First in a series of unique vacation experiences from insti students. Vaishali Prasad is a second year Humanities student.
The heavily jeweled, profusely sweating Gujarati shopkeeper glared at us. ‘Panch so se kam nahi, madam’, she barked. ‘Le lo ya chhod do’.
Like most other middle aged Gujarati women, she had covered her head with a portion of her brightly coloured saree. Her thick silver anklets, nose-rings and chunky earrings that cut through her earlobe stared at us. And like many other tribal women, she had tattooed her arm, also flowing with bangles. She was a sight to see and a force to reckon with.
‘Discount-viscount nahi de sakthe hai hum’ she repeated. ‘High quality hai ye. Kuttch ki bandhini.’
Maybe it was her defiant nature, maybe it was the lethal summer sun that pierced through the sky at four in the evening. Or maybe it was just Law Garden, that magical place full of pretty clothes, shiny bangles, great food and other necessities of life. But at that moment, I fell in love with this walled city, the heart of Gujarat.
The month of summer, people said, isn’t the best time to be in Ahmedabad. The mercury hits the forty degree mark and the mornings suck every molecule of water from your body. And of course, they said, the best time to be in Ahmedabad is during Navratri, the festival of the famed dandiya raas, and Lakshmi Puja celebrations. Navratri is to Gujarat what Durga Puja is to West Bengal and Onam to Kerala.
Nevertheless, the two times I’ve been to Ahmedabad – both in May, and both for two weeks or so – were the best times I’ve ever spent in a city apart from my own. I’ve never really been much of a traveler, and perhaps I’m an uncooperative one, the one who trudges through forts and monuments sullen and unenthused. I’ve always preferred a quiet laidback holiday and spending hours on sight-seeing have irritated me to no end. So it came as quite a surprise when I declared, in no little words, my love for this city.
Ahmedabad, or Amdavad, as it commonly called, is the largest city of Gujarat. The former capital city, the judicial seat of Gujarat, the financial capital of Gujarat, the fastest growing city of India according to the Forbes magazine…there are no end to the accolades heaped on this city. Yet, there is something tempered about it all, a subdued, quiet nod of appreciation for the erstwhile ‘Manchester of the East’, not a thundering applause from an exalted audience. Ahmedabad probably doesn’t enjoy the cult status of a Mumbai or a Chennai, or Kerala even. It has certainly figured in the black board of History, playing a key role in the Indian Independence movement and witnessing the birth of the Mahatma. It has witnessed its fair share of chaos, an earthquake in 2001 and riots in 2002. Yet this city manages to remain comfortably tucked in the corner of this country, snug in its own place and satisfied in its uncertain popularity.
This particularly hit me when I wandered through Jamalpur, Ahmedabad’s mellowed version of T Nagar if I may. It was a typical market with many street vendors selling shiny kurtis, trinkets, chaniya cholis, and of course the famed mirror work cushion covers. There were men selling spices, khakras, peanuts and other snacks on push carts and everyone was busy. It was a typical post-lunch afternoon, some hustle and bustle, some busy buying, some aggressively selling and the city humming in productivity even as the sun blazed through the sky. The city was so full of life, yet there was something peaceful about this liveliness, something I could never find in Mumbai’s Fashion Street, for instance. It was at moments like these I loved the city so much, in ways I could never understand, never explain.
Of course, I didn’t land on Ahmedabad on the fourth of May 2010 to ‘discover myself’ or give myself to any such metaphysical pursuits. I landed in Ahmedabad with an Express Purpose, a Mission and a Vision, to buy A Chaniya Choli. Having grown up on a staple diet of Hindi movies, I had set my heart on getting myself a blue chaniya choli, aka Preity Zinta in Kal Ho Na Ho, or a purple one, aka Madhuri Dixit’s in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Unfortunately in Chennai, the chaniya choli concept hasn’t really caught on (Why wear a chaniya choli anyway when you can wear a pattu pavaadai?) and the only ones I could spot were the awfully loud and disconcerting Spencer Plaza ones or the fancy ‘boutique’ ones, where the price of the chaniya-choli was inversely proportional to the length of the chaniya. Thus, when my large-hearted aunt in Ahmedabad offered to put up with us for a week or three, visions of mirror worked shiny Kutch style Chaniya Cholis floated through my mind. It was Time to Shop and Shop Like There Was No Tomorrow.
And boy, did we shop. There are two things you ought to do when you are in Ahmedabad – eat and shop, and if you miss out on any one, you ought to be shaken up and packed in the next train to the Kathiawar Peninsula. My Quest for The Chaniya Choli Which Was Not Very Gaudy But Still Elegant, Not Very Pricey And Not Too Immodest was intertwined with our travels through Ahmedabad and its neighboring cities, and took us through the various gullies of this city, tiny shops hidden at corners of paan spittled lanes, big shops, emporiums, handlooms, Kutch showrooms and what-not. And along our journey we bought pretty kurtis, shiny bangles, jholna bags which would make your heart skip a beat just looking at them and lots and lots of chaat. But The Chaniya-Choli evaded us.
Not everyone was happy with this shopping expedition, though. My little sister for instance, who toted a Frisbee wherever we went, was bitterly disappointed when we informed her that we intended to shop in Law Garden. ‘But its Law Garden!’ she wailed. ‘What else can one do in a Garden, than play?’
A lot, I soon discovered, happens in this deceivingly peaceful city. The Ahmedabad Mirror, a regular at any self respecting Ahmedabadi household splashes scandal through its pages, a perfect accompaniment for your morning coffee. ‘You Eat This!’ one headline screamed, proceeded by an article on how pani-puris at food joints are stuffed with rotten potatoes and how customers at the joint when the raid was conducted had no complaints, and as the Mirror reported rather piteously, ‘were hogging merrily.’
We all did hog, in this haven of vegetarian food. From Induben Khakrawalas to Rajwadu, we hopped merrily from one restaurant to another, savoured countless Gujarati thaalis and drank jugfuls of thandaai and aamras. And not to forget the local specialties, Amul and Havmor ice-cream. Food, like pretty much everything else is surprisingly inexpensive in Ahmedabad and the rich, creamy ice creams are especially to die for.
The American writer James Michener once said, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” This and another question constantly irked me – was I a tourist or a traveler? And is the only way to experience a place is to cover all its monuments – from the Famous Temples to the Historic Pillars? I don’t know. Of course, I played the role of a dutiful tourist – I visited the Sabarmati Ashram, the ornate Akshardham Temple, Science City, the Teen Darwaza, and yet my heart didn’t quite leap out in joy in any of these places. How does one soak up all that Ahmedabad has to offer – with an Itinerary in hand and print-outs of all the ‘popular scenic’ attractions in the city? Or perhaps, just let one’s feet wander through the streets without a mission in mind, drink an early morning chai and watch the city, its homes, its people, its tiny dukaans wake up languorously to a fervid day?
I stayed in Ahmedabad for around three weeks or so, much of it spent in enjoying some time with my family, reading, eating and shopping. It has been nearly six months now and somehow, a tiny bit of my heart has been lost in that place, somewhere near Shahibagh, near the Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium.Perhaps at that ‘carnival night’ at the stadium, a cultural programme where school students danced to Hindi film songs and a compere tried very hard to make the audience laugh. Or maybe at Rajwadu where we drowned tumblers and tumblers of chaas and stumbled our way through our Gujurati thali dinner under the night sky. Perhaps, Inshallah, I’ll visit that city again, devoid of ennui, apprehension and method, only to throw myself into the arms of this seductive city. I’d visit the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, attend the music festival in January and the famous Kite Festival. And perhaps I’d wear my bargained- and-bought-at-forty-percent-less-at-Law Garden chaniya choli to the Dandiya celebrations in October. When I do, I’ll let the city, as Pico Iyer said, whirl me around, turn me upside down and let everything I took for granted stand on its head.
Editor’s note: T5E welcomes you to recount your own travel experiences during vacations. Mail us your story: t5e.iitm [at] gmail.com