My train pulled into Kota station from Mumbai at about half-past seven in the morning, almost 20 minutes before schedule. So I sat on one of the benches on the station platform, people-watching until the car I had rented was due to arrive.
I had come to Kota to do a story on how and why it had become such a huge hub for coaching classes. But I was also curious to see how economic change was transforming small towns culturally. With a population of about 1.5 million, Kota would count as a small town, at least by Mumbai’s standards.
The platform had the usual mix of people. But what was striking were the gaggle of teenage girls, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, wandering about. What was even more striking was that no one, including a clutch of villagers dressed in white kurtas and dhotis and bright red turbans, seemed to think their presence there was strange or their attire worthy of even a glance. It was clear they were students who had enrolled in one of the town’s coaching classes and were going home. Later, I saw them all over the town, at ease and dressed like any Mumbai teenager. They seemed to have become part of Kota’s backdrop.
That was the first pleasant surprise during my three-day stay there. I admit it may have been a surprise in the first place because of my clichéd notions of small-town India. But I am not a complete ignoramus when it comes to small towns. Until a decade ago, I used to travel regularly through the small towns in Maharashtra. And the only way I wouldn’t have stood out then was by wearing Indian clothes. Things have changed.
Also, I visit or at least pass small towns in south India almost every year. More recently, I travelled through Gujarat while visiting my brother-in-law. At none of these places did I notice teenaged girls, let alone ones dressed in jeans and T-shirts, wandering about alone early in the morning — or at any other time for that matter — in public places. This, I realised later, was just one example of how the new had blended with the old in this ancient town.
I spent a lot of time at the big coaching classes, trying to understand what made students from all over India come there. Clearly, the sector was a huge success. With their glass-skinned buildings and fully air-conditioned classrooms, they wore this success on their sleeves. What was surprising was how the traditional industries in Kota continued to thrive. Take the Kota stone industry. I spent a few hours at the industrial estate where the mined stones are cut. The estate did not look impressive or modern. Camels were pulling carts piled up with stones, and the roads criss-crossing the workshops were unpaved.
But sitting in his high-ceilinged tractor showroom in the estate, Anil Mundra, 40, said that sales had been growing every year, spurred by the construction boom throughout the country.
Out of the 40 crore square feet of limestone mined each year, about 85 per cent is sold within India, while the rest is exported. It was a profitable business, he said. It had been on the verge of collapse until 15 years ago, when the sector adapted a diamond-splitting machine for slicing the Kota stone. That had reduced wastage enormously, Mundra said. Now the sector had also diversified into sandstone, which was in great demand in Europe.
Mundra, the second-generation Marwari businessman, was optimistic about Kota’s future. With the completion of major road projects under way, the town could become a tourist hub, he said, surrounded as it was by the picturesque Bundi hills, the Chambal river and Ranthambore Sanctuary, just 100 km away.
The Kota saree industry was also doing well, both weavers and traders told me. I spent a few hours in Kaithoon, a village close to the town, where most of the Kota sarees are woven by Muslim weavers. After making a few inquiries, I learnt that Mullaji Behari was the man to meet. He was the intermediary between the traders in Kota town and the weavers in the village. Almost every home has a loom, and many women also weave. A young man, Insaf Hussain, 36, who had come to see Behari, said he was a full-time designer, coming up with new patterns and thinking of more efficient ways to weave them.
“Demand fluctuates over the year,” said the soft-spoken Behari. “But it hasn’t changed much over the past decade.”
Back in Kota, the traders in the shops located within the old walled city, who buy from Kaithoon’s weavers, were more gung-ho. “Not only is demand from all over India increasing, but local sales have also risen given the coaching class sector,” said Govind Goyal, whose shop is located at the entrance of Behru Gully, which is lined with saree shops. He said the parents visiting students who had moved to Kota to study often came to his shop.
I went to Kota, partly expecting friction, if not a predictable clash, between the old and new. What I experienced was a quietly productive town, the old gently persisting, making place for the new, yet neither being threatened nor awed by it.