Good, Ahmedabad, worse

Amrita Shah captures post-2002 Ahmedabad in a series of brilliant cameos.

Today, the city as an imagination is central to Indian thought. The village has receded as a model, an ideal. In understanding the city, one must accept that sociologists have not captured its canvas. Patrick Geddes, the Scottish sociologist, might have mapped the contours of the Indian city in early 20th century, but when it comes to urban imagination, whether Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata or Mumbai, the journalist has somehow caught the essence of each city. Amrita Shah’s Ahmedabad is part of this genre of achievement. Unlike sociologists caught in the pigeonholes of modernity or playing host to the ghosts of the past, to scholars such as Georg Simmel, Max Weber, Robert Park or Ernest Burgess, journalists tell it like it is. This realist theory of the city as a lived entity, innovating at every movement, captured the city as a contemporary-piece ethnography.

Shah is a cosmopolitan journalist who captures the city of Ahmedabad in a series of cameo performances. She writes brilliantly and she listens carefully and as a result the city and its citizens unfold graphically before the reader’s eye. Her prose is compressed but not yet Haiku-like, so what we have is a series of vignettes, collaged brilliantly together. One can smell and taste the city as Shah moves like a flaneur through it. Yet one wishes the book were longer because details sometime provide nuance, ambiguity and a sense of the tensions of the city. It gives you more evidence so that the readers can make up their mind. For such insights, one has to turn to the work of the Dutch sociologist, Jan Breman. For a quicker, compact work, one reads Shah’s Ahmedabad.

In many ways, the book is written like a travelogue, a walk, or a scooter ride through the city. Lens merges with kaleidoscope to create moments of wonderful insight. Haunting the book and, in fact, any book on Ahmedabad is the 2002 riots. The Gujarat carnage is almost a meta event capturing an Ur-city, a metaphysical story of the nature of urban dynamics.

Shah begins by creating almost an everydayness around events. It is a shrewd tactic because it routinises the event, locates it between everydayness and crisis, memory and erasure. She begins with the simple story of Meraj, the tailor, and ends with it. With this, she is able to capture the fact that Hindus and Muslims lived in comradeship that was deep, and that within the alleys of the city such interactions captured the freedom and pluralism of Ahmedabad. Shah shows how the riot has torn such friendships to shreds. She captures moments of joy and leisure before one confronts the eventual loneliness and separation that the 2002 riots have created in the city.

In a strategic move, Shah locates the book between two great events-the riots and the slow decay of the city with the death of the textile industry. She is poignant on both and in fact tries to dispel myths, especially the one that the decline of textiles set the stage for 2002. She explores the longue duree of time between them and shows this led to other narratives and choices. To mechanically link the two events might be tempting but it destroys the complexity of urban causation.

Shah writes almost like an impressionistic painter, capturing the history of the city, its ecology between sea and desert. She chronicles the imagination of the Nagar seths, business leaders who created the dynamism of the city, pollinated it with ideas of Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier and John Cage in a strange blend of the modern and innovatively traditional. One senses continuities between Shah’s earlier book on Vikram Sarabhai and the chapters on business leadership in this one.

Mahatma Gandhi shadows the book, and Shah is deft on his impact on the city, whether it is in her descriptions of Gujarat Vidyapith or in her quick forays into trade unionism. Ahmedabad, she shows, is a city haunted by memory. In many ways, she shows, the city is a symbolic construction, a weave of many traditions that politics today is trying to simplify. Shah is insightful in her attempts to describe how politicians are trying to exorcise the Islamic origins of the city.

Yet for someone who is a realist, she suddenly turns coy, especially in her reading of urban renewal. Her attempts to talk of architect Bimal Patel and the Sabarmati riverfront are not complete. There are silences that are intriguing. She refers to Patel as a person who studied under Manuel Castells and David Harvey but these names serve as good conduct certificates, tokens rather than elaborations of the riverfront controversy. Partly, this is a result of reducing every event to an equal cameo, whereas in storytelling some events are more equal than others. Despite this, Ahmedabad is a thoughtful, well-crafted book, a welcome addition to the growing literature on cities. Shrewd, tough, topical and anecdotal, its style is almost symbolic of the city Shah captures so joyously and creatively.

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