It is hard to see a city of yore transform into something you did not grow up with. Ephia Yasmin writes from London, about the loss of Assam type houses from the landscape of valley city Guwahati, local shops giving way to supermarkets, and more
I jumped at the prospect of writing about Guwahati but when I actually took pen to paper (fingers to keyboard, if you must know the truth), I struggled to find the right tone. There was so much to write about. Nostalgia was one trap I did not want to fall into. Whilst, I do moan about the lack of civic amenities and the utter chaos of traffic and mushrooming concrete monstrosities, I did not want to fall into the trap of mal du siècle either.
Having had the good fortune of traveling to quite a few cities, round India and abroad, I inevitably make comparisons. What follows is not an erudite treatise but a personal account of what I love or mourn about the city which is home.
I know I am approaching Guwahati, when the brown, arid land I see below suddenly changes into green. The glistening, sinuous Brahmaputra, the cluster of tin roofed houses, the banana and beetle nut trees, all create a wonderful visage. No matter how many times, I see this vision, it never fails to stir that warm fuzzy feeling of being home. The road from the airport into the heart of the city takes you through Guwahati University- a sprawling complex still full of heritage buildings, Assam type houses and lots of green spaces. Most higher education institutions in Guwahati are located in very picturesque locations. The Guwahati Medical College, my alma mater sits proudly on Narakaxur hill. Many evenings were spent looking at the city lights from those heights when I really should have been studying. A city located in the valley of one of the largest rivers of the world and surrounded by luscious hills all round surely has a lot going for it; unless we decide in our wanton desire to build, to deface it.
You wouldn’t think Guwahati was a friendly or safe city if you judge by the news of irresponsible and uncivilized behaviour of its denizens, you get from time to time. But to every such incident are many more instances of humanity, civility and kindness extended not just to friends but to strangers as well. I have two examples (out of may more) to share with you. The last time I was home, I wanted to get in touch with friends from school. With a combination of the internet social network and the old trustworthy phone, I contacted two friends and within 48 hours, I was in a restaurant with 16 school mates who I hadn’t seen for more than 2 decades! The next day, one of them, a busy mum of 3 came home with a special something. A framed picture of us. The other instance, involves strangers. A friend and I were sitting at a dentist’s and we got talking to an elderly couple. My friend who loves tea was very interested in going to a ‘tea garden’ to look at the entire ‘outside the tea- pot’ process of tea-making. We got talking about various things and this wish got a mention. The elderly gentleman, rang his son who was in the tea business and arranged for us to go to a Garden. When we got there, we who were complete strangers were received by the owner, treated to lunch and taken round the garden. This may not be unique to Guwahati, nonetheless it was a pretty unique gesture.
The other instance, involves strangers. A friend and I were at a dentist’s. We got talking to an elderly couple. My friend who loves tea was interested in visiting a ‘tea garden’ to look at the entire ‘outside the tea- pot’ process of tea-making. We got talking about various things and mentioned the wish. The elderly gentleman, rang his son who was in the tea business and arranged for us to go to a garden. When we got there, we who were complete strangers were received by the owner, treated to lunch and taken round the garden. This may not be unique to Guwahati, but it was unique nevertheless.
Back in the day, we kids did not have sophisticated toys to play with or places to go. One of the trips I used to look forward to was going to the market with one or both of my parents. The colours of the fruit all stacked up in the fruit stalls, the smell of ripe fruit, the green of the vegetables, the aroma of spices, neatly contained in gunny sacks, the chaos of the fish market and the cacophony of haggling all served to create a phantasmogoria of sight, sound and smell which thrilled me then and continues to thrill me now.
The one trip I always try to fit into my itinerary when I am in Guwahati is a trip to the Beltola market. This is the place to go to when you want to cook that meal grandma used to cook. This is not the clinical, soulless experience of shopping inside a concrete complex with fluorescent lighting and spindly, sad looking vegetables packaged and price marked. It is like going to an exhibition, to discover, to find and to interact. I note with some sadness, that independent markets in Guwahati are on the wane and the ‘supermarkets’ have commenced their invasion. Having spoken with some of the ladies selling fruit and veg, I was alarmed that ‘middlemen’ have entered the scene and many independent farmers do not get space in these markets to sell their produce. Agents buy mass produced insipid produce and try to sell them off as the real McCoy. I do hope that our old shopping habits of turning vegetables over, prodding them and haggling for prices will remain and independent markets will be saved.
The small and the beautiful
Three abiding memories of when I was in school was waiting for the school bus in front of the Dol-Dop bakery, going to Assam Business Machines (ABM) for our new books before the start of term and going to the local clothes shop called Darjeeling Stores for new uniforms. These were all small independent businesses and 2 of them are still going strong. The smell of fresh bread emanating from the Bakery every morning made the trip to school less miserable on a Monday morning. The excitement of queuing in front of ABM to collect my new books and lovingly cover them with brown paper and write my name in my best handwriting has very few parallels. It may have had something to do with the Enid Blyton that I could harass my parents into buying at the same time. Then the trip to Darjeeling Stores for a new shirt meant I looked forward to staring in the new Class. I made a pilgrimage to Darjeeling Stores a few months ago. The owner looked exactly the same as he did all those years ago and I was so happy to see that he had expanded his business to add a couple of units. To make matters even better, he recognised me! Sorry, I just got carried away, there. It is such a lovely feeling to see small, independent businesses thriving and staving off competition from superstores. The so-called wheel of progress does threaten to bulldoze small businesses but of we would like Guwahati to retain its soul we have to patronise them and keep them viable.
Whilst I celebrate many aspects of Guwahati, I do mourn the demise of some.
In Guwahati, at least in many families I know, one of the first requests kids make is not the Nintendo DS but a bicycle. Maybe I am not moving in the right circles, but never mind. We hardly see any bicycles on the streets. I remember very fondly how I used to ride the bicycle to school with my father. He used to take it to work as well. The bicycle seems to have been banished from the streets of Guwahati or forced into retirement. It has lost its street-cred, so to speak. Maybe Guwahati can look to Imphal for inspiration.
If you are looking for ‘cool, then look at Bradley Wiggins, the Tour de France winner and Olympic Gold medallist. He is the epitome of cool! Indeed, all cool cities of the world encourage the bicycle. That you save money and the environment at the same time whilst staying fit should be a no-brainer, really!
The Assam Type Houses
For those old enough to remember, the ubiquitous Assam type house was one of the most striking features of Guwahati- wooden beams, tin or thatch roof and a verandah. It was weather conditioned (cool in summer, warm in winter), earthquake proof and very pretty to look at. The demand for more housing and the building of the RCC structures, led to the demise of the Assam type house and Guwahati is poorer for it.
My quest for a nice place for my parents to live in led me to a high rise. The deal-maker was that I could see hills all round which I know is a luxury in Guwahati. I looked at them with a smile on my face and a warm feeling in my heart, imagining my parents sitting in the balcony watching the sun rise and set. But I could not shake the fear that that the view will not last-It will probably be blighted by other high rises or the hills will disappear into the backs of trucks…
So there, I think I have gone on long enough. I hope I have neither eulogized nor condemned Guwahati. All I have shown is some soppy love which is what I have for the city of my youth.