All cities have a soul, a quiet site or a unique phenomenon that leaves visitors awestruck and which animates the daily rhythms of its residents. Perhaps you’ll find it on a busy food street when the cries of vendors reach a crescendo, on a ferry boat looking out as the shore lights come on at dusk, or in the midst of a crowd at an elaborate religious festival. It might be by a lake where people walk, exchange stories, play with children, or in the shadow of an old shrine, with two men playing chess. When we discover this sweet focus of energy, we feel connected with the whole urban organism, plugged into something that is larger, and more permanent, than we are. In that moment, we instinctively understand the giddy joyfulness of that city or the sedate sense of well-being of another.
An army brat’s life keeps you on the edge. Just when you’re about to put down roots, it’s time to move. I attended 12 schools in 12 years. No city felt like home. Revisiting these places in my mind, I asked myself whether I was partial to any of them. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought so, but now I’m not so sure. Though I’ve lived in Mumbai and Delhi, I think that Ahmedabad scores over both metros. My reasons, of course, are entirely personal: India’s fifth-largest city is the place where I became an adult, where I kick-started my career, where I made friends, found my soul mate, and set out on new journeys.
My favourite spot in my favourite city is The Green House, the all-day eatery at the House of MG heritage hotel. It is situated on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the old city. The chaotic city unfolds all around it, with traffic levels rising and falling as the day progresses. The congested city—founded in 1411 by Ahmed Shah—spreads out along both banks of the Sabarmati River. In the west is the modern face of Ahmedabad, featuring busy thoroughfares lined with shopping malls. On the other side, the old city is a maze of winding alleys, busy bazaars and pols (clusters of houses often occupied by people of the same caste or kinship group). Despite the differences, disparities and divergences, these two Ahmedabads fuse into an urban whole.
The Green House, cool and shaded, elegantly tells the tale of the two cities. Like Ahmedabad, it seems to stand for co-existence—no matter how odd that sounds after the 2002 riots. The café looks out on the Sidi Sayyed mosque, a 16th-century shrine renowned for its stone window tracery. The filigree jallis in its ten semi-circular windows showcase the Tree of Life. The intertwining branches of the Kalpa Vruksh allude to the entwining of all life on the planet. This symbol of harmony, etched in stone, is among Ahmedabad’s most famous icons.
Nearby, architectural landmarks such as Bhadra Fort, Teen Darwaza, Lal Darwaza, Shaking Minarets and Juma Masjid jostle with shopping hubs like Dhalgarwad, Rani no Hajiro and Manek Chowk. Despite the commotion outside, the café is an oasis of calm all through the day. I’m in the heart of the city, and yet I’m strangely removed from it. Around me, the past and the present, the old and the new, tradition and innovation, thrive side by side.
–Teja Lele Desai
For centuries, Kochi residents have been gathering to commemorate the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. On New Year’s Eve, hundreds of people congregate in the ancient town of Fort Kochi to witness the burning of the papanchi—a hay-stuffed figure representing the destruction of the old and the possibility of fresh beginnings. This tradition is said to have been introduced by the Portuguese who ruled the region in the 16th century and a similar tradition (known as burning the old man) persists in Goa and Mumbai.
On the evening of 31st December, Fort Kochi’s two main streets are lined with an array of these flammable figures, some fashioned to resemble Santa Clauses, others dressed as comic-book super heroes. Papanchi are perched on motorbikes, made to canoe in a river of hay, or swooshed back and forth in cardboard cars fixed with homemade pulleys. As night falls, the streets begin to echo with the sound of trumpets, drums and the cacophony of car-horns. Music by local bands and blaring stereos drive the good cheer to a crescendo.
Minutes before midnight, torches are lit and the countdown begins. When the clock strikes 12, the papanchi are set on fire and the crowd goes into a frenzy of celebration. At the Fort Kochi beach, a 10-foot-tall figure is set ablaze.
This nostalgic ritual is a reminder that Kochi hasn’t completely forgotten its European past. New Year’s Eve is the occasion for all barriers to be broken, for people of all walks of life to stroll together in the streets. It is when all Kochi dissolves its differences in the currents of history.
For most people, Patna is the poster child for all that is wrong with Bihar—corruption, crime, urban sprawl and civic dysfunction. But for those brave enough to look beyond the foreboding headlines, the city can offer unexpected delights, none more than Quila House. Locally known as Jalan Palace after the family that owns it, it is a private museum housed in a mansion in the old Patna city. It is a little hard to reach and you have to call ahead to make an appointment, but it is well worth the effort.
As the narrow street snakes up to Quila House, you are unprepared for the sight ahead. Suddenly, you leave behind the city’s congestion and cacophony and stand before a stately, two-storey art deco residence, set in a well-kept garden on the banks of the Ganges. A member of the Jalan family escorts you in, and leads you through the display rooms. The collection is eclectic—Chinese porcelain and jade, Mughal silverware, Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture, Tipu Sultan’s ivory palanquin, and many other priceless pieces.
Interesting and valuable as the collection is, so is the house. Taking its name from the fact that it stands on the site of Sher Shah’s fort, it was built by the Jalan family patriarch, Radha Krishna Jalan (1882-1954). He belonged to a Marwari family that had long lived in Patna. A wealthy merchant, he worked closely with the British and was honoured with the title of Dewan Bahadur after World War II. In 1919, Radha Krishna bought a bungalow, attracted by its majestic location on the river. When it was damaged by the 1934 earthquake, he built a new house. Designed in the art deco style by British architects, the new residence was created to house his family and his collection of antiques, which had steadily grown through purchases at European auction houses during his extensive travels.
Today, as always, Quila House doubles as the Jalan family residence and a museum. Once admitted inside (after a recommended expression of interest in art and antiques), what you will find on display are not just ancient artefacts, but Patna’s past and present. You encounter a time going back to Sher Shah, and to the city’s history as an important trading post in the years before and during the East India Company’s rule. The city’s life as a magnet for different communities is revealed along the road leading to the Marwari Jalan palace, as you come across the Patna Sahib gurdwara, and vibrant Muslim neighbourhoods. Above all, you encounter a family that generously opened its doors to strangers interested in its collection of antiques then, and continues to do so now. This, in itself, opens your eyes to a facet of what Patna was and still is, at least in Quila House. Here, the price of entry is interest, not caste or community (www.quilahouse.com).
As I walk by Bhojtal Lake, I imagine the brave begums who once ruled these parts walking the same path, dressed in beautifully embroidered ghararas, with maidservants trailing behind them. Tourists take rides on motorboats, but the lake is unexpectedly quiet and so is the green forest that has survived amidst all the development of Bhopal city.
I stroll along the waterfront, enjoying the breeze, going where my feet take me. I turn into a part of the old city that dates back to Mughal times. Up the steps, I pass by Gauhar Mahal and enter Iqbal Maidan, a public ground named after the famous Urdu poet Allama Iqbal. I see two men seated on a ledge, in the shadow of the charming Shaukat Mahal, engrossed in a game of chess. It is the middle of the day. The world seems to be busy with its business. But here, time seems to have stood still.
The afternoon sunlight makes patterns on the crumbling walls of the ornate pink mahal. The bust of the great poet hovers above, almost like an interested referee, as the game of chess progresses. I find myself a corner and watch the game as unobtrusively as possible. One of the shatranj players, dressed in a crisp white kurta-pyjama, looks up at me, and then gets back to the game.
A couple of men stop by, to make small talk and watch. The game shows no sign of ending. As I sit quietly, a sense of leisure and legacy assail me. I wonder how many years people have been playing chess here for, out in the open, in the middle of the day.
The structures that surround me reek of history. Hidden in the ramparts of palaces, now turned into hotels, and buried in the lanes of old bazaars are stories of valour, love and revenge. The men at play are unperturbed by the motley traffic passing through the arches on the other side of the maidan. Strangely, so am I. I suddenly question the mindless frenzy of my life. I envy the chess players their small joy.
At sunset, the bright signboards in the market start blinking. The ancient and modern rub shoulders. Hungry, I drift towards Chowk, the old city bazaar, thinking of delectable biryani, mouth-watering kebabs, and irresistible mithai. Bhopal residents crowd these popular food stalls till the wee hours of the morning. It is well past midnight. I amble along, chewing my paan in the moonlight, stopping to buy some fragrant flowers for my hair. I can see the begums smiling in approval.
Next Page: Chandigarh, Lucknow And The Metros
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