Wednesday, December 12, 2007
A little bit of Allahabad
On the last night of being in Allahabad we go looking for a place to drink - three women. This turns out to be quite tough. N rings up P who says, Hotel Ashish (or some boys name like that) has a bar. I've seen it - it's fairly tall - although I am rooting for Yatrik, which is old and looks a bit like Claridges. We get in, it's fairly three starish, so we're hopeful. We sit down - but no, no booze. We ask them where. We feel our voices are too loud. He says Grand Continental. Par vaise khana yahan zyaada accha hai. We look down and say, er, we've eaten, we just want a drink. At Grand, the restaurant has none, but the bar does - it's called Patiala Peg, so we know we're covered. Inside, there is an ominous takht, indicating mellow music to come, and the musty smell of unease. We order our drinks. The man on the table next to us is young,drinking with a certain jauntiness, but jauntier than that is his ringtone, the angle of his head when he answers it. His jauntiness leans too casually on a doorframe of intense interest; that mien of one who is on the second page of a well written erotic story. What the heck, the controlled posture of one who takes small quiet breaths, the better to eavesdrop.
We are conscious of him, but also full of the desire to let our hair down after four days of formality and functions. After two sips, like all women of course we discuss politics. Sexual politics. After some time it's only sex. Someone says its over rated, the others say what the eff are you talking about?
Two more men have joined the jaunty boy and now all three are staring directly at us. I stare back coldly, but they don't blink or look away, the gaze is curiously blank and unbothered, as if we are only holograms. We ignore them and keep talking because we are drunk now on vodka and talking. I feel a bit angry, but I also know I am leaving, my train is in one hour. I think, oh the bungalows were great but I am so glad I don't live here.
How to write of, speak of, think of places different from ours? How to be an elite from the elite space of the city and speak of the small town - how not to essentialise, analyse, beat or treat or mistreat, simplify, classify, deny, defy or crucify? When you're not even sure you want to be friends?
I suppose you have to go back, again and again.
As someone who has lived mostly in big cities - Bombay or Delhi, with small forays in Poona, Hindon, Secunderabad - whose parents came from big cities - Delhi (from Lahore) and Bombay - my experience of small towns is limited.
Yet arriving at small town stations, fills me with a sense of familiarity, because they echo that well ordered cantoment feeling (thanks to the Brits); and the sense of a quiet time gone by. The quiet is only if you arrive at the crack of dawn as I did in Allahabad - once the sun rises, so do the decibel levels, the crazy traffic, the dust...it's nostalgia, not just for the past, but for the past you, for being a child again, because when you were a child, the world was not very big at all.
I was invited to Allahabad to show a few of my films at a girls college there - Jagat Taran Girls Degree College. I was excited to go because I've never been there and I have a few friends from there - Pramod, Abhay, Francesca too, in a manner of speaking and of course Mukul, whose film is partly shot there.
I went armed with a tour from Mukul and small additions from another friend Palash. I am pleased to report I completed all things on the list with a minimum of exertions.
Allahabad was smaller than I thought it was. Part of the reason I expected it to be bigger somehow, perhaps more like Secunderabad, was that in my mind it was the location of big things - the Allahabad university for one, and all the freedom struggle stuff for another. And I suppose what I understood was that once it was important as a place. People went from Delhi to study there. But no longer. Today it's not as high octane as Meerut seemed to be, nor as sprawling as Lucknow is becoming.
The college function was kind of heartening - it was very earnest, and we were treated like major celebs. There was an opening ceremony with hundred of speeches, a rangoli, a dance performance...
But most of all there were the students - maybe 200 girls, occasionally more, in the hall - watching, arguing, full of questions, angst and occasional bhashan baazi after each screening. I was quite stunned and impressed and realised that no matter what people say about the reach of the media, people still feel on the margins of change, far from the edge of possibility.
It was part of the 16 days of activism, so we also went for a candlelight vigil at a domestic violence shelter and there was a women's group meeting in which they felicitated some feminist stars and sang songs and called slogans. It felt like another time, in some ways a good one.
Of the big tourist things I did two. One was go on a boat to see the sangam. The man who lured me into his boat was like - come here, I will change my name if I don't show you the three colours - green, white and red for Yamuna, Ganga, Saraswati. When we got there I cleverly asked - so where's the third, you promised it. And he was like, how could I have? Saraswati ma tho lupt hain na. He pointed to the two waters - green and blue/white. If you look hard, you can see it.
I wanted him to be silent but he felt he had to talk to earn his money. And occasionally he would say things like - the water here is 40 feet deep. There's no dangerous animals. Only turtles and water snakes and we spend all our time swimming in it in the summer. And I'd ask - so, you don't feel scared of the depth? And he'd say, nahin, hum to apna ang ma ko arpan kar dete hain.
The boat guys would wave or call out to each other, the way autorickshaw drivers do when stuck at a traffic signal. Or they'd be hanging around chatting with each other mid-river..
Perhaps because it was early in the day so the crowds weren't intese, there was some quietness and beauty to it all, a certain seriousness and recognition of birth and death about the expanse of the river.
The town still has some lovely old colonial bungalows. And a few old, beautiful cinemas, like The Palace, with its balconies and bugle blowing cherubs.
And also an old Gaylords type place called El Chicos where there's tomato soup with a swirl of cream, warm dinner rolls and too many calories..
Best discovery though was that Allahabad is the location of the head office of A.H.Wheeler's! Yes, like the train newspaper stands! They have a really good bookstore there, full of the random old fashioned pleasures of odd books in back shelves. Lots of Indian poets.
Mukul had also told me not to return without eating chaat at Civil Lines - so we had it there, at Toofani Chaat Bhandar, something called dahi batashe ki chaat - which is basically a gol gappa with papdi ki chaat inside it.
Eat it, M had said - you will die happy. He was right..
The other tourist thing I did was go to Anand Bhawan, which was Nehru's home. It was, like many such spots in India, full of beautiful flowers, and kids on a school excursion.
It was really quite beautiful - I can't imagine what it must be like to live in such a house, man! But also, as it was the site of important Congress meetings and moments in the Independence struggle, there was something awe inspiring about it. There's also something tantalisingly voyeuristic about peeping into other people's bedrooms and kitchens. But beyond that, I don't know what it is that affects us so much, knowing that we stand in the same spot as those gone by. But there's something, and that's why this must have been my favourite thing in the house, making me imagine people finishing conversations over their shoulders after a big winter afternoon lunch of gosht and rice...
I fell in love with two things in Allahabad. First, were the rickshaws, painted over every inch with covers as rich and beribonned as babie's bonnets.
Naturally I became possessed of the desire to well, possess one of these and in this quest was taken by an old (and need I add confused) rickshaw walla to a street called Colonelganj, off the main market in Katra. Here I walked up and down trying to explain to the guys what I wanted - they were like - you want to buy a rickshaw? a seat? Finally I got not exactly one of these seat backs but something else quite lovely. But while sitting around I also quite fell in love with Colonelganj in the afternoon, it's old latticed buildings, with their religious tiles and art deco flourishes, it's literally sleepy air, and the familiar emblem of old cities in new times -the mess of wires in the sky, functioning as a veil for a girl on the roof.
(you need to click on this picture above to see literally how sleepy)