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V Gangadhar

V Gangadhar on the Ahmedabad I knew
The Ahmedabad I knew

If Venice had its canals, Ahmedabad had its bridges. When I reached there in July 1958, there were four of them, all over a river which had no water and was all sand.

Subsequently two more bridges were built. All of them barring the oldest one (Ellis Bridge) were named after national leaders. The bridges linked the old, walled city with the new one which was better planned. The media did not mention the bridges in its earthquake coverage and I presume they were intact.

The July heat was dry, burning and overwhelming. It was worse than the moist heat of Kerala. The frequent sandstorms covered everything with sand. I found that because of the dust, newly polished shoes remained clean for about three minutes.

People drank water by the gallons. Wherever you went, the first thing you were offered were huge tumblers of water. 'Pani aapo (give me water) ' was one of the first local phrases I learnt. During the five months-long summer everyone slept out. The houses were tenements with just one floor, but all of them had terraces for sleeping out. If you lived in a hut, you slept on the streets.

The city had zillions of bicycles. Everybody was riding one. You needed a licence to ride a bike and lamps were a must at night. The police checked and caught those riding without lamps. The bicycle traffic was so heavy that all other vehicles had to give way to them. My first major buy in Ahmedabad was an 'Eastern Star' bicycle which was stolen after six or eight months. It was replaced with a green 'Raleigh' brand bicycle.

Ahmedabad was truly the 'Manchester of India' in those days. All the 60 odd textile mills were working three shifts and making profits. The city's skyline was dotted with chimneys emitting black smoke. One could set one's watch with the sirens from the mills. People talked only about the mills, the textile association, the happenings at ATIRA (Ahmedabad Textile Industry's Research Association), dearness allowance and Majdoor Mahajan, the Congress-affiliated powerful textile labour union.

Like hotels and restaurants, the mills also were graded, though unofficially. Calico Mills where I began working at the age of 18 was regarded top drawer. Professionally managed, it had an Englishman W F Titchener as the financial controller, who introduced not only accounting machines but also cricket. The Sarabhais who owned Calico seldom interfered and each department had a professional manager.

Calico regularly organised Dome -- a textile exhibition featuring some of the famous models of those days. Parveen Babi, who went on to be a Bollywood actress, was one of them. The Lalbhai group of mills, Ambica, Arvind, Sarangpur, Silver Cotton, Jupiter, Jasi Bharat were the other leading mills.

These made Ahmedabad a thriving, busy and cosmopolitan city. The Gujaratis had no Shiv Sena to oppose the influx of outsiders. When Calico Mills opened its thread, net and blankets division, manager K R Viswanath brought his old chum, Dharmarajan, who in turn recruited, Krishnan, Bhaskaran, Thampi, Ramakrishnan, Subbrarman who in turn brought more South Indians.

The department made huge profits and the locals handsomely acknowledged the contribution of the South Indian factor.

The new arrivals from the south flocked to the Old Madras Hotel run by Kesava Iyer at Bhadra at the centre of the city. The food and snacks were awful, the sambar and rasam were nothing but hot water with some spices. But the hotel enjoyed its monopoly and raked in money.

Later the South Indians started their own 'mess' at several points. It began well, but soon customers delayed payment and the mess owners, who relied heavily on credit, abandoned their work and disappeared. One of them took away my brass drum where he used to store water!

Food was always a problem for the newcomer. The local food was too sweet. But I relished the fafda chutney and jalebi at Chandra Vilas where the waiters were always barechested.

Soon more hotels opened, but hardly any of them non-vegetarian. For several years, Neelam was the one eatery which served mutton and chicken. The locals were just beginning to discover the delights of egg dishes. Eating an omelette on the sly was regarded as the ultimate in bravery. The sweets and ice cream, however, were divine.

I often frequented Havmor (called 'hava mor' by the locals) and Vadilal Soda Fountain which offered ice cream, the likes of which I had not tasted before.

Coffee was not the coffee I was accustomed to. It had elaichi and other spices, milk content heavy and coffee powder negligible. I liked the local tea but discovered that no one drank a full cup of tea. A cup was shared between two people, with the saucer used for drinking. Three people shared a larger cup called 'Badshah cup'. This was thrift at its best, a typical Ahmedabadi habit.

I was settling down nicely in the new environment. Shifting from my brother-in-law's Calico Mills accommodation, I got rooms at Bhadra, Green Cross Society (both downmarket) before moving to Ellis Bridge and finally Ambawadi (upmarket).

Most of my neighbours at Green Society were scheduled caste textile mill workers who called me 'Master' and admired by busy schedule -- attending early morning MA classes, then to office and then studying late in the night. Their admiration extended to not objecting to my girlfriends's frequent visits to my room!

It was difficult to make friends with the local girls. Every girl had to be addressed ben and how can one say, 'Meenaben, I love you'! Calico Mills where I worked for five years employed a large number of girls who were prepared to smile, talk and after some persuasion accompany you to a movie. But nothing more than that.

I saw my first Gujarati play, Ah, tamhe su Kariyun in the company of a thin girl with protruding teeth who looked at me suggestively when the hero told the heroine, Hun thane ichchu chhun ( I desire you). I never went out with her again.

Young, energetic, a little bit of money in my pocket. A bicycle. What more did I need to enjoy the sights of Ahmedabad? The Shaking Minarets, Sabarmati Ashram, and the Law College Garden which was the only place for courting couples. The courting was supplemented with excellent varieties of ice cream.

I took a fancy to the 'kaju-draksh' variety. You got excellent farsan (snacks) at Maneck Chowek. Dalgarwad, the cutpiece market, was a boon. One could buy shirt and pant pieces by weight, dead cheap and give them to tailors who specialised in making clothes from these. You could get a first rate terycot; shirt stitched for around Rs 40!

Entertainment? The two major roads in the city, Relief Road and Gandhi Road had dozens of theatres, but only three of them showed English films. Central, Advance and Madhuram. Advance was a small, compact theatre which showed some wonderful Hollywood films including the Gary Cooper-Audrey Hepburn starrer, Love in the Afternoon and David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai. The balcony seats cost Rs 1.50 and the lower stalls at 75 paise were quite adequate.

Regal cinema on Gheekanta Road had special boxes for courting couples, but remained mostly unoccupied. The thrifty Gujarati when he spent money on a film, wanted to see it and do nothing else!

The local Ahmedabad South Indian Association did good work and organised an occasional cultural programme. I was the hero in one of its Tamil plays and was flattered to learn that the heroine, a popular Tamilian socialite, had demanded that I should play the role. But it was tough mouthing the flowery Tamil dialogue, Anbhe, naan unnai kadhalikeran. How simple was the English versilon, 'Dear, I love you'!

The Kerala and Malayali Samajams split every other day because of local politics and genuine left-wing politics. The few Bengalis in the city came alive during the week-long puja celebrations. Once I stayed with a Bengali family for some weeks and was initiated into the art of fish eating and fish appreciation.

As for other cultural activities, dancer Ilakshiben Thakore's dance school churned out Bharatnatyam dancers at an alarming rate. One year's training and you can have an arangetram! The cultural czarina was Mrinalini Sarabhai whose word was often the last on any issue related to the subject. This was not to the liking of Kathak expert Kumudini Lakhia who ran the Kadamb academy.

From culture to academics. The university was quite impressive, but better institutions were to come. The Indian Institute of Management, the Physical Research Laboratory, the National Institute of Design and the School of Planning.

Somehow, the locals were unable to get adequate representation, but they did not agitate. The university standards were abysmally low, particularly the knowledge of English.

For the first ten years of my life in the city, I witnessed the furious battle between the 'Eighth standard camp' and the 'Fifth Standard camp', the former insisting it was adequate if English teaching began from Std VIII while the latter demanded it should start from Standard V. The first group had firm political support from Morarji Desai and his stooges in Gujarat. So, the average Gujarati graduate ended up knowing very little English.

Most college professors and post graduates would read only Gujarat Samachar or other local dailies, and not The Times of India. As for reading English books, forget it!

These were the decisions taken by the state government whose offices were located, at New Mental Hospital! What an appropriate coincidence! It was at one remote corner of the city on the way to Gandhinagar. The governor, the ministers and the superrich lived at the post Shahibagh area even as the city extended to Satellite Nagar, Patrakar colony, Narayanpura and so on.

The government allowed the purchase of three bedroom flats, area around 1000 sq ft, for just Rs 52,000 to accredited journalists. Later this concession was extended to anyone who had anything to do with journalism.

Cricket was the only game which was hugely popular. Big matches were played first at the H L Commerce College ground, shifted to Gujarat College and then the Sardar Patel stadium. Today, the venue is Motera stadium.

In the 1950s Bhagirath Thakore was tipped to become a great fast bowler. Gary Sobers who came with the 1958-59 West Indian team hit him so hard that Thakore gave up all pretence of being a pace bowler and settled down to being an average middleorder batsman. Sobers really slaughtered him that day!

Most Gujarati festivals involved heavy eating. On New Year's day, we went around sampling the standard snacks. Later, the same procedure was repeated when they came to our place, sampled the same dishes and said the same saal mubarak. Tired of this procedure, I tried to get away from the city during Diwali holidays. It was such a relief!

Days, months, and years passed swiftly. It was time to leave. I did not subscribe to the theory that Ahmedabad was a 'dull' city mainly because there was no easy liquor available. Many of my journalist friends even tried the illicit brew, latta and one of them died because of an overdose.

The best way to enjoy Ahmedabad was to live in Gujarati strongholds, learn the local language and preferably marry a local girl. I did all the three and did not repent one bit!

Design: Dominic Xavier

V Gangadhar

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