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AMITABHA BAGCHI

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 8/15/2016 |



I. Leafy Trees and Motorcycles
There are definite virtues in traveling through one’s country with a foreigner. You get an extra pair of eyes to see things a native might otherwise miss; and a fresh perspective on things that may at times be at variance with your own. Such was indeed the case on my recent India trip when I was accompanied by a longtime friend from Mexico.

I had known my friend since graduate school where we briefly shared an apartment. Later our professional careers intersected as we collaborated on physics research for a number of years. We used to exchange visits to our respective universities, and in the process I got to see various parts of Mexico. So when he expressed a desire to visit India with me, I was extremely pleased. We decided to spend some three weeks traveling through parts of the country.

We flew into Delhi and met up with my wife to begin our trip. On our first day in the country, my Mexican friend warned me in passing that he had been told he “would be shocked by the sight of extreme poverty in India.” From that day onward, as we took in the sights and sounds of the country, we would idly and occasionally look for examples of “extreme poverty” and compare notes.

We started off in the morning from the New Banga Bhavan (NBB) in New Delhi. As we drove off in our rented car – a spacious and attractive Toyota Innova – what rose before us was a broad boulevard of Chanakyapuri flanked by rows of leafy trees and super-size estates of foreign embassies where the offices and living quarters were set deep inside and mostly hidden from view. Extreme poverty was nowhere to be seen.

I told my friend not to worry, that extreme poverty, if not round the corner, would be visible before long. We drove first to the seat of Government – Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate, Lok Sabha – and then to Connaught Place, the commercial hub of Lutyens’ Delhi. It was now mid-morning, and we could see crowds of vendors and office workers, but extreme poverty proved elusive. I reacted to my friend’s quizzical look by mumbling about finding it in the impoverished neighborhood of Old Delhi, where we planned to head after Qutub and lunch.

We proceeded next toward Jama Masjid, but the traffic was horrendous and the afternoon sun was declining, so we ditched that plan and veered toward Red Fort before it would close. The roads were now truly crowded; itinerant vendors had spilled from footpaths onto streets, and the cap-and-kurta clad crowd milling around them easily took up half the roadway. But they were all neatly attired and looked well-fed. We saw not a single beggar, just one pre-teen girl who approached our car to sell some trinkets. My friend shook his head; he was yet to see extreme poverty.

What we saw instead was a plethora of motorcycles. They were everywhere, and easily outnumbered bicycles – the common man’s conveyance from the days of my youth – by a ratio of 5 to 1 or more. This to me was indeed a surprise. The motorcycles were apparently meant for the Indian scene, with thinner tire sizes somewhere between a Lambretta (scooter) and a full-blown Royal Enfield or Harley Davidson (motorcycle).  (Both the latter companies sell popular brand motorcycles in India.)

My friend noticed them too, and his innocent inquiry sent me to a Google search on the number of motorcycles sold annually in India. Per Wikipedia, “annual sales of motorcycles in India are expected to exceed 10 million by 2010.” The figure is impressive, and I can only scratch my head about how frequently Wikipedia entries are updated and if anyone monitors such updates.

II. Mausoleums and Mughal Gardens
The new toll road from Delhi to Agra, known as the Yamuna Expressway, was another surprise and actually an eye-popping experience for me.

I had traveled that route several times in the past, and there was nothing special about the regular national highway that connected the two cities. The Yamuna Expressway, however, is different. “It is,” in the words of Wikipedia, “India’s largest six-lane controlled-access expressway stretch.” I looked in vain for pedestrians, bullock-carts, bicycles or roadside dhabas: there were none. I was reminded instead of the expressway on a drive I took in the early 1970s from Marseilles to Paris. It has taken India forty-odd years to begin to catch up with the First World!

The expressway ends on a bridge spanning the Yamuna on National Highway 2 connecting Agra with Kanpur. It is also one’s entry into the real or eternal India – of chaos and congestion, unruly crowd and construction mess. Garbage and filth were now much in evidence, including the striking scene of a toddler standing in the middle of a field of plastic and rubbish next to a Bahujan (new name for those formerly called untouchables) colony. The lad looked healthy though, and my friend still refused to accept the scene as depicting “extreme poverty.”

One comes to Agra to see the Taj, of course. The first time I saw it, some forty years ago, a friend and I had to go through narrow alleyways and low, arched doors until all of a sudden, without any warning, the gigantic, white-marble mausoleum burst into view. It was an awe-inspiring sight. The next time I came, two decades later, the approach was streamlined with policemen, fencing and metal detectors. This time around, I noticed, the arrangement has been further modernized. Gone are the serpentine alleyways and low buildings that used to lead up to the entrance door to the Taj Mahal compound. They have been razed in favor of a large and well-maintained esplanade acting as a drop-off and pick-up spot for tourists. The whole set-up, though, is strangely antiseptic. Gone is the thrill of suddenly finding immense beauty in the midst of an ocean of dross.

It would be pointless for me to expatiate on the grandeur of the Taj. Let me speak instead of two remarkable bequests of the Mughal Empire that I saw for the first time.

The first was the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah (né Mirza Ghiyas Beg), the father of Noor Jahan, who commissioned it to be built. Noor Jahan was the wife of the alcoholic Emperor Jahangir and the virtual Empress of India in her heyday. The tomb -- sometimes called the “Baby Taj” -- is the first Mughal architecture to use white marble (as opposed to red sandstone) and stone inlay work, and is truly the precursor of the Taj Mahal. Remarkably enough, Itimad-ud-Daulah was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal. Standing in the mausoleum’s courtyard, I was awed by the memory of the exiled Persian nobleman whose progeny included two of the most celebrated beauties of Mughal India.

The second was the Mehtab Bagh – one of several gardens built by Shah Jahan in and around Agra. It had fallen into disrepair for centuries until the Archeological Survey of India embarked on its restoration in the 1990s. Situated right across the river from Taj Mahal, Mehtab Bagh is an exquisitely pretty garden of perfect rows of fruit and flower trees, neatly trimmed hedges, well-manicured lawns and a fountain amidst a large pool of water. Gazing at the Taj through the morning haze, I admired the aesthetic taste of the Mughal rulers and wondered if Independent India could not have devoted some of its (admittedly limited) resources to similar pursuits.

III. My Vanishing India
I had confidently told my traveling companion that I would show him bear handlers, monkey handlers and snake charmers in India. I was thinking, of course, of the India of my youth. Little did I realize that much of that India had vanished.

In all of our travels through north India, I looked in vain for a black bear standing upright on its hind legs -- a man by its side holding tightly to a chain fastened to a metal collar around its neck. I saw plenty of monkeys, but none chained to a handler who would sing and make noise with a tambourine or the like to draw a crowd and then officiate over the marriage between a male and a female langur (hanuman). And we saw exactly one snake charmer – right by the lake under the Amber Fort in Jaipur. Clearly I was looking at a new and different India.

Our driver provided me with the explanation. Street shows with animals were now verboten, thanks to Maneka Gandhi, who had campaigned against the practice as “cruelty to animals.” Modern India did listen, accept and enshrine her viewpoint in law. I remembered the monkey handler character in “A Fine Balance,” but Rohinton Mistry was writing about India of 1976, not 2013!

After photographing the snake charmer, my friend and I clambered on the back of an elephant for the ride up the steep slope to the top of the hill where Amber Palace is located. The trek up was indeed scenic, but I had occasional anxiety attacks about sliding down the elephant’s back (there was no protecting howdah) and over the crenellation of the fort wall to drop hundreds of feet into the reservoir below.

Amber Palace, like many royal palaces of Rajasthan we saw, was laid out as a seemingly endless series of courtyards that suddenly and sequentially pop into view as one passes through a narrow opening or archway. The farthest of these, it was claimed, belonged to the devout princess Jodhabai, who was one of the consorts of Emperor Akbar. Jodhabai was indeed from Amber, but historians are dubious about the details of the claim, attributing it rather to the popularity of the princess after the recent Bollywood movie, “Jodha Akbar.”

Back down on level plain, we came to the “pink city” of Jaipur, which was fortified and built (with design advice from the Bengali architect and scholar, Vidyadhar Bhattacharya) around the palace of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. In the palace museum, one thing we noticed was the immense interest in polo in that part of the country. We were curious to see a game of polo, and especially to know the dimension of the goal and the size of the ball, but although we reached the polo ground after some effort in late afternoon, no match was in progress.

Around that time, I also started musing about another aspect of my “vanishing India,” the absence of holy cows from city streets. I did see cattle graze at a distance as we drove from Delhi to Agra and Jaipur, but no bovine was visible on any of those cities’ streets. This was a tad surprising in the so-called “cow belt,” but my tension was finally relieved when we reached Jodhpur and saw enormous cows resting calmly on the traffic circle around the Clock Tower and on a promenade by the lake. At the bazaar that evening, it was hilarious to see a cow quickly snatch a long white radish and be chased away by the shopkeeper. I had a feeling that I had finally arrived in my native land!

IV. Queens and Concubines
The Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur, sitting high atop a hill, looked impressive and impregnable. Its stone wall bore shell marks from cannon bombardment during an abortive siege by Jaipur forces. The design inside was vintage Rajput – a blend of Islamic and Hindu architecture and motifs – with narrow gates (for security from invaders), elaborate and decorative archways, and lattice work veiling the female quarters. But my biggest impression is of the enthusiastic guide we hired and his effusive narration of Jodhpur’s princely history.

The one he gushed the most about was Maharaja Takht Singh, who ruled Jodhpur from 1843 to 1873. His achievements in life were impressive: Helping the British during the Sepoy Mutiny (1857); two sons who would be kings; and a daughter married to the king of Jaipur. But our guide was more fixated on his sexual prowess. He married 30 wives and had 17 concubines to boot. Not only that, but our guide solemnly assured us, the Maharaja built separate quarters for all of his 30 lawful wives. (How he herded the members of his unwed harem was less clear.)

The guide was taking us through the museum of the palace – run by a Trust set up to avoid confiscation of treasures by the rulers of independent India – showing elaborate and ornate thrones, howdahs, palanquins and assembly rooms (Diwan-e-Khaas). He also pointed to paintings of heroic figures from Jodhpur’s long history, most of them either armed and on horseback in martial postures, or in amorous trysts with females on tree-lined and shady courtyards. The many paintings of Maharaja Takht Singh, however, showed a thickly bearded and mustachioed man in regal costume but with the droopy eyes of an opium addict – a weakness of his that our guide readily confirmed.

An odd question suddenly popped in my head. What would happen when the king died? Would the royal widows vacate their quarters? If not, how would the new king find space for his own queens and concubines?

I asked our guide the question. His answer was instantaneous: They would dig a large pit, build a fire and jump into it!

“You mean Suttee?” I said. I was flabbergasted. It is true that the practice of Suttee (or Sati) was said to originate in Rajasthan with Rani Padmini’s Jauhar to escape the clutches of Alauddin Khilji. But the image of 30 royal widows serially jumping into their husband’s funeral pyre seemed preposterous, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. “Suttee was banned by that time,” I protested.

“Ah yes. Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Lord Bentinck,” said the guide, showing his familiarity with recent Indian history. And I began to fret over the weakness of my argument. After all, the writ of the East India Company (and later Queen Victoria) did not technically run over the nominally independent principality of Jodhpur. Fortunately for me, the guide offered a way out. “Maybe they retired to Benares?” This was a clear reference to another custom with Hindu widows.

I accepted the explanation (true or not) and spoke no more on the subject. And I idly wondered if the need to accommodate a large harem after a Mughal succession lay behind the emperors building so many palaces and occasionally shifting the capital. An intriguing thought indeed!

V. Random Thoughts on Rajasthan
Rajasthan has certainly become adept at welcoming tourists and treating them well. The state is full not only of high-end hotels but also less expensive but decent bed-and-breakfast places, and eateries that range from good to excellent. Many hoteliers and guides spoke to my Mexican friend in fluent Spanish; a number of them claimed to speak French, German and Italian as well.

It is also a place to showcase the religious tolerance and syncretism of India. This was evident at the Dargah (Muslim shrine) of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer Sharif. When we reached the shrine at the time of the Friday noontime namaz, the place was jam-packed with kneeling devotees, and it was hard to make way to the tomb at the center. The worshippers were Muslim, of course, but the religious icons and other paraphernalia being peddled at the shops outside indicated that the Dargah drew a substantial number of Hindu devotees too.

A bigger surprise of this nature lay in store for me at the Golden Fort of Jaisalmer. Many Bengalis of my age group have been familiar with the Golden Fort (Sonar Kella) because of the movie by the same name made by Satyajit Ray; and the fort, situated on a hill, indeed looks golden because of the color of the locally available stone used in its construction. But I was wholly unprepared for the set of beautiful Jain temples inside the fort, built by Jains driven out of their native Gujarat, who were given sanctuary by the Hindu King of Jaisalmer. The Jains returned the favor by generating a lot of the city’s wealth through trade and bankrolling its expansion and fortification. The city boasts a large number of ornate golden palaces outside of the fort wall that belong to rich tradesmen dealing in gold and silver ornaments and jewelry.

From Jaisalmer, we did the touristy camel-back ride to the edge of the Thar Desert to watch the sunset and then partake of entertainment provided by tribal musicians and dancers. The camel ride was uncomfortable but manageable; as for the sunset, I have seen prettier ones on the Ganges in Bihar. But the folk song-and-dance program was indeed memorable.

VI. Kolkata Scene: Whose Footpath Is It Anyway?
My Mexican friend and I spent the last few days of his India trip in Kolkata and Santiniketan. From his hotel on Lansdowne Road near Padmapukur, he did morning walks up and down Elgin Road and checked out local watering holes in the evening. Then, with a foreigner’s keen sense of observation, he floored me with this question: “How come so many people are cooking food and serving them to pedestrians from more or less permanent kitchens set up on sidewalks?” He mentioned seeing roadside hot-food vendors in Rio de Janeiro, for example, but their kitchens were on moving carts, not fixed to sidewalks.

This was yet another example where I, a native Calcuttan, had eyes but did not see. The morning after he posed his question, I happened to walk the stretch of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road from the Kalighat metro station to Hazra Crossing.  I saw a number of old-style brick ovens either fixed or semi-fixed to the footpath. Women were slicing and dicing vegetables – potatoes, eggplants, cauliflower – for the day’s meals. Later on, I would notice passers-by eating the cooked food from metal plates with evident relish.

The economics of the arrangement made perfect sense, especially in a poor city like Kolkata. It also revealed to me the extreme difficulty of cleaning up the streets and sidewalks of Kolkata to give the city an aesthetically pleasing look. When I was in the city, I saw a news item stating that Firhad Hakim, the powerful Urban Development Minister of the state, was trying to negotiate with the street vendors in the neighborhood of Dalhousie Square to remove the semi-permanent sidewalk kitchens. I can only wish him luck. The present arrangement obviously feeds lunch to a very large number of workers at an unbeatably low price.

Those of us from Kolkata know very well that pedestrians have been losing control of footpaths for many years. The long-term Left Front regime there had a cozy relationship with the small-time tradesmen and hawkers who set up semi-permanent stores there. Things have not changed drastically under the “Change” (Poribarton – per the party’s slogan) brought about by the electoral triumph of Trinamool Congress. A strange combination of sympathy for the underdog (the original shopkeepers were mainly refugees fleeing East Pakistan) and the economic benefit of the arrangement (less costly merchandise) has led the Bengali bhadralok to accept and condone the system. The Rash Behari Crossing near my Kolkata home has fruit sellers on one corner and shoe polishers and newspaper vendors on another – all occupying footpath space. On Sundays, more real estate is lost to vendors of T-shirts and assorted trinkets. The once glamorous Gariahat Crossing is now a sad spectacle of tattered bamboo-and-tarpaulin lean-tos housing clothing stores. They hide from view the original storefronts and make pedestrian traffic impossible in the crush of buyers and sellers. Even the lazy side street of my immediate neighborhood has its footpath occupants: the itinerant ironing man (istri-wallah), servants of the locality playing cards during breaks, and the occasional automobile for spillover parking when the curbsides are all taken. “Whose footpath is it anyway?” was my running joke with my friendly taxi driver. His usual response was:” Whoever occupies it, of course!”

VII. The Unknown Nawabs of Bengal and Murshidabad
I took a quick side trip with my wife and Mexican friend from Santiniketan to Murshidabad -- the erstwhile capital of Bengal before the British rule. This was my first visit to this historic city of many memories -- from its founder and first Nawab, Murshid Quli Khan, to the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, and his betrayer and nemesis, Mir Jafar.

In another example of unconventional conveyance (after the elephant of Jaipur and the camels of Jaisalmer), we rode on a horse-drawn flatbed cart on a short tour to look at the many historic spots on the east side of the Bhagirathi. (We did not have time to explore the western bank of the river, where apparently stand Siraj’s palace and his tomb.) We saw from a distance the tomb of Murshid Quli Khan and his daughter, the estates of Jagat Seth and other nobles of the period, and the palace and burial ground of the family of Mir Jafar. The gates of the latter property are closed to the public; the family does not appreciate having slurs and epithets hurled at them by the visitors. The tour ended at the gate of the Hazarduari and Imambara compound.

When I entered the compound and laid eyes on the Hajarduari (“Thousand Door”) palace, my jaws literally dropped. Here was an enormous, wholly European palace in the heart of Mughal Bengal! On our tour of north India, we had seen so many palaces that they had begun to merge and blur into one another. But they all had in common certain design aesthetics – of elaborately curved arches on doors, decorative paintings on walls, lattice work on windows and balconies, etc. – that can be identified as Indo-Islamic architecture. Here though, in the middle of the Late Mughal capital of Bengal, stood a majestic building which was entirely rectilinear – spare and magnificently elegant -- with massive Greek columns and wide steps in front. The very incongruity of it blew my mind and demanded an explanation.

Some explanation was available, thanks to information provided by the Archeological Survey of India, which is responsible for the building’s management and upkeep. Construction of the palace began in 1829 and was completed in 1837. The architect was Colonel Duncan Macleod of the Bengal Corps of Engineers. The time period was the heyday of the East India Company’s rule of Bengal; that, and the British architect, easily explained the European look of the palace. But the building was commissioned by Nazim Humayun Jah – a name I had never heard before. Who was this Humayun Jah?

Subsequent investigation helped fill a gap in my knowledge of Bengal’s history. I knew that the Company, after defeating Siraj at the Battle of Plassey, first installed Mir Jafar and then his son-in-law, Mir Qasim, to be the pliant Nawabs of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. After Mir Qasim tried to assert his independence and was routed at the Battle of Buxar, Mir Jafar was reinstated on the throne. What I simply did not know is that, after Mir Jafar’s death in 1765, the British ran a system of “Dual Government” for a while, with a puppet Nawab of Bengal in Murshidabad. The system was abolished in 1772 and the British started to rule Bengal directly by moving the capital to Calcutta, but the Nawab of Bengal remained as the fictitious governor of the land until 1793, when that fiction was dispensed with and the titular Nawab became a mere pensioner of the East India Company without any territory to rule. Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah, who commissioned the building of Hajarduari, was in the line of such Nawabs, and he reigned from 1824 to 1838. The title Nawab of Bengal was abolished in 1880 in favor of the title Nawab of Murshidabad, and the dynasty of titular Nawabs continued for a while even after India’s independence in 1947. Mir Jafar’s successors – to me at least -- were the “unknown”: Nawabs of Bengal!

VIII. Final Reflections: Kolkata Traffic
On our India trip, my friend and I traveled through a wide swath of north and east India – visiting big cities and small towns, bustling markets and sleepy villages. If he ever saw “extreme poverty” and was “shocked” by the sight, he did not share it with me, perhaps out of politeness. What he did mention, however, is that the tour gave him a fresh perspective to look at villages (and presumably poverty) in Mexico.

I saw many positives on the tour: the Yamuna Expressway, for example, and the construction boom everywhere that attested to India’s recent economic growth. Modest attempts have been made in Kolkata to improve its appearance. Aside from fences painted blue-and-white and new trident-shaped lights on many streets, there seemed to be more sweepers and garbage haulers in evidence, and sidewalks looked cleaner than in the past. That had the unfortunate effect of revealing other eyesores – strangely uneven footpaths that are frequently dug up and never properly repaired, construction detritus like heaps of sand and broken bricks, and so on.

One area where Kolkata has improved greatly over the years is in traffic control. Cars and buses at large road crossings now stop well shy of the intersection, leaving ample space for pedestrians. The same cannot be said, however, of traffic etiquette, and the lack thereof once landed me in a very awkward and embarrassing situation. I was traveling by taxi and it moved left to the curb and stopped to let me alight. As I opened the door, it bumped into a speeding motorcyclist who was hoping to pass in an instant between the car and the curb. The little nudge was enough for him to lose balance; the man and the machine tumbled and crashed against the edge of the curb. As the biker lay sprawled, I was stunned and speechless. I could barely mumble an apology in spite of my wife (seated next to me) repeatedly urging me to do so. Fortunately, the driver was helmeted and suffered only minor cuts and a wrist sprain. He was angry for sure but knew he was in the wrong. When I finally stepped out and started walking, he came after me but instead of striking me (as I half feared) he called me “Uncle” and demanded that I said sorry. I did that profusely and with evident sincerity, which at least calmed him down.

Hyper anxious and feet-on-pedal drivers stopped at traffic lights are indeed a bane of pedestrians trying to cross busy streets in Kolkata. The “Walk” signal at an intersection turns green infrequently and stays green for the briefest of period. The pedestrian has to make a judgment about how long the signal for vehicular traffic would stay red and step into the intersection on that basis. Frequently they are caught in mid-street with signals changing and assorted vehicles coming at them. It happened to my friend once when he was nearly run over by a motorcycle on Chowringhee Road near Grand Hotel. He saw the lights change, but looked instinctively in the wrong direction for expected traffic and had to do a painful contortion to avoid being hit. The incident was both frightening and comical: I was anticipating a horrible accident and mentally picturing a visit to a hospital emergency room while silently reproaching myself for reflexive schadenfreude.

But I learnt my own lesson just days before leaving India. I began to cross Shyamaprasad Mukherjee Road near Rash Behari Crossing at a time when there were at least five rows (or “lanes”) of vehicles facing in one direction that had stopped at the red light. I had barely crossed two rows when the signal turned green and the vehicles started to move. I had a choice of running, but chose to freeze at the spot. Cars, buses and motorcycles whizzed past me, like water rushing around an obstacle. Outwardly calm, but with my heart beating fast, I thought of myself as a city cop (sans their uniform) wading into traffic to control it. Suddenly I heard a taxi driver scream at me to move over so that he could take a left turn. Leaving myself to fate, I crossed one more row of traffic. I felt nervous and ridiculous, and thought my situation was a metaphor for life itself, especially in India. You try to survive in the eddies as crowds of people swirl around and past you. From people sleeping on footpaths to people eating lunch from sidewalk kitchens or going about their everyday humdrum business, life simply goes on.


[AMITABHA BAGCHI]


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