By: Zahir Janmohamed
Title – Ahmedabad: A City in the World
Author: Amrita Shah
Publihser: Bloomsbury India, Pages: 196, Price: Rs 499
Towards the end of Amrita Shah’s powerful new book Ahmedabad: A City in the World, she describes a man pushing his broken car across a busy intersection in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. “Nobody stops to let him pass. Nobody comes to help him,” Shah writes.
It is a theme Shah echoes throughout her slim, 196 page book: that Ahmedabad is a city of accomplices. Indeed, she even starts her book with a poem called Accomplices by the Chinese writer Bei Dao. Throughout her book, she returns to the subject of the 2002 Gujarat riots and to the city’s widespread acceptance of those events. In one scene, a Gujarati Hindu mother laments her son’s anti-Muslim views but justifies not correcting him, saying, “I cried…but.”
Shah observes: “‘But’ was as close to empathy as I could find in Ahmedabad.” It is a moving, important indictment of the city — and one of the few moments when Shah uses the first person pronoun. However, while Shah deserves praises for raising uncomfortable questions about Ahmedabad’s all too frequent acceptance of communal violence, I kept hoping she would go beyond this theme to uncover other aspects of the city: its quirks, its unique sense of humour, and its tremendous, diverse cast of characters, many of whom have nothing to do with 2002.
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This is Shah’s second book on Gujarat. Her first book profiled Ahmedabad’s Vikram Sarabhai, the man widely considered to be the father of India’s space program. Shah received a New India Foundation Fellowship for this book and much of her reporting dates from 2009 to 2010, when the idea of Narendra Modi becoming India’s prime minister still seemed far-fetched. Modi only makes brief appearances and it is one of the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
In her chapter on the Sabarmati riverfront project, for example, Shah examines the 12 km concrete promenade developed by the dynamic Ahmedabad architect Bimal Patel. The project was started before Modi came to power in Gujarat and Shah provides a lovely, albeit brief profile of Patel, but I do wish she had examined how Ahmedabad residents relate to this new space. Many youth in Ahmedabad view the riverfront as Modi’s crowning success, as the definitive proof of his ability to think big and to execute plans. However, when I ask the youth in Ahmedabad what they love about the riverfront, most admit that they have never visited the project. Ahmedabad, they tell me, deserves a place like this.
Why is that so many young people want their city to have things that they will likely never use? And what does this suggest about a pervasive mindset present across all classes and communities that Ahmedabad is a city that has never received its due? Shah does not explore this or even how the young in Ahmedabad have embraced Modi, which is a shame, given that the rise of Modi has filled many with an energy that has changed the tenor of the city.
Elsewhere, there were parts where I wanted Shah to push deeper into her reporting. She provides a description of the Muslims that live next a massive trash dump known as “Bombay Hotel”. Many of these residents came to the area after they were displaced during the 2002 riots and Shah describes what it is like to live, to paraphrase American novelist Toni Morrison, on the edges of a town that cannot bear your name. But Shah does not discuss how many of the area’s Muslim residents were duped into their subpar housing by Muslim NGOs and the Congress party, both of which continue to provide false promises to the Bombay Hotel residents until today.
Mostly, though, I wanted Shah’s book to be longer. I would have loved a section on how women in Ahmedabad, like SEWA’s Ela Bhatt or the Old City Jewish poet Esther David, have at times pushed back on the city’s narrative of itself and created spaces for women and for marginalised sections of society.
However, what remains absolutely delightful about Shah’s book is her poetic writing style and incredible power of description. I found myself re-reading parts of her book, especially her insights on Ahmedabad’s history, which she brilliantly distills in a few stunning pages. Her prose carries emotion without feeling forced and maudlin.
She ends with a postscript called ‘The Kite’, a chapter so powerful that it is worth reading this book for this alone. It is a simple story — a boy flies a kite which falls to the ground. Like much of the book, it is rich with symbolism. Why does the traffic race past, Shah wonders.
I read this book wanting an exhaustive tale of Ahmedabad. It is not. It is an examination of a city’s complacency. In the end, this may be the best thing about Shah’s book: she has created a mirror for Ahmedabad to look at itself, warts and all.
Zahir Janmohamed is a freelance writer based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.