Home bond: leader's present, Lady's past

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  • Published 15.11.10

New Delhi, Nov. 14: Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmarese democracy leader just freed by the military junta to worldwide welcome, has a personal history deeply twined to 24 Akbar Road, the famed headquarters of the Indian National Congress.

Indeed, the sprawling Lutyens Delhi bungalow began its tryst with history well before it was picked as the nerve-centre of India’s premier political party.

For two years beginning 1961, it was home to Suu Kyi and her mother Daw Khin Kyi, who had been appointed ambassador to India. This delectable sidelight is part of a forthcoming biography of 24 Akbar Road by Rasheed Kidwai, The Telegraph’s Bhopal-based associate editor.

According to the eponymous book on 24 Akbar Road, Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, christened the bungalow Burma House in recognition of Daw Khin Kyi’s special status as ambassador and widow of the late General Aung San. The house was built by Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1911 and 1925 and regarded as a singularly fine example of British colonial architecture and a masterpiece of early modernism.

At the time she arrived with her mother, writes Kidwai, “Suu 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 All India Congress Committee (AICC).

“Suu picked the room because it had a huge piano. Every evening, a teacher would come to give her piano lessons. She soon 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 relief and she often played for long hours to relieve the depression of her confinement.”

Suu Kyi, known as “the Lady” in Myanmar, came to love her Delhi home, according to the book. “...She found (it) imposing on the outside and wondrously cool inside with its large, elegant rooms. Biographer Justin Wintle observes that it was at 24 Akbar Road that Suu experienced luxury for the first time in her life, ‘even if her mother did her best to replicate the frugality that had characterised their life in Rangoon’.”

It was at 24 Akbar Road that Suu Kyi learnt to make Japanese flower arrangements and on one occasion she played with Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi in the magnificent garden. Both Rajiv and Sanjay were her contemporaries, one born a year before her and the other a year later. She was often seen in their company at Rashtrapati Bhavan, where they took riding lessons from the presidential bodyguards.

Suu Kyi completed her secondary education at the Convent of Jesus and Mary and then enrolled at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) to study political science.

In 1962, the Delhi college was still in its infancy — just six years old. It was located in Daryaganj at the time and boasted 300 students. Its founder, Lala Shri Ram, was a leading industrialist, philanthropist and a friend of Nehru.

Suu Kyi, according to the book, was grounded in the complexities of political thought via classroom teaching. She learnt to recognise the vital living qualities of modern democracy — a system characterised by its “multivoicedness”. Her time in India contributed greatly to crafting Suu Kyi into the political entity she is today.

At LSR, Suu Kyi was introduced to a formal and pedagogic approach to politics and the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, whose advocacy of non-violence and passive resistance based on civil disobedience and satyagraha provided a model for opposing authoritarian regimes and became embedded in Suu Kyi’s mindset.

Years later, she was heard assimilating what she had learnt while living at 24 Akbar Road and studying at LSR — “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”