Sunday, May 18, 2008

On Allahabad I knew not!

I have come to believe that you can live your entire life in a city without knowing much about its character, its history and its people. We often judge people and places as per our own prejudices and limited experience with them. Perception like beauty, after all, is in the eye (and mind) of the beholder. I lived for about three years in Allahabad. That was when I was doing my graduation from the University of Allahabad- which, if history books are to be believed, was once called 'Oxford of the East’. Well, my life in that city was limited to my University campus and my house. It was much later that could understand the historical importance and glorious past of places I used to frequent in those days.(They looked so ordinary in those days).Then it so happened that after all these years, last few days led me to another eye opener when I found that there was still much more to learn about the city , I thought I knew . I was reading “The Last Bungalow: writings on Allahabad” edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and I was enlightened about many aspects of the city’s past and present which were unknown to me.
The typical images of Allahabad are associated with the Kumbh Fair- the largest fair of Hindu religion which takes place on the confluence of river Ganga and Yamuna every 12th year.(The book informs me that it is after all , not as ancient as it is generally believed ) Then there are images of Swaraj Bhawan and Anand Bhawan – two houses which gave three prime ministers to India and which played pivotal role in Indian Freedom struggle . Then there is a galaxy of stars associated with the city- journos, film actors, poets and politicians. I thought I knew about these things , places and persons and I was proved wrong. I also assumed that since ‘my’ Allahabad was basically the University campus , Balsom Ice cream parlor ,El-chico and Civil Lines , at least about these places I knew with confidence - I was again mistaken.
When you set your watch to Indian Standard Time (IST), you could call it Allahabad Standard Time as well. Because the time zone of India is calculated based on 82.5°E longitude that runs through Allahabad. This is exactly five-and-a- half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). To many, Allahabad is known as one of the sites of Kumbh Mela. But not many would know that it was here in 1910 that the first airplanes flew in India as a part of demonstration and exhibition. Allahabad is a city of many histories.
It was interesting to learn how a woman came to Allahabad in 1990s in search of Barnett's a bakery run by her grandparents in the Colonial days or about Nayantara Sahgal's reminiscences about her growing up days in AnandBhawan .
Since the city features in the history books continuously since 6th century BC , it is dificult to categorise its existence in parts. But if I have to divide the past of this city in categories the division would be roughly like:
-Prayag the Ancient Pilgrim
-Allahabad a Mughal City
-Allahabad a colonial city
-Allahabad during freedom struggle and
-The city since independence.
There are remains of each of these in the buildings and traditions , places and customs of the city. To quote one example each- there is sangam, Akbar’s fort, University , Anand Bhawan and the present citmodern malls . During my 3 year stay , I found Allahabad a dull city of beautiful buildings . For those who preferred the atmosphere and comforts of a modern Metropolis, it was an uninteresting and conservative place. Its charm, after all ,lay in its tranquility. I was often disappointed by the city and its folks- who lacked both the tehzeeb of lucknow and fast pace of Delhi . It was therefore interesting for me to find another famous man condemning this city uncharitably. Mirza Ghalib in a letter describes the city as “ Oh Allahabad! May God damn that dissolution where neither such medicine may be had as befits the ailing nor regard for those of rank. How unjust to call this fearful place a city, how shameful that men should reside in this trap for fiends. If one compares this land to the plain of hell, hell would burn in anger; if one compares the icy winds of Zamharir to the winds that blow through this dank region, Zamharir would be insulted.” Though I was amused to read this description, I don’t fully agree with it. It was probably poet’s own misery and circumstances that coloured his views about the it did with mine . Perhaps by then the city was more of a Raj town than a Mughal one...and thus difficult for an old court poet . For Fanny Parkes, who was in the city few years before Ghalib, it was a welcoming city. She arrived in India (Calcutta ) in 1822 as the wife of a Bengal Civil Service administrator .After four years when her husband was transferred to Allahabad as collector of customs , she spent 11 happy years in Allahabad and Cawnpore. Her recordings of her stay in Allahabad are second to none in its completeness and variety except may be poet Harivansh RaiBachchan a century later . Her diaries reveal the life of the British in the city .Like she writes somewhere in 1832 :
“Allahabad is now one of the gayest and is as it always has been , one of the prettiest stations in India .We have dinner parties more than enough; balls occasionally; a book society; some five or six billiard-tables; a pack of dogs, some amongst them hounds, and (how I could have forgotten!) fourteen spinsters!” In another place she lists out the number of servants required for a party at home. The number reached upto 80-100 with daily wages of Rs.290-330 .She also writes about the Burra mela of Prayag and the sacred peepul tree in her backyard.

Another interesting account was of Rajeshwar Dayal , a former foreign secretary who was a student at University of Allahabad when the Civil Disobedience movement was gaining momentum. He writes about the times when students were " torn between joining the agitation and abandoning their studies or trying to qualify for a living.” The student community watched with fascination and sympathy the frequent protest meetings and processions led largely by the Nehru Family, but not many joined the movement as the prospect of being submerged in an anonymous mass of processionists and braving police beating and spells of prison was less than alluring . But I know of a young law student of Holland hall hostel of the University, a contemporary of Rajeshwar Dayal, who was offered a job of Munsif in a court but refused it to follow Gandhiji and rest of his life remained a poor but proud English teacher at National School of Lucknow. He was my grandfather J.M.Sinha , who later narrated me the tales of his days in the city with much fondness and feelings.
Coming back to my impressions about the city, there are few places I remember particularly. First is the All Saint Cathedral (called Pathar Girija- the stone church, by the localites) which I passed through every morning and evening for about a year. .

This Cathedral is certainly the handsomest Anglican Church in India. It stands imposingly at a major crossroad of the city in a verdant compound which was originally set aside for a garden, but apparently was never used as such. The church has an interesting History too . Much before the building of the Cathedral, the Holy Trinity Church was the only civil church in Allahabad and was at one end of the city. The thought of a new Cathedral started when in 1864 Bishop Cotton of Calcutta visited Allahabad and found that the growing British and Anglo Indian community of the city had no adequate pastoral oversight. However it was not until 1867 that a definite scheme for building a railway Church was launched and the decision to build a really handsome Church was taken . In 1869 Sir William Muir, Lieutenant governor of the North West Provinces granted the present site, and the well-known architect Sir William Emerson (who was also the architect of Victoria memorial Hall, Calcutta) was instructed to draw up plans. The foundation stone was laid by Lady Muir in 1871. A generous grant by wealthy American, Mr. A. C. P. Dodge, as a memorial to his wife, made it possible to expand the church with arrangements for about 1000 people . But I believe the original plan of William Emerson could never be completed as the two towers were not built in the revised plan due to paucity of fund. For me this church was the refuge for hot afternoons. I remember going to the compound with my sister/two friends almost every other day.
The other was of course, my Alma Mater, the Muir Central college – which was by then the science faculty for the University. It was in this beautiful stone building, designed by William Emerson, that we had our mathematics and statistics classes. The stairs of magnificent Vijaynagaram hall was usually our address during the free periods.

When I entered the university, the glorious years of famous professors and the IAS-churning hostels were already over . The annual mushaira at Muslim hostel and Holi milan at Hindu hostel were still there but the days of well known poets and thinkers participating in them , were history . The university was marred by caste based politics . The dirty politics enveloping the state of UP was encroaching the sacred grounds of university as well. But as I realize today , even in that corrupted form , the city and the University were still better than many other big names in the two categories. It was not until I saw the shabby buildings of Calcutta University ,that I could appreciate those huge expanses of my own University.( I always assumed that all universities are supposed to be like that…till then after all, I had seen only AMU,BHU and Lucknow Univ) .In my university days, it appeared as if the life of the city revolves around the University. Other parts just seems like the extension of a primarily University town. It was probably because the University and its colleges are spread over a large part of the town and students , many of them coming from nearby small towns are the largest community of the city.
Another unforgettable experience of my life at Allahabad is that of Magh Mela. The fair takes place on the confluence of two sacred most rivers of India in the month of Magh (Jan-Feb) every year. It is also the time when migratory birds from siberia visit the site .Boat ride in the river in those winter days used to be great fun- even for a person like me who had least religious enthusiasm fairs and sacred baths.

After reading this book , I decided to search for some places like the old office of The Pioneer (where Kipling worked as an assistant) and the Branett's Bakery (which is Hotel Harsha now) on my next visit to Allahabad .I know, there is not much point looking for the anglo Indian families living in the railways colony about whom Syead Jaffery discussed in his autobiography . Neither there is any sense to search for Telier saheb's bungalow in the Teilier ganj (cavalary lines in those days). ....those people and those moments are gone with their times.
For me Allahabad turned out to be a classic case of going around the world in search of beauty only to find at the end that the best of beauty was always at your backyard.


Jawahara Saidullah said...

As an Allahabadi who has not lived there for 20 years now I know what you're talking about. And, The All Saints Cathedral is my favorite church wherever I am in the world. Interesting blog.

Sharad Chandra Srivastava said...

A correction: Kumbh Mela has a cyclicity of 12 years, not 16. Your blog makes me feel even more nostalgic about the city I love the most. I have even dared to climb the top of the Tower next to the Vijaynagaram Hall with my friends. The view of the city from that point is breathtaking. But readers are not advised to follow me, as it can lead to disciplinary action if you are caught. Thanks for the pictures. Do share if you have more.

Brahma Kumar said...

i spent more than five years in Allahabad.and have been student of University (and did Post Graduation from History deprtment).its interesting to read about allahabad, but u didn't mention Khusaro bag and Company bagh. during my preparation days i had some most beautiful days of my life. at my part the most interesting thing about Allahabad is "BAKAITI"(gossiping). those days i did not have camera so i don't have any picture to fuel my memories. even after my job, i keep on going there. Oh... Allahabad, u r wonderful and paradigm of peace.

Beyond the Shadows said...

Good work Attorva. I am also from Allahabad, AU and was a student of Arvind Mehrotra.

Do take a look at my short story on Allahabad that I wrote sometime ago called The English Paradise

Also if you find time please visit my blog

I have a question for you. What is the name of the church in Civil Lines (when you take a right turn from the Wheelers and Law Publishing House) where many years ago an aircraft driven by two students from St Joseph's crashed?

Anonymous said...

As one born (year 1934) and raised in Allahabad, I am writing this to thank you for so beautifully writing about MY city! Your article has refreshed my memories of my my days at the AU - 1951 to 1960. Living now in Japan since 1966, I often times my visit Allahabad - too often! - in revere. And I find it as the most beautiful city on earth.

My best wishes and blessings to you.

Lakshmidhar Malaviya
Kyoto, Japan.
E-Mail :

Anonymous said...

As one born (year 1934) and raised in Allahabad, I am writing this to thank you for so beautifully writing about MY city! Your article has refreshed my memories of my my days at the AU - 1951 to 1960. Living now in Japan since 1966, I often times my visit Allahabad - too often! - in revere. And I find it as the most beautiful city on earth.

My best wishes and blessings to you.

Lakshmidhar Malaviya
Kyoto, Japan.
E-Mail :

Carbon said...

Its a very interesting read, Allahabad haunts with its reminiscence past and there is no mercy. We all try to go back and rediscover, relive the legend of once urban cosmopolitan which now has become utterly bourgeois.

Each generation had much to add, born in mid 70's im certain of missing much action of 60's when Willy's low bonnet and Triumph bikes ruled the streets. When the university still had its charm and IAS hungry books devouring devils lived.

You have written so well. your article is well researched, it shows a lot of passion to what you do.