Kites by Mayank Chhaya
I just discovered this morning that after writing close to 70,000 words in 2011, I let my biography of Ahmedabad just languish in a folder on my PC. It is a near complete manuscript which I filed away because I was not happy with parts of it.
It is just as well because sometimes it helps to let a manuscript stew in its literary juices. As I began reading it this morning with the specific plan to revive it, it is clear to me precisely what holes I need to plug. I have approached the city as a person of unspecified gender or rather ever transitioning gender. With some work and a whole lot of luck I should be able to return to Ahmedabad to do one more round of research and conversations to wrap things up.
As I begin refurbishing the manuscript a bit, it might not be a bad idea to throw some teasers here, a few descriptions I particularly like:
The white summer light bleaches the flat brown ground and gives it a frosted look. Hot gases that rise from the ground refract everything—people, cows, dogs, peacocks, monkeys, buildings, scooters, rickshaws. At noon, when the sun is at its zenith the city looks misaligned. It is from this misaligned city of Ahmedabad that I begin my journey to the perfectly aligned Indus Valley town of Lothal, to an ancient but finely structured past with little or no bearing on the current but chaotic present.
The steady drone of the Bajaj auto rickshaw engine mixed with the rancid heat touching 45 degree Celsius can lull anyone into a slow death. It is a good thing I am not driving. I am not sure it is a good thing for anyone else to drive either in this debilitating heat. But Jasubhai is different.
Jasubhai, the rickshaw driver, has not heard of an invention called sunglasses. His eyes are wide open as if locked in a who-blinks-first-contest with the sun. The jaggedly, post-apocalyptic glare, which can singe the lesser mortals’ retina, is no match for him.
An invisible membrane separates the Gandhi Ashram from the rest of Ahmedabad. The city’s hubbub abruptly stops at the gate of the ashram, unable to breach its elemental serenity. Entering the ashram’s precincts gives one the feeling of having discovered a new dimension. It is a new dimension.
The pace here is slower and the mood more reflective. It is the sort of place where people slow down reflexively, curve a bit at their nape, and speak in hushed tones for no apparent reason, none of which is mandatory. It must be the pervasive sense of reverence for the most illustrious resident of the ashram who lived here for over 13 years from June 17, 1917….
Moving around the Hriday Kunj one could almost see hazy and somewhat spectral figures of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad engaged in an animated discussion in the Ashram. The feeling here was akin to what one felt at Lothal. It was as if hands of history were tugging at my shoulder trying to tell long forgotten stories. One such story is about Gandhi’s choice of Ahmedabad over any other Indian city as his Satyagraha Central.
It would not be accurate to describe Ghanshyambhai as an excitable man. He was a man of fairly even temperament. However, when he spoke about urgent matters he gave the impression that his tongue obstructed the rapid flow of his words. It was as if he would rather not have the tongue come in the way of his articulation. On the evening of September 18, 1969 he was seized of one such matter of grave urgency….
Mohammed always wore a white half-sleeved shirt, a grey trousers and blue slippers. He also had a white handkerchief as a protective layer between his sweaty and grimy neck and shirt collar. He had a permanently stubbly face, probably to partly satisfy his Islamic obligation of keeping a beard but never quite so assertive as to threaten his entirely Hindu clientele.
His vegetables were so meticulously arranged that I felt bad every time he sold some and disturbed the symmetrical little hills. He would rearrange them as he moved on. Mohammed’s gig with children like me was to offer a cucumber or a tomato free of cost. For the adults he would slip in an extra bunch of cilantro or green chilies or ginger. Then it seemed like a good business practice but in retrospect it may have been a subconscious way of ensuring his personal safety during tense periods such as the one that gripped the city that year. It was as if he had reasoned in his own mind that in case a riot broke out elsewhere in the city, the people of Sharda Nagar would remember his generosity and protect him. Of course, Mohammed never had to face any danger to the best of my knowledge.
Either by design or default homes in the walled city seemed to be particularly conducive to good neighborliness. Their physical proximity led to easy intimacies among the residents. The concept of individual privacy was non-existent and family secrets were known across poles almost as soon as they were born. It was as if the pols had coalesced into a single organic entity with multiple brains but one heart. It was a life where the collective took primacy over the individual.
If someone cracked a joke in a haveli three poles down the street, there were pretty good chances that everybody laughed almost simultaneously. Equally, personal sorrows did not remain personal for too long. They were transmitted and diluted quickly. The inmates of the poles fraternized among themselves with such unbridled passion that it was impossible to imagine that a whole, wide world existed outside the walls of the city erected by Ahmed Shah and Mahmud Begada.
The heavy breakfast ensured that the conversations never really took off and soared. Men burped and hiccupped alternately because of the ajmo (carom seeds) in the fafda (long, coarse strips made of leavened gram flour and deep fried) and extra hot fried chilies. Women plied those men with cups of tea disregarding the unseemly sounds emanating from them. Everything is fried in Ahmedabad. Sometime I suspect that even oil is fried. When in doubt while cooking, fry it. The deeper it is, the better it tastes. Carcinogens have to be well done. It is impossible to go wrong with frying anything with a dash of salt. Gram flour has to be the culinary mascot of Ahmedabad. There is nothing you cannot do with gram flour, salt and oil.
In between, men would bite into yellow jalebis, filled with and dipped in pure sugar syrup. They would lick their sticky fingers and wipe their hands with the newspaper in which the fafda was packed. It would be helpfully pointed out to you that the traces of baking soda and salt trapped in the packing were efficient at cleaning sticky, oily hands.