The soul of a city

The soul of a city

Lead review

The soul of a city

This is the work of a miniaturist, who by definition is an artist whose speciality is small discrete works. Esther Davis is a miniaturist describing the city she grew up in, accompanied by exquisite hand-drawn, — almost like etchings of the city’s foibles, chosen for their unusual environments. Her admiration and acknowledgement of the impact of Ahmedabad on her life comes through.

Although in some of her earlier books such as The Walled City of Ahmedabad, the background imbues the novel with a historical sense, in this book, entitled Ahmedabad, City with a Past, the city itself forms the essence. She narrates history not necessarily in chronological order, but as parts of the atmosphere defining a trade, architecture, some communities, festivals and incidents of momentous and divisive nature such as the Godhra tragedy and the Kutch earthquake.

Comparisons are subtly delineated as in the opening chapter, between the House of Glass called Zen, built with glass walls brought in from China with every room having chairs for pain relief, (Why the stress anticipation??) and the house in Delhi Gate where the author grew up, with memories that flow and intersect with her life. There is a paen to the dining table, which was the fulcrum of life around which the family gathered in good days and bad, a table which could not get the polishing it needed, as “there was no time when it was not being used.”

Invariably, there is comparison of the shopping world — the malls and the small shops selling variegated goods such as vessels of varying shapes and sizes, locks; Ahmedabadian food such as snacks like farsan (made of chickpeas), mukhvas (mouth fresheners), bedsheet bazaar, cloth merchants, paper goods or kagdiwad (to me the names are equally exotic and evocative), a rafoo master who could do delicate and fastidious darning, talismans in different shapes and sizes embossed with the organs of the body, which are made and donated as a form of thanksgiving to dargahs. And the list goes on.

One gets the impression that were it not known for the other distinguishing assets of the city such as the Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati or the textile museum or Sarkhej, Ahmedabad would be one huge market known for the unusual that gets bartered. Apart from the usual fruit and flowers and vegetables, Ahmedabad encourages craft and craftsmen; pottery; the rat traps of all sizes, which is a mindblower, presided over by a chuhemarnewalaa chacha (the uncle who kills rat); the Sunday market on the banks of the Sabarmati where one can get everything, from a monitor lizard to antiques to brassware to goats; to recycled clothes to out-of-print books to old coins.

Food deserves a special mention in this book: samosas, thalis, the chicken and mutton dishes, and something I had not known before — the city is the ice cream capital of India.
Religion and festivals are dealt with delicately and even-handedly, and yet there is no whitewashing, no wallowing, no analysing. The riots are mentioned, but not dealt with comprehensively and I understand the author’s intent. This is a description of the city’s past, and if she sounds a little wistful when describing the walled city as it was in her childhood, it is with reason. There are the tazzias of Muharram, which a Hindu family has been making for 80 years, and who join in the funeral songs sung at that time; the two pols named after goats — Bakra pol inhabited by Hindus, and Bakri pol by Muslims with henna patterns on the animals to distinguish ownership! And there is a walking saint, a coughing saint, a laughing saint and a talking saint, who is more like a speech therapist.

Yes, there were differences, but they were never violently divisive. Due importance has been given to the Sarkhej Roza, the stepwells, the shaking minarets and the Gandhi Ashram. The author insists that while the character of the city changes, its essence doesn’t — an observation I would like to be applied to a number of cities whose inhabitants bemoan changes. At the moment, she says that there no walls, but gates which create “illusionary walls within the city”.

In her previous book, The Walled City, the writer emphasises the story of a Jewish family, its ups and downs with a wry sense of humour. It is all about a section of its people. The style is easy, inviting the reader into her world.

An almost perfect book; I personally miss a description of the different of communities which make up a city, but I am nitpicking. This is a book which beckons one to Ahmedabad, with the book in one’s back-pocket or handbag .

Esther David
Harper Collins
2016, pp 139, Rs 275