Varied accounts of a city that has seen better times.
The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad; edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Penguin, Rs. 395.
LOCATED as it is on the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati, Allahabad has been a centre of importance from ancient times. The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad, edited by poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, is a collection of essays that begin with Hsiuan Tsang in the seventh century down to more recent times.
Mehrotra's Descendants: An Introduction sets the tone for the book with a bittersweet account of families who have lived in the city for generations. Bengalis and Parsis who migrated to the city from elsewhere found fortune and homes only to find, a few generations later, that they have not kept pace with the changing times.
With the Kumbh Mela being synonymous with Allahabad, Hsiuan Tsang's account is a reminder that the city was as important as a Buddhist centre as it was to the Hindus.
Of all the accounts, it is the extract from Fanny Parkes' Wanderings of a Pilgrim that is most interesting. Lively and chatty, it is a comprehensive account of Allahabad in the mid-19th century the weather, the goats, her garden and house, the great fair, descriptions of the people...
The most amusing part is the list of servants and the wages each one was paid, all considered indispensable to the comfort of the sahib and his family (57 individuals and the total wages for all comes to Rs. 290 a month). And then she writes: "We, as quiet people, find these servants necessary."
The other person to evoke such effortless word pictures is Harivansh Rai Bachchan writing about the city of the mid-1900s. Titled "Chak Mohalla", this extract from his autobiography, In the Afternoon of Time, describes not just people and houses but also a way of life gone forever. He speaks of how he came to choose Hindi over Urdu, relates local ghost stories, the effect of World War I and the independence movement and his own writing.
While the extract from Rudyard Kipling's autobiography concerns his stint at the Pioneer, Edmonia's Hill's diary throws more light on the author's stay at Allahabad. Of his writing, she says, "Mr. Kipling's characters as a rule have some foundation in real life" and goes on to identify characters from some of his works. She also gives the background to his story "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" in which he relives the experience of being sent away to England at the age of six. Obviously bad memories as Mrs. Hill writes: "When he was writing this he was a sorry guest, as he was in a towering rage at the recollection of those days."
Both Jawaharlal Nehru and his niece Nayantara Sahgal tell of a privileged upbringing. Sahgal's account of developing headaches on Sunday nights to avoid school on Monday does not fail to raise a smile another old tradition?
The extract from Saeed Jaffrey's An Actor's Journey is a delightful piece of his years at a vibrant Allahabad University (1946-1950) with a whole bunch of colourful characters, both students and teachers, for company.
Pankaj Mishra, who studied there between 1985 and 1988, provides a totally different picture of a university ridden with violence, absenteeism, of students living with "a sense of futility and doom". Palash Krishna Mehrotra's, "Sex and the Small Town" only confirms that anarchy now reigns.
With many more essays evoking an era that's long past, the book leaves you wondering whether those were truly "good old days".
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