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.
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 city...like 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.