Click image to enlarge. Article continues below.

Mehrangir had been designed by Bhabha himself; he was the one who named it so. I got in touch with Indira Chowdhury, quoted in the Daily Mail article, about the last-ditch effort of NCPA office-bearers to maximise the yield in the auction from builders and investors. They had used her magnificent description of Mehrangir’s history in her book in the auction booklet. I wrote her: “I feel very odd when I think of the noble purpose for which you wrote those immortal lines. Can you describe what you feel about it now?”

She clarified that she had not noticed that the auction document cited their work. Without directly answering my question, she sent me the link to an article she had written in the Indian Express in October 2011 protesting the NCPA’s decision to auction off the Mehrangir artefacts in 2011. She said she had visited Mehrangir sometime earlier, and the article aptly reflected her sentiments. An excerpt:

The reasons for the strange compulsion felt by the NCPA, which inherited the house from its founder, to auction its contents last week will never be known. As I walked through the house and viewed the opulence of its contents, the moment spoke about the conversion of the past into a profitable resource.

She recalled that in the dining room was a large portrait of Meherbai, painted by Bhabha himself, and of his aunt Lady Meherbai Tata. “Meherbai Bhabha wears an exquisite Chinese gara sari that hints at the many uses that were found for the treasures that came in through trade,” she added in the article. Chowdhury bemoaned the fact that the auction catalogue referred to them as the “Bhabha ladies”.

The fact that one was his mother and the other his father’s sister who had married Sir Dorab Tata and after whom the Lady Tata Hospital is named was expunged. The catalogue introduced the ‘Bhabha ladies’ only to talk about the emeralds and the ‘European-cut diamonds’ that one of them is wearing. On the first floor were amazing writing implements of the early 20th century – telescopic pencils and expandable barrel fountain pens. One had the signature of Mehri D. Tata embossed on it. However, the auctioneer was at a loss when a buyer asked what the pen was doing there. One could go on about the erasure of history that such moments exemplify, but there is a larger point.

(L to R) Homi Bhabha, Jehangir Bhabha, Meherbai Bhabha and Jamshed Bhabha (sitting on the floor). Credit: TIFR Archives

(L to R) Homi Bhabha, Jehangir Bhabha, Meherbai Bhabha and Jamshed Bhabha (sitting on the floor). Credit: TIFR Archives

When I informed her that the owner had demolished building, she expressed herself in an email: “After it was sold I did not believe that the house would be brought down. And even now I find it hard to believe that Meherangir has been reduced to rubble.”

On June 18, 2014, the Mumbai Mirror reported that Smita-Crishna Godrej, who had purchased Mehrangir, assured her friends that “the iconic home where brothers Homi and Jamshed grew up will not be torn down to make way for a high rise and will only be used as a family home”. Of course, the owner is entitled to do whatever she wanted to her property. After the auction, Kushroo Suntook, chairperson of the NCPA, said, “Hopefully, it is for end-use. I would be upset if the structure is demolished.”

Jamshed Bhabha himself never thought that the buyer would demolish Mehrangir – as hinted at in a conversation he’d had with Suntook years before Jamshed’s death. I believe that many of the eminent persons who had written to Modi to stop the auction would not have been clinically indifferent to this legally defensible but inexcusable sacrilege. The central or state governments could have saved Mehrangir by compensating the NCPA by a reasonable amount. Now, its auction retrospectively highlights the need to identify heritage buildings and to take effective measures to conserve them.

What did Homi Bhabha do for India? It is available as a half page note he sent on July 11, 1954, to Nehru describing his vision of atomic energy. It had these items: setting up the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay; uranium prospecting, mining and fuel fabrication; production of heavy-water, enrichment of uranium; setting up power reactors, breeder reactors, plutonium extraction plants; and setting up special reactors for the propulsion of ships. All these have been achieved. And each one of these has grown into huge industrial projects. Apart from strategic applications of nuclear energy, India presently mines and mills its own uranium, fabricates nuclear-fuel elements and designs, constructs, commissions and operates power reactors. Moreover, the use of radioisotopes in medicine, industry and research has grown a hundred-fold over the last few decades.

With the support of Vikram Sarabhai, Bhabha laid the foundation for India’s notably successful space programme as well. Thanks to them, we were witness to the consolidation of a highly successful technological enterprise – so much so that developed countries couldn’t help but take note.

Bhabha died on January 24, 1966. It was one of the saddest days for India and its scientific community. The next day, we all went to work. All the institutions under the Department of Atomic Energy were open that day. An eerie silence was everywhere; many wept openly. The sense of loss among the senior scientists was total. Everyone felt orphaned. The thoughts about Bhabha and his premature death brought a lump in our throat – and old timers feel the same way about the demolition of Mehrangir.

The author is grateful to Reetesh Chaurasia, a scientific officer with the Department of Atomic Energy, for compiling the letters and photos from the TIFR Archives at a very short notice.

K.S. Parthasarathy is former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.