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Book excerpt: Amrita Shah explores Ahmedabad's changeable character

Amrita Shah's exploration of Ahmedabad reveals its changeable character. This excerpt dwells on the resentments nurtured in its historic pols.

books Updated: May 30, 2015 14:45 IST
Hindustan Times
Ahmedabad,Ahmedabad; A City in the World,Sabarmati

Ahmedabad; A City in the World
Amrita Shah
Rs 499; 216 pages

Khadia is a middle-class locality… Despite its upper-caste, elite socio-economic profile it has a reputation for extreme volatility… Most instances of belligerence, which include rowdiness and stone-throwing, have been against law enforcement authorities, but the locality, the site of the first Jana Sangh office in Ahmedabad, also has a reputation for visiting violent attacks on Muslims.

The most prominent figure in Khadia is the local legislator Ashok Bhatt, its representative in the state assembly since 1975. I met Ashok Bhatt in May 1985 when I visited Ahmedabad to write about the protracted turbulence in the city: caste clashes had given way to Hindu-Muslim riots... Ninety-two cases of arson, fourteen murders, eleven attempts to murder, and a hundred incidents of rioting had been reported in just one week towards the end of April. In the fortnight preceding my arrival, an ugly confrontation had taken place between a company of the State Reserve Police and the residents of Khadia. ... A few days after the incident, one constable accompanying a team sent by the High Court to investigate these charges was waylaid and fatally stabbed and another was shot in a backlane.

Ashok Bhatt was named as an instigator in the killing of one of the policemen... Now, nearly three decades later, Ashok Bhatt is a grey eminence...

Quite flows the Sabarmati? The flooded river seen here flowing under the Nehru Bridge in Ahmedabad

Historians are not sure when and how the pol, the term given to the later style of community life that would become a distinctive and defining feature of the city, asserted itself. A pol comprises a cluster or several clusters of tightly packed houses connected by an internal network of labyrinthine lanes and fronted by a gate that could be shut at night, closing it off from the outside world...

Mohan and I are walking about in a maze making me feel I am participating in an elaborate subterfuge. This is guerilla territory. Everything is and is not... The houses, the streets here, are hard yet elastic. Unseen passageways provide a way out of cul de sacs. The rooftops packed close together are a parallel topography providing routes for transport of essentials and escape. This cunning, with which the outsider can be tricked and deceived, is also applied inwards for maintaining social norms, as I have seen, and to hide wealth from covetous eyes... It is a hamlet that can burst into life or curl into itself like a tortoise, preserving itself with this mercurial adaptability for hundreds of years.

'I can't bear Muslims,' Mohan is saying. 'It is from the beginning, this prejudice. I look over a wall and I see a topi and I feel sick! I smell that meat smell and I feel like vomiting. I can't bear it.' He looks ill indeed, a red flush climbing up his face. 'All of us in the pols feel this way. I tell my son also, any community is okay but not that!' Since 1969 when the first episode of large-scale communal violence exploded in the city, clashes between the two communities have been a routine occurrence. 'Anything can spark it off,' Mohan says, 'a fight over a kite, a scooter knocking against someone from the other community. A minor thing becomes major. For small things pebbles are thrown, tubelights are thrown. From the beginning we are taught that we can't tolerate.'

A provocation, a rumour, a news item can release a Hindu mob almost instantly into the treacherous porous streets where the police are scared to venture. 'We cover our faces with handkerchiefs and take the mob to the "border". At such times we forget that we could die. If you are stabbed you don't realize it because "they" [the Muslims] put something on their knives to numb the pain.' He shows me a scar from a cut on the side of his forehead. 'We pick up stones and start pelting. The police come and we run. We were afraid of the police. They would come in-between the two sides-then you can't do anything.' He continues without pausing or altering his tone. 'But in 2002 the police gave us licence for one day. And in the nine months of curfew that was declared at the time, there was sharing in the Hindu pols, money, food, even cigarettes over the rooftops!'

Mohan's protruding eyes are bright in his shiny face. 'From the time we were children this was our life. Ashok Bhatt would teach us how to throw stones. Any Khadia man can throw stones. We learnt how to loot shops. We learnt how to make bombs with our bare hands. We learnt to lift bodies. We never thought about becoming doctors or engineers. What we used to aspire to was to throw a stone at the red light on the police commissioner's car. We would talk about it endlessly and agree that whoever broke that light would be the champion among us. We thought the more we do this kind of thing, the more fame we would have. I ruined my career ...' I hear despondency in his voice, remorse over wasted time, and I am surprised by the glimmer of self-awareness, of introspection. Yet, as abruptly as he started on this unexpected train of thought he breaks off, seized by an uncontrollable fury that brings a flush to his face and reminds him that he cannot bear it.

*Ashok Bhatt was Speaker of the Gujrat Assembly when he died in 2010

First Published: May 30, 2015 14:31 IST