If an autobiography is the sum of all that the writer chooses to reveal about life and pontifications about lessons learned and ideals (not) often followed, a biography must then be the perception of all that the subject chooses to reveal and (not) follow, etc. What might a city reveal then, if it were a biography of a city, I wonder. More so if the city is fraught with a chequered history and it is trying to cultivate a certain image divorced from its popular narrative. The dichotomies these attempts pose are what Amrita Shah tackles in Ahmedabad.
Ahmedabad would have been just another industry town in the country. But of course it is not. Though it teems with mills—most shut—and diamond merchants—subject to vagaries of the global economy—Ahmedabad is, more than anything else, Modi’s old playground. By that measure itself, Ahmedabad gives up its status of just another city. “Saheb”, as Shah says everyone calls Modi, still Gujarat’s CM at the time she was working on the book, is omnipresent. “The chief minister, perennially omniscient, articulate and full of righteous anger against the enemies of the state…” is a brand, an image, a hero, a celebrity—and how so is strewn throughout the book in Shah’s interviews with a multitude of people.
Try as law and memory might, the city’s history is inerasably tied with the riots, in eerie simplicity referred merely as ‘2002’. It may no longer be politically desirable to rake up old tales in the vibrant environs of the state any more, but this elephant in the room is tackled head on by Shah at the very beginning. Meraj, an embroiderer she befriends, is one of the thousands whose lives and entire social structures changed after ‘2002’. He crops up in the book often, like a leitmotif, a name among the nameless many whose lives irrevocably changed.In her reading of a city that is as rigid within its old time prejudices as it strives to be at the forefront of cosmopolitanism and glitzy new infrastructure, Shah devotes a large chunk of her book to the working class, stories from the old, forsaken mills and the views from the ‘old city’ on the other side of the river. The posh people—rich merchants, the power holders—make but fleeting appearances. In speaking of the lesser spoken about, in telling the stories of those who the victors would rather ignore, Shah evokes a powerful picture of a city divided by its uneasy past and its genuine desire to forgive, if not altogether forget.
Shah’s biography of this contradictory city—as the case may be with most cities—is peppered generously with a journalistic observation of everything she sees along the way, and around the people she interviews—a woman’s prayer, a flight of a bird, a curling path, and descriptions of modest structures that are “inserted like doorstops into niches.” In doing so, she breaks what would otherwise easily have been a monologue of history as seen through the eyes of her interviewees or alternatively, these people seen through one version of history that is chosen to be narrated.
‘2002’ is never absent though. “…‘but’ was as close to empathy as I was to find in Ahmedabad,” says Shah. She finds the consensus “enormous, vicious and forceful”. She hints at a state of denial in some, and a state of self-doubt in others. It is an uneasy reality, but perhaps the only practical way of making peace with what happened.
In staying largely along this course of inquiry, Shah’s Ahmedabad lays bare a city that understands how it must find its way ahead, however uncomfortable stepping on bones might be.