Monday, June 08, 2015

Amrita Shah's Ahmedabad, a Review: In TNIE Magazine

My two favourite boys heard me complain about this book for the couple of weeks it took for me to finish it. I don't say so in the review below, having been fair to the immense research that has gone into this book, but here, here I can be frank. And frankly, I did not like Ahmedabad. It's a good subject, a lot of work has gone into it and everything but I felt that the author was trying too hard to show that she knew many, many fancy words. While in some places they work, in most cases, it adds to the dense-ness of the writing. More than anything else, the writing did not read like it was from the heart. Know what I mean? When the words don't come from the heart, it shows. Oh how clearly it shows.

Read my review of Amrita Shah's Ahmedabad in The New Indian Express magazine section this week. Here. Or see below for a slightly longer version.


If an autobiography is the sum of all that the writer chooses to reveal about life and pontifications about lessons learned and ideals (not) often followed, a biography must then be the perception of all that the subject chooses to reveal and (not) follow, etc. What might a city reveal then, if it were a biography of a city, I wonder. More so if the city is fraught with a chequered history and it is trying to cultivate a certain image divorced from its popular narrative. The dichotomies these attempts pose are what Amrita Shah tackles in Ahmedabad: A City in the World.

Ahmedabad would have been just another industry town in the country. But of course it is not. Though it teams with mills – most shut – and diamond merchants – subject to vagaries of the global economy – Ahmedabad is, more than anything else, Modi’s old playground. By that measure itself Ahmedabad gives up its status of just another city. “Saheb”, as Shah says everyone calls Modi, then still Gujarat’s chief minister, is omnipresent. “The chief minister, perennially omniscient, articulate and full of righteous anger against the enemies of the state…” is a brand, an image, a hero, a celebrity – and how so is strewn throughout the book in Shah’s interviews with a multitude of people.

Try as law and memory might, the city’s history is inerasably tied with the riots, in eerie simplicity referred merely as ‘2002’. It may no longer be politically desirable to rake up old tales in the vibrant environs of the state any more, but this elephant in the room is tackled head on by Shah at the very beginning. Meraj, an embroiderer she befriends, is one of the thousands whose lives and entire social structures changed after ‘2002’. He crops up in the book often, like a leitmotif, a name among the nameless many whose lives irrevocably changed.

Shah peeks briefly in history and recognizes that “the stone monuments of the Sultanate era, the mosques, the rauzas, the tanks and the gates, are born of antithesis and miscegenation.” The land of Gandhi and peace and a state that is “violent” is an utter contradiction that several Ahmedabadis are comfortable holding hands at the same time with. There is a ‘Freedom Walk’ to commemorate those ‘who used violence’ just as there is Mohan who “can’t bear Muslims’ and admits, “From the beginning we are taught that we can’t tolerate.”

In her reading of a city that is as rigid within its old time prejudices as it strives to be at the forefront of cosmopolitanism and glitzy new infrastructure, Shah devotes a large chunk of her book to the working class, stories from the old, forsaken mills and the views from the ‘old city’ on the other side of the river. The posh people – rich merchants, the power holders – make but fleeting appearances, though not any less relevant to the narrative of Ahmedabad. In speaking of the lesser spoken about, in telling the stories of those who the victors would rather ignore, Shah evokes a powerful picture of a city divided by its uneasy past and its genuine desire to forgive, if not altogether forget.

Ahmedabad is very much a twenty-first century city, its “real estate developers are the new geographers in town, pushing for development where they plant their flags, here, there, there.” There is money that is floating around aplenty and thus, the problems that ensue with much money that floats around. Shah’s biography of this contradictory city – as the case may be with most cities – is peppered generously with a journalistic observation of everything she sees along the way, and around the people she interviews – a woman’s prayer, a flight of a bird, a curling path, and descriptions of modest structures that are “inserted like doorstops into niches.” In doing so, she breaks what would otherwise easily have been a monologue of history as seen through the eyes of her interviewees or alternatively, these people seen through one version of history that is chosen to be narrated.

‘2002’ is never absent though. “…‘but’ was as close to empathy as I was to find in Ahmedabad,” says Shah. She finds the consensus “enormous, vicious and forceful.” She hints at a state of denial in some, and a state of self-doubt in others. It is an uneasy reality, but perhaps the only practical way of making peace with what happened. In staying largely along this course of inquiry, Shah’s Ahmedabad lays bare a city that understands how it must find its way ahead, however uncomfortable stepping on bones might be.

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