She will talk to you about her city. She believes now that there is truth in the adage 'ignorance is bliss'. Most of us live as unthinkingly as we die. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me you've stopped to think about the 'place' you are from as being more than an immediate, physical entity laid out afore you. Have you felt for its pulse? Have you grappled with its inane oxymorons? Explored its beautiful and disgusting paradoxes? Odds are you haven't. I know I hadn't. Not until I started writing about it. Not until, as it happens, someone asked.
This someone has become a dear, dear friend. He's been co-opted into my little world and has a multiple-entry visa into the ivory tower I call home. His name is Mayank Chhaya (http://southasia.typepad.com/south_asia_daily/) and he is a bloody prolific writer. He makes me feel - keenly - how much of a wastrel I am, and chides me to write more, better, faster. He's writing a book about Ahmedabad right now, and it was with regard to this that he looked up yours truly while in the city. He interviewed me for a 'biography' about the city, due out to commemorate its 600th year of 'being' in 2011. He asked me some poignant questions, and I had to dig deep to find some rather uncomfortable answers.
So here's what I think about Ahmedabad.
The reason I've lived in this city for as long as I have is that, and this is fast becoming my favourite phrase to describe it, Ahmedabad has always been conducive to the building of ivory towers. From what I know of the mad times my parents and their friends-relatives-peers have spent in the city; and from growing up here myself, the sense I’ve imbibed is that one can find the room, if one doesn’t mind living on the periphery of what passes for the ‘centre’ (real or imagined), to be who one wants to be, do what one wants to do, and live the way one wants to live.
However, what I am beginning to see as the increasingly myopic, stunted and stunting, insularity creeping into the new Ahmedabad; in other words, the passing of that opportune liminality I speak of above, is enough to make me, if not flee, at least seriously reconsider what I’m doing here and whether I can, in good faith, stay on indefinitely.
On whether She (think about it - this is *not* random capitalisation) thinks Ahmedabad has a core personality:
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to suggest that there isn’t one Ahmedabad – there are as many Ahmedabads ‘of the mind’, to borrow from Rushdie, as there are people living here, so a ‘core’ personality is probably something of a chimera.
That said, there do appear to be a number of ‘core’ impulses which drive the gigantic machinery of the city. High on that list appears to be a yen for what in short-hand is known as ‘development’ – when really all that is implied by this term the way it is used here is ‘infrastructure’; roads, electricity – we’ve got those sorted alright, but this is nowhere near holistic in conception.
Another core trait is the lack of ‘civic’ sense – we’re interested in getting somewhere (we’ll be hanged if we know where that somewhere is), and we want to get there now. Or ten minutes ago. The furtherance and ‘delivery’ of ourselves, at top velocity, and often with express disregard for any fellow ‘traveller’ is a definite identity-marker.
On Ahmedabad’s sense of a-historicity:
This is probably because we’ve been faced with a radical bid to re-write who we are, as a city, and where we’ve come from. Any ‘re-writing’ of history necessitates perfunctorily a disconnection from the world-as-it-has-been-written, and takes many guises: from bids to rename the city ‘Karnavati’, to pronouncing it the de-Islamicised ‘Amdavad’, instead of ‘Ahmed-abad’.
There seems too, I would imagine for some people, post the Godhra riots, a need to distance themselves from the burden of memory. This can take on the form of a near-obsessive compulsion to engage with the ‘future’, even at the cost of deracinating the present and rendering obscure the past.
Ahmedabad and/in the world:
Globalisation has affected Ahmedabad in myriad ways; some more obvious or blatant than others. There is a lot of money here – perhaps there has always been – but the way it is on display today is what is new. Ostentation is no distant cousin to crass capitalism and materialism, and today, there is an unapologetic flaunting of it, since it is no longer fettered by the quasi spiritual-religious moorings of societies bygone.
How my generation reads the city:
I’m going to have to say they don’t. It’s that simple. They probably hold (as I once did) that any place is what you make of it, and it has been, especially in the past, possible to make a fine life for oneself here. But that says nothing about the city itself. It’s a series of transactions – here’s what we want to do, and here’s how we’re going to go about doing it.
The city is never foregrounded; it is, in fact, the background score upon which our lives play themselves out. When it does decide to ‘intervene’ though (riots, floods, disasters), it’s almost always with the anguish of a spectator sidelined and abused too long. As Yeats prophesied, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.
The riots of 2002 were the ‘coming of age’ from hell. It was the moment at which I realised that things could never be the same again; that we were mere pawns in the hands of bloody skilled players, and that we, as a city, had been done in. The gore-fest, the looting, the raping and pillaging were all witness to the fact that we’re only ever a razor’s edge away from death and destruction; that we might don the mantles of ‘secularism’ and ‘equality’, but that in reality, these are sad, shrivelled signifiers divorced many times over from the meaning they have been ascribed. Rhetoric. Jargon.
And worst of all, we became aware of the deafening silence of a civil society, an ‘intelligentsia’ caught unawares, unprepared to make sense of what had befallen us.
I'm hoping to goodness that The Who got it right, and that 'we won't get fooled again'. I'd raise my hat to that. Wouldn't you?