A poet knows his city and knows it well, remembering nooks and corners, lanes and bylanes, anecdotes and legends. So I turn to Parminderjit to remember his city of Amritsar, with love. At once, he moves in the mind from his office in a posh new area of the city to the old streets that surrounded the Darbar Sahib, tracing the forgotten aromas as he recites lines from a poem by Devendra Satyarthi: Kudiyan Amritsar dian; Papad, wadiyan, kulfiyan faloode waalian… The city is well-known for its beautiful ladies and delicious food.
For centuries in the holy city of Amritsar it has been the case of memory fighting forgetting, and in recent times, the past 30 years, the then-and-now factor has come up time and again.
The decade and a half of militancy, the army attack on Darbar Sahib, the loss of many lives — it still weighs heavily on the minds of many. And those who love their city as much as they would a beautiful girl living next door, the havoc with heritage during Operation Bluestar and after was hard indeed to forget.
The widening of the corridor plan by the gover nment in the late ’80s to check further terrorist activity in the Golden Temple complex led to the demolition of many of the 19th-century majestic bungas built by the Sikh misls.
Not just the mansions, the demolitions of two much-visited bazaars near the shrine, Guru Bazaar and Mai Seva Bazaar, with their winding lanes, carved wood windows and balconies and many stories, are remembered with nostalgic sighs. Compensation to the affected people was adequate, but a way of life was gone forever.
“When you demolish old cities, it is not just the demolition of structures but of collective memory and experience,” says poet Parminderjit. There is a strong and old tradition of newlywed couples visiting the Golden Temple. After that, they would walk through the bazaars buying keepsakes and tasting the many savouries the city has to offer.
Theatre activist Kewal Dhaliwal remembers the vanished streets where his youth was spent. “There were our small favourite eateries where we would go often. There was one vendor who made just kadhichawal, but he made it so well that the mouth waters even by the mere recall of the taste,” he says. The bazaars had the rich fragrance of fruits and dry fruits. The jalebis and mini-samosas, called samosis, of these streets were famous indeed. Some of the eateries moved outside, and it is not the same.
I recall going to Amritsar in the late ’80s, when the gover nment announced the cor ridor plan, and visiting an old book shop which was to be demolished. The old shopkeeper talked of his days as a boy and said, “Beauty was in the heart and soul of Darbar Sahib, and there was no need to ‘beautify’ it.” As I made to leave, he gifted me a book on the 400-year story of Amritsar which had a line saying that the personality of the city is such that one treats it like a friend whom one loves and respects.
Ironically, once the heritage is lost, there are moves to give it a heritage touch, evident in the recent plan to paint the shops and homes in the same colour or have bus stop structures of Nanakshahi bricks. The VIP parking, plazas and cafeterias are also in the plan.
However, the magic of the winding streets where people l ived, loved and dreamed cannot be erased from memory. And the look-back in case of the chosen city of Amritsar is one of love but one also of regret and sweet remembrance.
(The writer is a well-known journalist and culture critic. As an Indian Express reporter in the years after Operation Bluestar, she extensively chronicled the heritage loss around the Golden Temple)