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'A house divided against itself'

By Manavi Kapur
April 19, 2015 01:57 IST
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Lincoln measured his words against the fate of a nation. But they may find themselves apropos to one family as well. The Bharat Ratna conferred on Madan Mohan Malaviya has exposed the frictions within his family, reports Manavi Kapur

In December, it was decided that Madan Mohan Malaviya would be given the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour, 68 years after the educationist, freedom fighter and Hindu ideologue died. Immediately after the announcement, a tussle broke out between his descendants over who would collect the award in New Delhi.

It was never going to be easy. Malaviya sired eight children, four boys and four girls, who, in turn, had numerous children. The Malaviya family tree is now big enough to occupy a whole wall.

With no sign of a truce, the Union home ministry decided that Malaviya's three grandchildren - Hem Sharma, Premdhar Malaviya and Giridhar Malaviya - and granddaughter-in-law Saraswati Malaviya would jointly accept it on behalf of the whole family. And that's how it happened. On March 30, these four collected the medal and the citation from President Pranab Mukherjee in a ceremony held at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Did that settle the matter? Many who saw the telecast of the function insist the body language of the four was anything but harmonious. Some swear there was some jostling too. Is there bad blood within the family? The search for an answer takes me to Allahabad where Malaviya was born.

It seems only appropriate that the Malaviyas live on Malaviya Road, where two mansions stand beside each other like old friends. An unguarded gate opens into the residence of Giridhar, a retired Allahabad High Court judge. The gate also bears the name of his son, Manoj, an Indian Police Service officer. There are seasonal blooms in the well-maintained garden. The red-brick and white mansion looks like it has just got a fresh coat of paint.

Giridhar meets me on the verandah. A marble bust of his grandfather keeps us company. Dressed in a pastel blue khadi kurta-pajama, sandalwood tilak on his forehead, the tall man bears the aura of one accustomed to public attention. When I ask him about the dispute in the family, he speaks with easy candour, but with measured words and a moderated voice. "I have read reports about this feud, but I have not participated in it."

According to him, 92-year-old Saraswati, the granddaughter-in-law, wrote to the home ministry, claiming she was the eldest member of the family and hence the rightful recipient of the award. "I never had any issue with that. But her sister-in-law, Hem, who is the direct blood of Mahamana (Malaviya), is older than her and claimed her right as such."

Giridhar laboriously details an itinerary to prove that he was nowhere in the picture to change the ministry's original decision to give the award to Saraswati alone. "My only suggestion was that the award be kept at the Banaras Hindu University (or BHU, founded by Malaviya) with the other memorabilia of Mahamana so that its 30,000 students can be participants of his legacy," he says.

With a proud glint in his eyes, Giridhar walks back in time, to the day of his birth in 1936. "If you visit Malaviya Bhawan in Varanasi, it was in Mahamana's room that I was born." As anecdotes flow effortlessly, Giridhar lets his guard down a little. "I have heard stories about someone from the family upsetting the (home) ministry officials in Delhi, which led to his pass being rescinded. But I wouldn't want to slander the family," he says.

I take this opportunity to ask him about Saraswati, his neighbour. "You can go and speak to her, but I must warn you that she's very upset with me and might say things that are inappropriate."

A quest for primogeniture 

Saraswati's property seems stuck in time. The house is unpainted and no one has cleared the pathway of the dried leaves. Toddlers and children play in the courtyard. The walls of the large living room are covered with family photographs from recent weddings and celebrations. Some old photographs of Malaviya also hang on the cream distempered walls.

Her daughters, Veena and Ranjana, inform me that Saraswati cannot hear properly, so I'll have to write down the questions I have for her. Five minutes later, a short woman with a short crop of silver hair walks into the living room, with a smile on her face. Despite her age, she walks without any help and her eyes shine bright through her thick glasses. Wearing a simple beige sari, she sits with poise while her daughters speak into her ear to explain why I'm here.

"I wrote to the government to tell them that I am the eldest member of the family. After that, I received a letter from the President, inviting me to come to Delhi," she says. There is childlike excitement in the manner in which she explains how she was flown to Delhi and put up in style at Ashoka Hotel. "People came to take pictures with me and I was treated with such great respect," she beams.

When I ask her about the other three recipients of the award, Saraswati's voice becomes louder, though she never once loses her polite smile or her temper. "Hem (Sharma) may be older than me, but my husband was older than her. That means that I have a higher stature than her in this family," she says with a proud nod. More important, she adds, Hem belongs to "another family" after her marriage.

Much like her home, the old days come alive with the laws of primogeniture that she quotes. Her husband, Shreedhar Malaviya, she says, was made the executor of Malaviya's will. "This means that only I should have received the award, but Giridhar put his plan into action to be in the limelight. He's a sophist because of his public persona," she says.

And yet, she adds, President Mukherjee put the medal in her hands because it was "God's will". "Even I wanted the award to go to BHU, but I would have given it to [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi to install it there with proper ceremony."

As she reminisces about the time she spent with "Babuji" (Malaviya), her son, Pradeep, walks in. "It's exactly like Gandhiji's family. People say his sons ruined his name, and that is what Mahamana's descendants are now doing," he says. Seeing her son agitated, Saraswati pipes in, "Don't speak ill of anyone."

All, clearly, is not well. There are fissures within the family as there often are in extended families, which came to the surface once the award was announced.

In New Delhi, Pradeep's twin brother, Rajeev, echoes the sentiment. Sitting in his flat in Alaknanda, furnished with simple upholstered sofas, a dining table and family photographs on the walls, he says, "Giridhar has been projecting himself as the sole grandson of Mahamana and the representative of the family, but this is not true. I am the heir apparent."

Rajeev says that Giridhar brought his father's sister, Hem, into the picture, but "what about his own sisters who are older than him and still alive? Why didn't he invite them?"

According to Rajeev, Malaviya did not want any member of the family to be associated with BHU or gain employment from it. "But Giridhar continues to interfere in BHU's affairs," he says. His wife, Keerti, armed with a bag full of newspaper clippings on the family, chips in with facts every now and then. "We started the Malaviya Mission in New Delhi in 1978. But Giridhar has unconstitutionally got himself elected as the mission's president," she says.

As I am about to leave their home, I disconnect a call on my phone. Watchful, Tilak, Rajeev's son, asks me if I am recording the conversation. He doesn't seem to be satisfied when I respond with a no and asks to check my phone. When he finds no recording, he asks, "How do I know you haven't already uploaded it somewhere?" Clearly, conspiracy theories and paranoia hang heavy in the air.

It was a tricky situation for the home ministry too. An invitation to one person could have been construed as official recognition of that person as the head of family. A ministry official says the initial decision to hand the award to Saraswati alone was changed because the family could not settle the dispute internally. "One of them came forward in March with the four names, so we decided to put this matter to rest and sent out revised invitations." None of the Malaviyas mention any family meeting to settle this matter.

In Varanasi, at some distance from the city is the sprawling BHU campus where the Malaviya tussle continues to play out. Everybody seems to know only Giridhar from the family. "We invite him to our events and consult him on important decisions," says an official at the BHU Central Office. "I don't think there is any other family member." Traces of the Malaviya feud can be found everywhere.

There seems to be some doubt also over where the award will be kept inside BHU. "Currently, it's locked inside the vice-chancellor's office. The dean of arts has been asked to suitably beautify the final destination for the award," says the official. The general perception is that the Bharat Ratna will be kept at Bharat Kala Bhawan, where the Malaviya Gallery displays Malaviya's personal effects: letters from Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel, his personal copy of the Bhagavad Purana, his dentures and horoscope.

"It is only right for the award to be kept here," says an official at the ticketed gallery, pointing to the CCTV cameras and other security measures.

Also on the BHU campus is Malaviya Bhawan, Malaviya's home in Varanasi where he breathed his last. The cream exterior shines bright in the afternoon sun. In the courtyard with its fountain stands Malaviya's bust. Unlike Bharat Kala Bhawan, this is an open venue, and its head, Dinesh Mishra, is ready to become the custodian of the Bharat Ratna medal. "This is Mahamana's own space and it is free and open to all," Mishra adds another dimension to the tussle.

At the Malaviya Smriti Bhawan in New Delhi, the excitement over the Bharat Ratna seems to be more sedate, though the "ideals of Mahamana" bind its employees. The Malaviya Mission, which owns this three-floor building, has patrons in industrialists such as Bhupendra Kumar Modi and Brijmohan Lall. Like an NGO, it engages in social work such as education for underprivileged children and medical camps. The librarian squirms when I mention Rajeev and Keerti, and says Giridhar is perhaps the most active member of the family and participates willingly in the mission's activities.

Among the many family members to have visited the mission is animal rights activist Brinda Upadhyaya, the great-granddaughter of Malaviya and the niece of Giridhar. When I ask her on the phone if she was invited to the investiture ceremony in New Delhi, she says, "Our family is very large. It was up to the elders of the family to decide who was to be present."

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Manavi Kapur in New Delhi
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