The ‘Holy’ Belt

Visiting city of birth is mathematically a serious business because you are adding and subtracting from memories and present reality. I was visiting my home city of Allahabad, India after a gap of 10 years ( I had been there in between for a day) and Varanasi after 36 years, too long a time to remember habitat placements.

Allahabad and Varanasi are religious and historical segments of Hindu mythology with the three sacred rivers, Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati, converging in Allahabad and the waters, thrice blessed, moving on to Varanasi, the City of Temples and burning ghats (Hindu’s cremate their dead) ensuring peaceful entry into afterlife.

Sacredness apart I was finding it difficult to fathom the density and intensity of population versus construction. It was boom-time and as our old family retainer said, ‘Allahabad is progressing’. To her the increasing highrises were proof of the giant strides the city was taking and told me to look up and not down. This to counter my criticism of increasing  piled up garbage dumps, the ‘same’ width of city roads having to contend with increasing  rickshaws, two wheelers, cows and hand carts.

She was right about the construction boom being the index of progress. Families living in acres of land were succumbing to easy lucre disposing of surplus ancestral property to cloister themselves in derelict bungalows. Their sons and daughters had moved on to greener pastures in India and abroad.

Allahabad, once the center of ancestral politics of the Nehru clan, is now confined to being a City of Lawyers with legal profession ruling the job chart. The newer crop of political leaders are mostly from neighboring areas. In the five days I was there with my siblings, (a family reunion) I stayed put within house boundary. It was one way to let go of  old haunts…. the Allahabad University, school, Coffee shop, the Ganges river banks to watch the setting sun take its parting dip in the holy waters, the downtown alleys and congested streets, the movie theater with ‘sofa’ seats and the park where we would go for early morning walks. It was time to move on….

Varanasi  fared no better. The four-hour drive from Allahabad to Varanasi had reduced to two and a half due to a new national highway, a single lane compared with the expressways of  USA, Europe, Beijing or even Hong Kong. The highway was new but accessories remained the same….the road side stalls, the slow-moving three and two wheelers, the huffing and puffing old buses taking the entire road, running children and not forgetting strays and cows. The entire stretch appeared one solitary village and till we reached Varanasi and I was not sure if we were on the right track.

Our destination was not the Ghats or river banks but silk workshops. Varanasi or the old Benares is famous for its silk sari and embroidery. Being a Sunday the main selling area, where customers sit on floor cushions to select and watch the process of modern barter, was closed.

I was told that the custom continues and seeing the present generation of business owners handle the buying, wondered if the weavers had become exploit-proof or had picked up further tricks to sell their stuff.

My shopping was done in a regular store and I paid the price after the additions of profits.

We drove in the narrow streets, a foreign film shoot was taking place in an old house, and the city appeared more boxed in with single storeys giving way to multi-storeys. I had seen an Indian Hindi movie ‘God Tusi Great Ho’ (God you are great) and on my return from Allahabad and Varanasi I could not stop myself uttering “God you are great” . How else to explain the  mismanagement, the self promotion and ‘I and Me Attitude’ seen in the two cities.

In Allahabad my friend took me to a new coffee shop. While reversing her car she found a motorcycle parked right behind and waited thinking the boys will remove it, 5-10-15-20 minutes passed and nothing happened, no reaction from them. Finally she stepped out and with utmost restraint requested them to move the vehicle. They did. My friends patience was creditable and her sentence summed up the attitude of the city “You have to know how to get your way in this city….be a jugadu. (In other words a survivor and fixer rolled into one). I did i.e. managed to survive for a week. One mistake I made …forgot to carry my camera to record the changes in my hometown and sister city.