When Congress headquarters was Suu Kyi’s home

Saturday, November 13, 2010

NEW DELHI - Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from prison Saturday, once lived at the bungalow here that is the Congress headquarters, occupying a room now held by Rahul Gandhi.

She was barely 15 when she became an occupant of 24 Akbar Road in the heart of the capital after it was allotted to her mother Daw Khin Kyi, who was Myanmar’s ambassador to India.

According to writer-journalist Rasheed Kidwai’s new book “24, Akbar Road” (Hachette India), this was the bungalow’s first brush with history. The year was 1961.

Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru named the bungalow, built between 1911 and 1925, “Burma House” in recognition of Daw Khin Kyi’s status.

Says Kidwai in his soon to be released book: “Suu (Kyi) was a young girl with thick, long plaits of hair when she chose for her own the room that is currently occupied by Rahul Gandhi in his capacity as general secretary of the Congress.

“Suu picked the room because it had a huge piano. Every evening, a teacher would come to give her piano lessons. She quickly developed a penchant for the nuanced subtleties of Western classical music.

“Years later, while under house arrest in a dilapidated lakeside habitation on University Avenue in Rangoon, Suu’s fondness for the piano provided her much relief and she often played for long hours to relieve the depression of her confinement.”

According to the book, Suu Kyi loved 24 Akbar Road, which she found imposing on the outside and cool inside with its large, elegant rooms.

It was in that house, says Kidwai, that Suu Kyi learnt to make Japanese flower arrangements. She also played with Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in the extensive garden.

“Sanjay and Rajiv were her contemporaries, one born a year before her and the other a year later. She was often seen in their company at Rashtrapati Bhawan, where they took riding lessons from the presidential bodyguards.”

The young girl began schooling at the Convent of Jesus and Mary School, a Catholic establishment close to the Cathedral of St Joseph here.

“Suu completed her secondary education and then enrolled at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) to study political science.

“In 1962, the now famous Delhi college was still in its infancy - just six years old. It was located in Daryaganj at the time and boasted of three hundred students…

“Suu was grounded in the complexities of political thought via classroom teaching. She learnt to recognize the vital living qualities of modern democracy. Her time in India contributed greatly to crafting Suu Kyi into the politicized entity she is today.”

According to the book, the first time Indira Gandhi entered 24 Akbar Road was in January 1978, almost a year after she was defeated in the post-Emergency Lok Sabha election.

By then it had ceased to be the “Burma House”.

A Type VII bungalow in Lutyens’ New Delhi, the house belonged to G. Venkatswamy, a Rajya Sabha Congress member from Andhra Pradesh who sided with Indira Gandhi after the Congress split post-Emergency.

Once family loyalist Mohammad Yunus offered his residence, 12 Wellingdon Crescent, for Indira Gandhi and her family as their private residence, the former prime minister realised she needed a place for party work.

“So, 24 Akbar Road was like a boon granted, though it might not have seemed so straight off, considering the state of shambles in which it was at the time.

“Facing the Indian Air Force chief’s residence and the Intelligence Bureau’s political surveillance unit (which still exists), it had five near empty rooms, a living and dining room, and a guest room.

“The outhouses were a picture of neglect and the garden, a mess, with unruly hedges and weeds everywhere. It had a wicket gate link to 10 Janpath, which was then the office of the Indian Youth Congress and is now the home of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

“Decades later, 10 Janpath and 24 Akbar Road established a formidable link, bringing fame, fortune and effective leadership to the Congress.”

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