—Delhi / Calcutta
By Ruchir Joshi
  • Ruchir Joshi

    Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Calcutta. Joshi’s cinema work includes the non-fiction films Eleven Miles; Memories of Milk City and Tales from Planet Kolkata. Joshi has worked as a freelance columnist and essayist since the early 80s. In 2001, his first novel, The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, was published in India and in the UK. In 2009, Joshi edited the first collection of contemporary Indian erotic writing, Electric Feather, and in 2011 he published Poriborton – An Election Diary, a collection of vignettes from the state elections in West Bengal. Joshi is currently finishing his second novel, set in Calcutta during the Second World War. Joshi’s initial training was in visual arts and photography and throughout his working life he has maintained his practice of photography and drawing.

Part 1

The millionaire stands there, at the center of the milling crowd, soaking in the attention and the camera flashes. He wears a light-colored jacket of impeccable textile and cut, padded shoulders, tapered sides, and, below that, also helping to camouflage his ample square frame, black jodhpurs that flare into wings at the thighs before narrowing into knee-length boots that shine just so. Around the man, on the walls of his gallery, are images, a few original paintings by some obscure Spanish artists, accompanied by many etchings, serigraphs, and lithographs by somewhat better known Spaniards: Picasso, Dali, Miró, Tàpies. Outside the gallery, in the hall, high-quality vegetarian snacks and milky tea are laid out. Further outside, in the small stone courtyard that welcomes you to the art center named after the millionaire’s family, a trio of suited musicians plays soft flamenco.

Stepping away from the art center, you see it is built in complete consonance with the surrounding buildings—the campus of the best architecture school in south Asia. All these low piles of modernism are harmonized in the vernacular widely found across the newer areas of this city: tasteful, asymmetrical grid-games of exposed brick and concrete, large windows, attentively placed water pools, all in dialogue with the dry ground and semi-desert vegetation so typical of the area. Soon after India’s independence some sixty-odd years ago, wealthy city fathers (and a few powerful ‘city mothers’ as well) decided to invite international architects and commission the most aesthetically advanced twentieth-century architecture for the city. The effects have not quite worn off yet.

Had Italo Calvino chosen Ahmedabad as one model for his book Invisible Cities, he would have had a choice of many different towns. A small trading town in the penumbra of the desert that starts in Morocco and ends not far from here in Kutch and Rajasthan, the narrow winding streets of the old town close cousins of the casbahs you find all the way from North Africa to Sindh and Mewar. A nineteenth-century textile industry center, the mills not that dark under the blazing sun, but satanic enough for Mohandas Gandhi and others to launch organized labor movements there in the early twentieth century as part of the fight for India’s independence. The town was situated on the Sabarmati river—a winding, sandy stream at that point, that used to fill up only in the monsoons; it was on the river bank here that Gandhi set up his Sabarmati Ashram in 1917, situating it between a jail and a crematorium, because, as he put it, the nonviolent struggle for truth and freedom was likely to lead a person to one or the other place. Gandhi left the ashram in 1930 at the start of his famous Salt March, vowing not to return until independence was won—he never lived there again, but the ashram continued to function and transform.

By the beginning of the twentieth century Ahmedabad had become the chief city of the area known as Gujarat, though the state was only formed in 1960, with the city serving as the state capital. Gujaratis (Gandhi was also one) have the reputation of being hardworking and frugal; though the majority of the state’s population lived off agriculture, urban Gujaratis formed one of the strongest business communities in India, their history also directly entwined with the growth, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of Bombay as an indigenous commercial capital that rivaled the British-driven Calcutta. At the time Gandhi was killed, in 1948, in the newly independent India, Ahmedabad’s textile barons were regarded as having been heavily influenced by parts of Gandhi’s philosophy: though individually they may have taken to weaving on Gandhi’s favorite charkha (his trademark weaving wheel), their highly mechanized factories told a different story; they may not have been exactly pro-poor, and they had always been strictly vegetarian anyway, but they were known to be educated, cultured, forward-thinking, somehow both supremely stingy and extremely philanthropic, and highly understated in how they displayed their wealth.

The Ahmedabad middle class (again, largely Hindu), which developed alongside the millionaires, was likewise seen to be good at business, non-martial (Gujarat probably has the lowest representation in the Indian army), low on the misogyny scale, especially compared to macho north Indians (another effect of Gandhianism: Gujarat very early on had the most women working, and many dynamic women in charge of educational and other institutions), and, again, very efficient in forming what is now known as a ‘can-do’ work culture. There was great inequality, of course—as well as substantial corruption after the first twenty years of independence—but overall, Gujarat state, and the city that controlled it, was seen as a place where things got done, where progress was being put into effect at a slightly faster pace than most of the rest of the country.

Over the next few decades, Ahmedabad changed and mutated perhaps more than other similar medium-sized metros that existed under the lowering presence of the big four: Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, and Madras. The idea in the 1950s and 1960s was to make Ahmedabad a model modern Indian city (one that would compete in its modern-ness with Chandigarh, which was being built from scratch in northern India), and the establishment of several new institutions is proof of that. The 1960s and early 1970s saw the building of a new school of architecture (CEPT), the National Institute of Design, the first Indian Institute of Management, and a center for the Indian Space Research Organization, to which the Gandhi Institute of Labour Research was later added. Housed in the most uncompromisingly modern buildings, these institutes seemed to exist in a parallel universe, operating alongside the old, provincial city and the slowly fading yarn and textile industries.

If anything, the provinciality of Ahmedabad was challenged more by the widespread immigration of young men from the educated middle class to America than by these modern institutions which Nehru described as the temples of modern India. From the late 1960s onward, bright young Gujarati men would take their bachelors’ technical or medical degrees (and their business acumen), and get into American colleges, which would lead them to get American jobs and eventually citizenship. Citizenship or Green Card secured, most of these men would return to execute arranged marriages with suitable Gujarati girls from their hometown. By the late 1980s it was said that every middle-class home in the city had at least one relative in America.

Parallel to this, Ahmedabad saw frequent political upheavals in the 1970s and a period of regular violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in the 1980s. There had always been a streak in the Hindu bourgeois Gujarati, a tendency to fear and detest Muslims, especially working-class Muslims. As the Congress Party’s grip over India loosened in places, this tendency rose unashamedly to the surface in Ahmedabad and other urban centers in Gujarat. Even though the state was ruled at the time by the supposedly secular Congress Party, it was widely understood that powerful elements within the Gujarat Congress were sympathetic to the agenda of right-wing militant Hindu groups such as the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Equally, opponents, from both the Right and the Left, accused the nominally middle-of-the-road Congress Party of orchestrating the 1980s riots to enhance the party’s reelection prospects with the Muslim minority (one classic manipulation model is to create insecurity among the minorities so that they stick to the secular Congress Party to protect their interests; the mirroring accusation is also levied, with justification, at the Hindu political groups, who would create riots to pull the Hindu vote). Be that as it may, by the beginning of the 1990s, the burgeoning Ram Temple movement in north India, led by the Hindu right-wing BJP had a massive number of young Gujarati volunteers. By the end of the decade the BJP had established electoral control of Gujarat, and by late 2001 they installed a high-ranking RSS member named Narendra Modi as the state’s chief minister.

If Mohandas Gandhi was one kind of Gujarati, his associate Vallabh Patel (also a major leader in the independence movement and the first home minister of India), a similar one, and Mohammedali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, yet another kind of Gujarati, then, here, at the start of the twenty-first century, a completely different kind of political man rose from the same soil.


Part 2

As a 1960s child of Gujarati parents living in Calcutta, I have a clear memory of visiting family in Ahmedabad once or twice every year. The contrasts between Calcutta, Bombay (the city through which one inevitably transited), and Ahmedabad were enormous. Calcutta was tropical, overcrowded, decrepit, with the sense everywhere of things and systems breaking down; not only was there very little that was new, whatever new thing came up, be it a building, institution, or movement, it seemed to be instantly bludgeoned into fitting Calcutta’s uniform, unrelenting oldness. Bombay was tropical, overcrowded, and scary: things worked, but at a surreally ferocious pace—cops did not screw up traffic flow while taking bribes, if you broke traffic rules they actually arrested you whether you were rich or poor, that even though money in Bombay was naked and fresh, with no attempt at self-effacement: enormous skyscrapers kept sprouting up, the latest five-star hotels bore no relation to the colonial past, the foreign cars were brand new and many in number. At the same time, unlike Calcutta, in Bombay the poor seemed unafraid of the rich, they talked back to the middle class almost as if they were equals. Gujaratis seemed to be holding their own in this startlingly cosmopolitan bouillabaisse of cities but they seemed to be a different race from the Gujaratis in Calcutta and Ahmedabad; there is a Gujarati phrase, “tad ne phad,” which is a label for blunt plain speaking, and all of Bombay seemed to be shockingly tad ne phad compared to the miasma of euphemistic politeness which was the Calcutta I knew.

Ahmedabad, however, seemed to be completely devoid of the tensions that racked the two big cities. People were relaxed, warm, generous, and even their humor was gentle; there were no taxis and the buses did not go where we needed to go, so we took these amazing three-wheeler auto-rickshas that bumped over the half-made roads of the new colonies coming up toward the west, across the river from the crowded old town. On the one hand, this “Amdavad” (as the name had mutated across the centuries) was quaint and old-fashioned, very few people had dining tables, you sat on floor-level patlas to eat, every house had a sofa-set sized swing on which it seemed people spent their lives in endless undulating peace. At the new edges of town you could smell the countryside, donkey dung and wild flowers contrasting with the pungent whiff of the ricksha diesel or scooter petrol. This was a place where you could not easily get all the consumable things you found in Bombay or Calcutta, and the two bookshops and maybe two ‘English-film’ cinemas were way behind the big cities.

On the other hand, there were here several new buildings of the kind you would only see in foreign magazines: low stacks of exposed concrete and brick, beautiful stone-floored spaces inside, generous modern wooden doors with streamlined door handles. Inside these marvels strolled graphic designers and architects working on more modern things, logos, signage, industrial products, and other buildings. In this Amdavad the great Western names were actually real people: here was a bungalow by Le Corbusier; here was the brand new National Institute of Design, where Charles and Ray Eames had just finished a teaching stint, where Cartier-Bresson had also just been; there was the still-under-construction Institute of Management, designed by someone called Kahn; and a beautiful residence, designed, confusingly, by a Kohn. What I did not know until later was that the Ahmedabad elite had a steady interaction with many famous postwar American artists, an interaction that seemed to completely bypass the rest of India: John Cage came by and lectured, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and other art stars would regularly come and stay in one of the millionaires’ modern bungalows, working for a few weeks or months, maybe leaving behind a work as a thank you. Baroda, the second big city in Gujarat, was also not far, and it had the best art school in the country; many of the graduates, young artists who did not have the stomach to go starve in Bombay, came and settled in cheaper, far calmer Amdavad. For a time, this created a vibrant art circle in the city, a group that later dispersed across the country once the artists had established themselves and the art market expanded to become kinder to their work.

The other modern thing about Ahmedabad and Gujarat was that middle-class Gujaratis had, by the early 1970s, begun punching above their weight in terms of immigrating to America. I first heard the phrase “Green Card” in Ahmedabad, when people were discussing yet another young man who was “settled in the States.” I later realized that these new entrants to America’s ‘melting pot’ got in not as working-class immigrants but as educated, white-collar ones. Yet they stayed very much in their vegetarian, suburban ghettos. Still, being both canny and ‘can-do’, Gujaratis did not shy away from infra-dig professions as long as they made money. So, for instance, in the early 1980s, many of the newsstands in the New York subway were run by Gujaratis, as, subsequently, were hundreds of motels across the country.

Visiting Ahmedabad in the 1980s it was already difficult to remember the quiet, dusty town of the 1960s and early 1970s. If middle-class Ahmedabad had gone to America, then a certain kind of suburban America had also arrived in Ahmedabad, well before it did in other mid-sized Indian cities. Suddenly you had shopping centers that vaguely resembled American malls, and dozens of fast-food joints (all vegetarian, of course) with young people’s bikes and cars crowding the road out front. In terms of attitude what you now had was a strange mixture: the close family and housing society ties continued to hold but now they were leavened with an alloy of thrusting ‘me first’ ambition that seemed to meld well with the old Gujarati business acumen and work ethic. All of this further amplified the middle-class Hindu Gujarati’s aversion to Muslims.

If the largely Hindu, bourgeois Amdavad was looking outward, things were turning tricky for the city’s working-class population, which was largely Muslim. As newer industries sprouted up all over Gujarat, Ahmedabad’s old textile manufacturing units became part of the ‘sunset’ industries. By the 1980s unemployment was rapidly increasing among the Ahmedabad working class. In 1991, when I returned to Ahmedabad to make a short film about the city and specifically Glutton Lane, its famous strip of snack stalls, I came across a bunch of young middle-class men lounging on a cluster of parked scooters. Talking to camera, these boys conveyed three things: one, sneaking away from home to secretly eat eggs was still an adventure; two (their arms draped around each other, bodies glued in the heat), they thought constantly about women but sex was almost impossible to come by; three, if local Muslims stepped out of line they would slice them up without a second thought.


Part 3

Eleven years later, in the murderous violence that took place a few months after Modi became chief minister, observers noted that the participant Hindu mobs seemed to have among them many middle-class Gujaratis. This was, till then, unusual in riots in India. Whether spontaneous, semi-scripted, or completely planned by powerful string-pullers, actual rioting, murder, and rape were always regarded as a largely working-class things (notable exceptions to this were the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984 and the Shiv Sena-led anti-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1993). The violence that started in late February 2002 across Ahmedabad and Gujarat was also unique in that middle-class women were also part of the Hindu mobs attacking Muslim slums and colonies.

As has been detailed elsewhere, Modi, his ministers, and his administration were clearly blamed for the outbreak of violence and its intermittent continuation for almost two months. Unlike previous outbreaks in the country, these pogroms were televised, widely documented via video and still photographs, the news spreading instantly because of the already ubiquitous mobile telephones (the spread of mobile phones also served another purpose: lists of mobile numbers with billing names and addresses were also cold-bloodedly used by the attacking mobs to locate and separate Muslims living among majority-Hindu communities). Over the next decade, Modi fought off demands for his resignation, survived, with huge support from Hindu Gujarati voters, and managed to bounce off several police investigations about his involvement in the riots and judicial killings post the violence. Some people close to Modi, including ministers in his state cabinet, inevitably took the fall, but a few crucial players did not only evade blame, but actually thrived with increased power in the aftermath of the riots.

Incredibly, Modi not only avoided any convictions or political penalty for 2002, but he also managed to break out of his besieged fortress of Gujarat and seize, so to speak, the enemy’s capital in New Delhi. Becoming prime minister obviously meant relinquishing the chief minister post in Gujarat. When Modi left for Delhi in May 2014, he handed over his position to one his main lieutenants, a woman named Anandi Patel. Visiting Gujarat recently, I was repeatedly told that Modi may have moved to Delhi to run the country, but all important government decisions in the state are still made by him. Whether this is true or not, what is clear is that Gujarat today and the ‘new’ Ahemdabad are very much seen as Modi’s ‘creation’.

While most things seem to be reasonably the same as when I last visited four years ago, one major feature has changed completely. Someone has ripped out the old, meandering stream and sand bed of the Sabarmati river and replaced it with something that, at first sight, looks like liquid concrete flowing through a corridor of solidified concrete. Gone are the zigzag banks of the old river, the shanty towns and old houses that sloped down to the sand banks, the washermen drying their clothes on the sand, the children playing in the rivulets, the goats and camels wandering up and down under the city’s bridges. Instead, each bank now has a walkway that seems to stretch the entire length of the city’s riverbank. New lampposts stand guard at regular intervals and stairways rise from the walkways, leading to wide strips of land that are being brought into order by bulldozers. The idea of redoing the chaotic old riverfront dates back to the late 1950s when the visiting foreign architects suggested several plans. The plan that is now being put into practice was approved not by Modi or the BJP but by the Gujarat government run by the Congress Party almost two decades ago. Nevertheless, both full credit and full blame for the new riverfront seem to swirl around Modi alone. Be that as it may, the ‘vision’ of turning the strips of cleared real estate along the river into a swathe of office buildings à la Shanghai definitely has Modi’s pro-corporate fingerprints all over it.

In the meantime, as a local engineer-architect points out to me, the series of natural lakes and water bodies that ring the old periphery of the city are being filled in heedlessly to create more real estate, and new pools and ponds are being dug where there is no natural water flow—a sure way of creating mosquito-ridden cesspools. At the same time, the area of Juhapura, at one edge of the city, has become an enclave for Muslims of all classes because it is increasingly difficult for Muslims to buy or rent property elsewhere; among the rash of new building are a series of police stations that basically ring Juhapura “in case they cause trouble.”

Back at the fashionable millionaire’s art opening, someone introduces me to the architect who is handling the Sabarmati riverfront project. The rumors are that this man, one of Modi’s favorites, is slated to take over the beautification of the millennia-old river ghats at Benaras (Varanasi) in central India. Speaking about him, someone has told me, “You know how Hitler had Albert Speer as his chief architect? Well, in this guy Modi has found his Speer.” I shake hands with the man who is supposedly Ahmedabad’s most powerful architect and then we walk as a group away from the gallery and the Spanish strains of the string trio. Modi’s favorite architect looks like he belongs to the same class of people I hang out with in Ahmedabad: sandals, jeans, T-shirt, designer glasses. Someone explains again that he is the head honcho of the Sabarmati project and our man looks faintly embarrassed; he makes a self-deprecating joke, punning in Gujarati and English, using the word honcho. After some brief conversation, he says goodbye and walks away, the most un-Speer-like person you can imagine.

Outside, driving home through the fancy shopping malls, tacky marriage gardens, and pseudo-Singapore office blocks, you can still feel the ghosts of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe prowling around, you can still feel the girded breath of Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, you can hear the soft shutter-click of Cartier-Bresson’s Leica as he wanders around the riverbed, you can still see Louis Kahn singing one of his most beautiful brick and concrete songs.