How does one imagine a city that was torn apart first by nature and then by men? How does one linger upon its loss, its painful rebirth and its attempt to collect memories as old as the city? How does the city reconstruct itself from the debris of its past? Amrita Shah’s intimate journey through the city of Ahmedabad, recounted poignantly in Ahmedabad: A city in the world, is an answer to all of this and much more.
A city carries upon it the burden of its people’s desires and anxieties. Divided by the lines of caste, class, religious faith and money; men, women and children find their home in the depths of the city, believing that this home would cement their roots and strengthen their hopes. Amidst this brick-by-brick construction of dreams, what is often forgotten is the suddenness of an untoward event. One cannot predict it. One cannot stop it. What one could only do in the face of an unanticipated change is to put blood and sweat into fulfilling a new dream.
Written in seven chapters, Shah’s book begins with Meraj, a pleasant, young Muslim man who grew up in the working class neighbourhood of Asarwa-Chamanpura of Ahmedabad. Though Meraj dreams of becoming a lawyer and moving away from his working-class roots, the 1992-93 communal riots change the course of his dream. “Once the line is broken, it is very difficult to connect again”, says Meraj.
Circumventing from his broken dream, Meraj tries to build another route to realising his dreams. He takes up a trade skill (embroidery) and sets up a tailoring workshop. In the span of a few months, his business flourishes and Meraj is back to contemplating buying a second-hand van over a car. Yet, like his previous dream, the 2002 Gujarat riots ensues and with that, his workshop and the second attempt at making it big, dies.
After reflecting on the life of Meraj and his relationship with his former home in the first chapter, Shah delves into the city’s name and history, in the second chapter titled River. Without pausing to empathise with the state government’s attempt at erasing the city’s Muslim roots (Ah-meda-bad being Amdavad), Shah traces the life of Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad. With it, she presents a vivid historical account of the city, throwing light upon its geography, architecture, trade, culture and literature.
In the third chapter, Old City, Shah locates the Gandhian narrative of Ahmedabad. Taking the reader to the Gujarat Vidyapith, Shah juxtaposes Gandhian principles with the present ambivalent situation of the city. In Working Class, Shah narrates an important but an overlooked aspect of the city. Touching upon the class and caste issues concerning the mill workers of Gujarat, the chapter highlights how little care has been put into preserving the history of Gujarat’s textile mill culture. In chapters five and six, Shah expands the scope of her narrative and addresses the ‘elephant in the room’ i.e. the Gujarat model of development.
Drawing the reader into the new additions to the city — malls, roads and hi-tech buildings — Shah gives a sharp take on land acquisition.
Amidst these notes of critiques, Shah also provides an honest picture of Modi’s biggest fan-following — his overseas audience. In Bombay Hotel, the book comes a full circle as it brings the figure of the Muslim in Gujarat back, this time focussing on their inability to find a space to live in their home city.
However, the best of Shah’s abilities are out on display when the reader comes upon the epilogue. Titled (Coda) The Kite, the short story at the end sums up the book. Describing the earnest attempt of a street urchin to make his kite fly, the epilogue is a brilliant visual metaphor on its own. As the kid tries to fly the kite, it falters repeatedly and when the child gets distracted, the kite comes down and is run over by oncoming traffic. For this writer, the imagery brings to mind Meraj’s quest for overcoming his broken dreams.