Staring at the cracks
In that intricate stone screen—Siddi Sayyed ni jali
Those days of leaping carefree into the Sabarmati
Are long gone
The new road to Gandhinagar
Races toward Sardar Patel Airport
Seated on the parapet around Kankaria Lake
I tell a young runaway couple from Marwad
That there was once a king—Mohamedshah Begda—
Who saw a dog being chased by a rabbit
He turned around right then
And built this city
Now that dog hunts for that rabbit
Right from Dhal ni pol to Madari ni pol
And finally, panting, reaches Usmanpura
Its tongue wagging
expelling a noxious cloud
like a Calico Mills chimney that’s suddenly sprung to life
In Bhatiyar Lane
Shocked at the indeterminate lines
Has forgotten to thank the Lord
Now she wakes up with a jolt
And sings Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye
her voice off-key
The Rajdhani, caught
quite unaware at Kalupur,
without looking back
Translator’s note: Ahmedabad is a thriving, modern megacity in Gujarat, India. The city boasts of civil construction characteristic of a modern city—flyovers, malls, shiny glass and concrete towers etc., and it is home to several world-class institutes of higher learning.
But this is also a city with a rich, diverse past. It proudly bears the imprints of different dynasties that have ruled over it from time to time. Beyond the Hindu, Muslim, and Maratha dynasties and the British colonial rulers, there were also the Siddis, descendants of shipwrecked Africans, who bequeathed an intricate and famous carved stone screen (referenced here as Siddi Sayyed ni jali) to the city.
Gandhinagar is the political and bureaucratic capital of the state of Gujarat and half an hour’s drive from Ahmedabad. Along that highway, there’s also an international airport. The poet makes reference to this to remind us of the international and political status of Ahmedabad.
In the next verse, the poet references a well-known story about a king who spotted a hare being chased by a dog while he (the king) was on a hunting expedition. Instead of running off or hiding, the hare turned around and stood his ground rather aggressively, forcing the confused and fearful dog to flee. Marveling at this new place where even the hares were so heroic, the king decided to establish his capital there. The poet describes that the dog has been haunting the city’s storied streets and bylanes ever since in search of that hare. This dog-hare rivalry is, perhaps, also a sly allusion to the long-running communal discord in those particular parts of the city.
In the early twentieth century, Ahmedabad was a rich city because of its cotton mills. These cotton mills and soaring chimneys gave it the title of “Manchester of the East.” But these mills have been silent for long and the land was sold off as expensive real estate. In the poet’s imagination, one such mill, the Calico, suddenly springs to life.
Besides being the capital of rulers from many dynasties over centuries, Ahmedabad is also home to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram (on the banks of the Sabarmati River, which is referenced also). This is a place that many still hold sacred as the home of the “father of the nation” who led India’s independence from the British.
Despite its wealth and rich history, Ahmedabad has been deeply scarred by communal clashes. Ever since the terrible Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002 when thousands were killed across Gujarat and especially in this city, the community has become even more divided between “us” and “them”. The fear of mobs, uprisings, and genocide keeps many awake at night. One such insomniac is an old woman who is fearful for her lies and mumbles a line from Gandhiji’s favorite and still-revered prayer, “Vaishnav jan toh tene re kahiye,” late into the night.
Against this entire backdrop, the Rajdhani, a series of passenger trains connecting India’s capital city of Delhi with the capitals or large cities of other states, whistles in the dead of night and seeks to escape as fast as it can.
© Bharat Trivedi. Translation © November 2022 by Mira Desai. All rights reserved.