Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad

The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad

Edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Penguin India
ISBN 0-14-310118-8
331pp. Indian Rs395

Compiled and edited by poet and litterateur Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad is a collection of writings on Allahabad from the Chinese traveller, Hsiuan Tsiang in the 7th century down to more recent times. Among those whose writings appear in the anthology are Ghalib, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Jawaharlal Nehru and his niece, Nayantara Sahgal.

The book drips with nostalgia as evoked in the Introduction by the descendants of the Parsis and Bengalis, who recall the bittersweet memories of the bygone days. The excerpts from travel narratives, letters, diaries, books and some essays written for the occasion, provide varied accounts of the city and its inhabitants over the centuries.

Situated at the confluence of the three holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible Sarasvati, Allahabad (pronounced and written in the vernaculars as Ilahabad) has been one of the important centres of Hindu pilgrimage from ancient times to this day.

But while its status as a holy place remained constant, its worldly fortunes fluctuated. When Hsiuan Tsiang visited, it was the seat of a Buddhist raja. Emperor Akbar gave it its present name. A Jama Masjid and Khusro Bagh were built later. There was another break when the East India Company built a fort there. But it catapulted into real fame after the Mutiny, when the seat of the North West province was shifted from Agra to Allahabad and Lord Canning was sworn in as the first viceroy.

Soon, many Bengalis and Parsis gravitated to Allahabad to seek their fortune, besides barristers such as Syed Mahmood and Motilal Nehru. Allahabad also became the headquarters of some of the most famous Indian publications, such as the Modern Review, the Probasi (Bengali), the Saraswati (Hindi), and the Pioneer newspaper.

Later Motilal Nehru’s mansion, Anand Bhawan, became famous as a centre of political activity as well as Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthplace.

Fanny Parkes’s ‘Wanderings of a Pilgrim’ is a detailed account of Allahabad in the mid-19th century — the weather, the goats, her garden and house, the great fair, descriptions of the people and the fascinating method of manufacturing ice. The most amusing part of her account, however, is the list of 57 servants and the wages each one was paid, totaling Rs290 a month, all considered indispensable to the comfort of the sahib and his family. As she writes: “We, as quiet people, find these servants necessary.”

The extract from Rudyard Kipling’s autobiography concerns his stint at the Pioneer. But Edmonia Hill’s diary throws more light on his stay at Allahabad and provides a critical appreciation of his writings. “Mr Kipling’s characters as a rule have some foundation in real life,” she says, and goes on to identify characters from some of his works. She also gives the background to his short story ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’.

Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Nayantara Sahgal tell of a privileged upbringing. Sahgal’s account of developing headaches on Sunday nights, to avoid school on Monday, will bring a knowing smile to many faces.

The writings provide glimpses from history and specimens of fine literary prose. There is also a large repertoire of interesting anecdotes, such as Bishop Heber’s description of the Ram Lila, and Fanny Parkes’ reference to how the ‘natives’ pushed cholera back and forth between Allahabad and Lucknow.

Those curious to know what is Kumbh, as well as the origin of the Kumbh Mela that is at the core of Allahabad’s importance, Kama MacLean’s ‘On the modern Kumbh Mela’ will be found most insightful.

Allahabad is now facing another migration that is in sharp contrast to the first that was in the 19th century. The last ushered an era of intellectual profundity; this one has brought material profanity and a sharp decline in its old glory. Pankaj Mishra, who studied there between 1985 and 1988, provides a picture of a university now that is far different from the past; ridden with violence, absenteeism, of students living with “a sense of futility and doom”. Today there is a display of wealth but no refinement. As Meher Dhondy, 75, whispered to her rickshaw-wallah, when a modern Toyota with a neta type owner blocked her gate and would not budge, “Their ill-gotten money can buy these people cars, but no amount of money will buy them good breeding.”

And finally, Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s, ‘Sex and the Small Town’ has some really juicy Hindi expressions which will draw laughter, but at the same time it confirms the anarchy that now reigns in the educational institutions in Allahabad. — S.G. JILANEE

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