Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What it’s like to live in Ahmedabad

Ever since the ex chief minister of Gujarat came to the forefront of national politics, people have been especially curious about life in this allegedly most developed state of India. Every time I tell someone I am from Ahmedabad, I’m met with eager questions: “Oh, what’s that like? Is it really very developed? Is it very safe for women?” And the queries have only multiplied in number and intensity since the new prime minister took over.
Most of the time, I’ve been at a loss about how to answer and have instead found myself inviting people to come visit the city and find their own answers, even though - as I repeatedly warn people before they come -  there’s really not much to see or do here.
When friends do come, the only places I can think of taking them are Kankaria Lake or the new Riverfront, not because these sites are particularly interesting but simply because it’s nice to get some fresh air and open space. Of course, you might end up spotting debris floating on the water as you sit by the river or smell the effluent that pollutes it, much like these Pakistani delegates who had come to study the prestigious project in order to implement the same in their city. But I’m sure these problems have been dealt with at the moment – at least temporarily – because of Xi Jinping’s much coveted recent visit to the land of Gandhi.
Another major “development” buzz about Ahmedabad is the Bus Rapid Transit System – BRTS – which has helped a lot of commuters travel more efficiently, but I personally don’t use it much because it doesn’t connect to the area I live in (more about that in just a moment) and also because every time the bus driver hits the squeaky-squealy brakes (about every two minutes), I fear that the entire mass of jostling, sweating people that make up the stifling crowd will be hurled forward and crash right out the windscreen. Yes, it is that scary. So I am grateful that I can afford to take the autos because they are one thing I genuinely love about my city. The drivers will almost never cheat you and in the rare case that they do, it won’t be extreme the way that it is in a place like Hyderabad, for example. To continue on the bright side, power cuts are rare. I’m sure you’ve heard all about how we’re a power-rich state but I fail to comprehend how people can expect our dear ex CM now PM to magically turn us into a power-rich country.
Oh and how can I not mention loos since the PM believes in building toilets before temples? I know he was referring to rural areas where sanitation facilities are grossly lacking but even in the city, I think public loos are important infrastructure. Even though we have many pay-to-go toilets, they are locked more often than they are open, and even when you can go, they are often filthy and lack western-style lavatories. Seriously, does it have to be a struggle of Indian against Western in such a basic necessity as loos too? I mean, with old age and knee problems, a lot of people find it difficult to use Indian-style toilets; why not give them the option of a commode for god’s sake?
And then there is the race to achieve UNESCO World Heritage City status. A couple of years ago, the otherwise neglected old city area began getting a facelift in order for Ahmedabad to be granted World Heritage City status. The efforts may be well-intentioned but do nothing for the hundreds of people who earn livelihoods in and around the old city, mostly selling their wares on the footpaths. I have heard firsthand from a street vendor the story of how they are required to pay a certain sum every day to certain authorities in order to be permitted to continue their businesses. And if they fail to cough up the cash, they are harassed and evicted from the site under the guise of “neatening up the area”.
But I wonder why I am writing about Ahmedabad when I sometimes feel like I don’t even belong to it. I belong to Juhapura – otherwise known as India’s largest Muslim ghetto” and sometimes dubbed a “mini Pakistan” (whatever the hell that means). The word “ghetto” by definition implies segregation or isolation, so it is no surprise that we who live here are often imagined as a mass of fundamentalist Muslims, the women in garish bright salwar-kurtas under equally garish burqas; the men with beards and skullcaps. My interactions with people have revealed such ridiculous misconceptions as the idea that knife-wielding gangsters rule the streets here, which are all supposedly lined with filthy slaughter houses. We do have slaughter houses, but they are not everywhere and contrary to popular conception, vegetarian food is also available in this non-vegetarian’s haven. Juhapura is perceived as a land of bootleggers and bhais (you know, those shady gangster characters that are so popular in Bollywood films) and while there may be a grain of truth in that idea, it is by no means accurate. I guess all I’m trying to say is that my area is a neighbourhood like any other where you simply live and let live. Although Airtel and Reliance won’t give you an internet connection here and some auto drivers will refuse to drive you home out of fear that it’s a dangerous place. Nonetheless, at least we’ve moved past the time when certain banks wouldn’t accept your account opening form simply because you belonged to this ghetto.
So what am I driving at?
Well, I suppose I’m just saying that Ahmedabad is like any other almost-metropolitan Indian city. Minus the nightclubs and bars, of course. If you want a night life in this city, you go for garba events during Navratri or else simply head for chai and your choice of street food, perhaps followed by Asharfi’s kulfi. Unless you want to get on the wrong side of the law and ignore the prohibition of course. In a nutshell, there is nothing that really strikes as “remarkably developed” about this Gujarati city at least. Though that’s just my perception and if you are still curious, you should visit. Two days will be more than enough to explore all that it has to offer!     

Looks pretty snazzy, huh? Maybe that's why they say looks can be deceptive. :P 

2 scribbles scribbled back to me:

Usha Kiran said...

Love it :)

Farhana Uraizee said...

Very well said. BTW we come because of you all :)