A Dip Stick Into the Recent Past of an Ancient City

Amrita Shah, Ahmedabad: A City in the World. Bloomsbury India, 2015.

Amrita Shah, Ahmedabad: A City in the World. Bloomsbury India, 2015.

Perhaps no book on the city of Ahmedabad has been written in English with such elegance and evocativeness as Amrita Shah’s Ahmedabad, A City in the World. Shah must have been inspired, for her words form an entire palette of rich and textured hues, bringing, as though to a 3D screen, the people and the life of the city.

This is not a historical account of the 604 year old city, one with many buried pasts and many trompe d’oeil surprises. This is a travelogue, a dip stick into recent events, with short references to some figures and stories of the past.

One of the heroes of the book is Meraj, a Muslim embroiderer uprooted by the mayhem of 2002, and soldiering on, wistfully. Writing about his nostalgia for the days when Hindus and Muslims could live together, pre-2002, Shah writes, “It was the first time, through the miasma of horror, callousness, opportunism and injustice that I had heard the thrum of love and longing; an elegiac strain that had not been mutilated by the need to serve a cause, or render the instant”.

Shah has little or no time for the periods when Ahmedabad was perhaps one of the most important trading cities in the region, when rulers like Mohammed Begda greened the city and when a black Siddi slave kept its peace by heading an army. Nor does she have time for the many women who have changed the course of its history, education and culture.

Shah”s focal point is the barbarity of 2002, the massacres, the hate, the frenzy, the aftermath. Describing the attacks on Congress MP Ehsan Jaffrey and others in Naroda and Naroda Patiya she writes, “Yet both were sites of highly symbolic assaults. The Gulberg massacre had as its central motif the subjugation of a threateningly powerful male, while the attacks on Naroda Patiya revealed a manic urge to possess and annihilate the threateningly desirable female”.

Three Ahmedabadis that Shah takes her time in describing are Sabarmati Riverfront architect Bimal Patel; the wily planner behind the city’s expansion and the rise of the uber rich builder lobby, Surendra Patel, and one of the movers of the BJP and RSS, the king of rio- hit Khadia, the late MLA Ashok Bhatt. But where are the stories of the thousands displaced by the riverfront beautification that Bimal Patel has designed? The farmers who were ‘persuaded’ by Surendrabhai’s megapolis dreams to give up their lands for the greater good and who stand ruined and penniless today? Of the Hindus forced out of the inner city by the games the RSS and BJP played here long before 2002? Or of a city administration that wishes to change the city’s name into a Hindu one, while simultaneously vying for a UNESCO Heritage status based on its Islamic legacy?

Sky filled with kites in Ahmedabad. Photo: Sandeep A. Chetan, CC 2.0

Sky filled with kites in Ahmedabad. Photo: Sandeep A. Chetan, CC 2.0

For those of us who have grown up in the Ahmedabad before the collapse of the mills, before the advent of the nouveau riche who now guide or bully the city, Shah’s book only reflects the changing tides of the last four decades. Early in the book she speaks of the typical city type: “It was the typically Ahmedabadi way, to suppress present gratification for future growth. Meraj was the quintessential Ahmedabadi entrepreneur, living not randomly but according to a sagacious plan for business expansion”

This was indeed for many generations the Ahmedabadi way, but that – the period of the benefactor Mahajans out to give back to society without attaching a name card to the gift – was an Ahmedabad of a different time, not a time that Shah burrows into in this book.

The book is lyrical and the language seductive. And for those who do not live here, it will become the book that represents the city. Several others have been published over the last few years, one by an American who has spent the better part of the last 45 years here, but these will remain academic books with few readers. Shah’s command over the language and her visual treatment will make this the book to read. That leaves me a little uneasy.

Mallika Sarabhai lives in Ahmedabad and is one of India’s leading choreographers and dancers, performing both classical and contemporary works. She has a PhD in organisational behaviour and has been the co-director of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts for nearly 30 years