In the Afternoon of Time

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Once a city of poetry, politics and religion, Allahabad is turning cosmopolitan. But Atul Chaurasia wonders if it will ever return to its roots

Boat beam Early morning buzz at the Sangam
Photos: Atul Chaurasia

ALL THOSE who visit Allahabad often recollect the lines written by the city’s legendary writer, Dharamveer Bharti: There is a god for the town and there is a god for the village. If there was a god for Allahabad, he had to be a romantic. In fact, Bharti, who penned the classy Gunaho Ka Devta in which Jeetendra played an idealist professor, was enamoured by Allahabad and its ideals. For him, Varanasi had its ghats and bylanes and Lucknow its big roads but Allahabad always retained — it still does — its distinct, earthy charm. Nothing has dented it.

Walk through the city’s famed Civil Lines and you could actually romanticise Victorian bungalows modelled on those common in Yorkshire and Brighton. And almost next door, there are dinghy lanes filled with filth, offering a peculiar contrast. Today, some of the bungalows have made way for multiplexes and condominiums that the old-timers detest from the core of their hearts: “I cannot negotiate the traffic any more, once I walked here every evening for my regular coffee,” says 58-year-old bank manager Surendranath Pathak. He is just one of the city’s estimated 25 lakh populace that lives cheek by jowl with tradition and modernity. In the morning, many walk to the famed ghats of the Sangam for a quick bath even as boisterous students start filling up the malls that, surprisingly, open their shutters fairly early in the day.

Colour blast A firecracker shop in Mauaima

But Sangam still is the city’s most important landmark. Never mind if deeply religious Indians still prefer a cremation at Varanasi, the chances are that they will all come to Allahabad to immerse the ashes at Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. But there are virtually no rules for the religious rites as the pandas tug annoyingly at your sleeves, explaining why they are the best medium to connect you with all that’s heavenly. “I am finding it a bit difficult, being chased by more than 20 pandas,” says a visibly irritated M Muralidhar from far-flung Coimbatore. He needs to immerse his father’s ashes before heading to the station for an evening train back home.

Allahabad’s famous university — it’s alumni consisting of two prime ministers, Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Chandra Shekhar — is home to an estimated 35,000 students, mostly from eastern parts of the state. The spacious campus is housed in the old city that is composed of numerous clusters. Old-timers say ever since it became a Central University, it gained in stature and at least holds both classes and examinations on time. On the flip side, the famous student union, that was the ideal breeding ground for those seeking a career in politics, stands banned. No one knows the reason and no one argues about it. In fact, the ban has helped the students. “Classes are held on time and we are very happy about it,” says Neeraj Srivastava, a post-graduate student from the Jhoonsi neighbourhood that lies across the Ganges.

Central University’s student union, famous as a breeding ground for politicians, was banned years ago

But you cannot live on just education and religion in a city. Welcome to Naini, the city’s industrial hub that was set up in 1960 by the nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, after locals crowded his ancestral home and demanded one. When it started, it had the state-owned Triveni Structural Limited, Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) — that later shifted to Bengaluru — Swadeshi Cotton Mills and Bharat Pumps and Compressors Limited. Today, barring Bharat Pumps, the rest have either downed shutters or are almost on the verge of closure. Says an old-timer: “Once Swadeshi had more than 2,000 workers and a bustling work atmosphere. Today, there are just 50 of them who are seriously, seriously underworked.” He is one of them and does not want to be named. He also recollects the numerous small-scale industries that mushroomed during the 1960s and the 1970s in Naini, but slowly died a natural death as bigger brands started dominating the shelves, both in the villages and in the cities.

 

I am legend Anand Bhawan, Jawaharlal Nehru’s place of birth

But what is interesting is that in this canvas of Naini’s despair, there are companies that have done well for themselves. “The NDA government wanted to put us on the chopping block but we bounced back and now we are close to a mini Navaratna status,” says Phulchand Dubey, a veteran Bharat Pumps employee and also president of the company’s trade union. There are others: Raymond’s still runs one of its operations from Allahabad and does a decent, profitable business. So does Areva, the CFL bulb-maker that has carved a niche for itself in the Indian market. Another relatively unknown aspect of the city is Mauaima, a village that lies approximately 30 km from the heart of Allahabad and supplies more than 60 percent of the firecracker demand in northern India. “We can put a Sivakasi to shame anyday,” quips Mohammed Salam, a worker.

But is that enough to push the growth levels of this historic city? Perhaps not. What remains in absolute neglect are the backyards of Chota Bhagara and Mohatsim Ganj neighbourhoods where both education and jobs are at a premium.

Does that worry Allahabad? It does, but there are many who feel supremely confident that the city — that once loved its toned milk tea and two hour afternoon nap — would soon shun the McDonald and Pizza Hut outlets and return to its roots. The wait is perhaps long but worth every penny.

WRITER’S EMAIL
atul@tehelka.com

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