A State of Collapse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When the rest of India was agonizing over a horrendous incident of gang rape in the national capital there was I in another metro, cruising the streets at night, alone & unafraid. That is Calcutta. Sorry folks. I cannot call it Kolkata. It sticks in the throat as does Mumbai, Bengaluru & Chennai.

As always pictures speak louder than words.  India is witnessing a minor economic miracle of sorts but West Bengal continues in deep slumber. It was pretty awful even during my last visit five years ago but the level of squalor & dilapidation is now completely overwhelming & is to be seen to be believed. It is as if the city were drugged into a stupor.

The much-hyped Millennium Park near Babu Ghat resembles a locality park in any other town. One can take a ferry to Howrah from here. The swank SBI building over looks hovels & slums. But Rabindra Sangeet is everywhere, in the most unlikely of places, as if it were the panacea to all the city’s ills. Seeing some happy frolicking street kids I took out the camera to capture the moment. After all where else in the world would one get to see such happy, care free children. Their parents the very dreg of society. “ Eh Didi,” said a voice from inside the flaps of a hole in the ground, “ photo nai lena…. No pictures… yes, not even of the children…. Only if you pay for their milk “

A poor old Anglo Indian lady sits crumpled & alone at the Park Street – Ghalib Road corner inviting stares from every passer by. Catching my eye she whispers ‘ can you help me cross the street, please’? Just like that. I try to help her get up ‘ I need some food’ she says. Next to us are Barista & Café Coffee Day outlets. ‘ What would you like to eat,’ I ask. ‘Some food.’ I leave her sitting in the corner & return with a chicken & cheese sandwich. And why not? What the hell!  Then hand in hand Suzie & I cross the road together to go our own separate ways.

The Hotel Fairlawn on Sudder St is a delightful place as is its owner, 92-year-old Violet Smith, an Armenian who has lived all her life in this country. Her face is creased with smiles as she greets & waves goodbye to her many guests who are all welcomed with an old world warmth & cheer.

The Fairlawn is a 2 star property having just 18 rooms. The building is around 240 year old but has been with the family for about 80 years now. It gives the feel of a home away from home & home it is to the many who come again & again from all corners of the globe.

So, Calcutta is in a state of irreparable decay. Lenin’s’ own country, now governed by a mad woman, all squalid & run down. What could one hope for or expect?

There was an art exhibition happening at the Oxford bookshop followed by cakes & ale & a lot of the paintings depicted empowered women astride what looked like emaciated tigers. But what of it? This simply whittles the issue down.

Coming out for a whiff of fresh air there are long serpentine queues outside the Indian museum. Now in which other city in India could one see anything remotely like that?

And what is that in that corner, with so many curious hangers on?

That is a fellow peddling his ware – a collection of priceless old stamps. And coins.  Calcutta surely has many firsts.

December 2012

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Footpath,old coins on sale

Footpath,old coins on sale

long queues outside the Indian museum

long queues outside the Indian museum

hovels opposite the swank SBI  building

hovels opposite the swank SBI building

Hotel Fairlawn

Hotel Fairlawn

Interiors .Fairlawn

Interiors .Fairlawn

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A Sabarmati Tale

 

 

 

Ahmedabad

Dec. 2012

It is the time of reckoning once again. Both for Narendra Modi & for Gujarat. A decade down the line & two elections later the ghosts of 2002 simply refuse to die. ‘Across the border ‘as Amdavadis term it; the Teen Darwaza area is kicking with activity.  Everyone has a stake in the pie. It is as Vaznavi said: “ unlike the Muslims in other parts of the country, especially in the North, the Muslims of western India are interested in what they have for breakfast, lunch & dinner. Therefore, while religion is important it is not the be all & end all of our existence”. Poor Vaznavi. What was he thinking? What did he expect? Of course he never got the position he aspired to in the Deoband   for, whatever your faith it isn’t easy being contrarian.

Arriving in Ahmedabad one quickly gets into the groove of the city. There is hustle & bustle, purposeful people everywhere making the most of it, getting along with it. Coming from Delhi I look around for tell tale signs of disaffection, social or communal strife. I strike up a conversation. Things could be better of course but at least the basics are in place. The rest of the country has contrived a certain image of Gujarat treating it almost as a pariah but the common man here is either totally oblivious of the perception or maybe he just doesn’t care. There is a quiet confidence born out of opportunity, peace & order.  There are the marginalized also but the citizen has a stake in the future – make no bones about it. Whether Modi carries the state or not democracy will be the eventual winner.

The Sabarmati Ashram

Ahmedabad has recently applied for heritage status & may well be on its way to acquiring it. If it does it will be the first city in the country to do so.  It has the most beautiful, ornate  & well-maintained step well that is even today a refuge from the searing heat of the summer. The ancient civilizational ruins at Lothal on the outskirts, the tombs at Sarkhej, the shaking minarets & the Saiyyid Siddhi monument all vie for attention along side the modern day Meccas _ IIM, NID & Hussian Ki Gufa. It’s a city on the mend what with the wealth  & drive of the Gujarati diaspora, the coming of the waters of the Narmada & the beautification along the banks of the Sabarmati.

Jama Masjid

The Sabarmati. Alas!  The river is brimming with clear clean water. A rarity in any Indian city these days. What hurts & surprises however is the dilapidated condition of the Ashram on its banks. What should be the city’s’ showpiece & pride is the scene of utter & total disrespect & neglect. The abode once, of a great, albeit simple & humble man, the Mahatma himself, this was where the great leaders of our national movement met & confabulated  & where momentous decisions relating to the freedom movement were taken. Mira Bais’ room was this tiny little cubicle & this is where Gandhi sat spinning at the wheel. There is a stark austere room where he received his most famous & special guests. His goat was tethered there. In that corner.

There used to be a Sound & Light show in the evening up to some years ago. Not any more. Just as the city of Ahmedabad is beginning to perk up there is a noticeably steady deterioration within the precincts of the Ashram.

Gandhi ashram must have been miles away from the city during the Mahatmas’ time but Ahmedabad has expanded & encroached upon it literally strangling it by the neck. There is an Ashok tree at the entrance – hardly noticed – planted by Jawaharlal Nehru, no less. Monkeys & stray dogs roam the place, the toilets stink  & the books & papers in the library are all musty & full of dust. Devotees come never the less for neither Gandhi nor his legacy may be wished away that easily.

Someone needs to answer.

And it is not Modi alone