I was not born in Nagpur but somehow I feel extremely defensive about my hometown. Years ago, my maternal uncle was posted as District Magistrate here and all but one of my mother’s degrees are from Nagpur University, though her college was in Jabalpur. All of my own degrees, including one in journalism, are from Nagpur University and they are not to be frowned upon — apart from some bad patches, the university sets very high standards and my late friend Dr Shrikant Jichkar had taken 23 degrees from Nagpur University to make it to many world records.
Twenty years and more in Mumbai, however, have now made me unaccustomed to the heat of the April and May months in the heart of India. Nevertheless I make an annual pilgrimage to this hot and dusty town each May to help my mother feed the poor at the Ujagar Hanuman Mandir in the memory of my father who passed away this month some years ago. I am dreading the heat again but when friends who learn where I am headed say: “Nagpur? Are you out of your mind! It’s so hot out there!’’ I bristle with all the outrage I can muster at the insult to this one-horse town and suddenly I belong again. “It might be hot for you. I know how to battle the heat!’’ I reply.
But I really no longer do. During school vacations my father would not let us out of the house without an onion on our head beneath our cap — that was the best way to avoid a sunstroke, every one said, though I have not yet researched the scientific properties of onions in beating the blazing sun. Now it just seems ridiculous, so I do nothing as the sun beats down mercilessly even at 9 am, as my aircraft lands and my hair burns during the short walk from the tarmac to the airport building.
It is at the airport that you sense that things are finally changing in and for Nagpur — it is all dug up, and navigating your way out reminds you this is an international airport that has decided to live up to its image. It is now all cracked up and, from the scaffoldings and other work underway, I begin to sense what Praful Patel meant when he once told me that Nagpur’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar airport would be one airport that anybody would be proud to write home about.
Smells like pride
But home is right here, right now and I remember the protest that Dr Jichkar had put up at the turn of the century when some silly advertiser selling a deodorant offered free tickets to the US and said: “Tell your grandchildren how you celebrated the millennium in New York, not Nagpur.’’ That particular brand of deodorant went off the market shelves that December as protestors thronged the streets and asked the company to withdraw the insult. Although Nagpur is no longer the one-horse town of my youth, the heat has still not gone away. It is now the turn of a prickly heat powder to goad children to go to school with a pack of this heat-buster.
Friends remind me of the protest, but even for them it is too hot to throng the streets in the summer (the streets are all parallel and perpendicular to each other — that’s the way the Bhosale kings wanted it, so that no one would go “round and round’’ and get lost). In any case this advertisement, too, is silly. There are no schools in Nagpur during the summer months — they re-open in mid-July when the monsoon has taken over and the school authorities do not have to worry about children fainting due to the heat or dying of sun stroke. So we just let it go.
Here comes the sun
Usually, I only leave my mother’s home to go to the temple and stay indoors the rest of the time during my summer visits. This summer, however, the city beckons me to explore it all over again. I find myself driving off to the city centre where, at mid-day, people still throng the streets. I have no onions this time but I take the precaution of wrapping my dupatta around my head. Every one else looks like a dacoit — they have bandanas round their head, kerchiefs covering their mouths and noses, dark glasses to protect their eyes, and full-sleeved shirts (stupid me — I am wearing a sleeveless kurti!), leaving not an inch of skin uncovered. The Nagpur sun can really burn you black (the Tropic of Cancer passes close by).
I quickly dart into a shop that belonged to a friend — she has long married and moved but I do find her brother and chat him up. We marvel at how Nagpur has grown by leaps and bounds — the international cargo hub that will cut the distance by half for every exporter and importer is fuelling most of the development, but it also has the only industrial estate in Maharashtra that still has room for growth. Every other estate is choc-a-block with industries. So, glass-fronted buildings are now replacing the sleepy, family-owned businesses and the local bania is under threat from shopping malls and the Big Bazaar. Even that has a positive side: although my mother loves to visit the malls, more often than not the grocer now home-delivers, free of cost. Anything that she runs out of any hour of the day is now just a phone call away.
One thing I do notice is that the khas (dried lemon grass) of my youth has now virtually disappeared — it used to fuel an entire summer industry, generating employment for men and women, as people simply had to keep the grass-doors and windows wet and damp throughout the day. Air-conditioners would go kaput once upon a time but like everything else even they have learnt to beat the Nagpur heat.
And why not? This is after all the zero mile city from where everything begins — literally. There is a point called Zero Mile in the heart of Nagpur, which is equidistant to every other end of the country. That is why its people say Nagpur’s heart beats for India but India’s heart beats at Nagpur! And only they know how to beat the heat, any day.