Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dateline Allahabad: my city dusty, pot-holed...bone- and axle-breaker

Belatedly the UP Government seemed to realize it needed to spend some its Central Government outlay, hence the construction of the city-wide sewage system. For those of who might go gasp, argh, what? No city sewage system? Well, none. For a city (the modern version was laid out in British times) of this size the lack of one is surprising; but…ah well! Since April 2010 or perhaps even earlier the various parts of the city have seen roads being dug up and then re-laid, not completely, of course. At one time the Allahabad High Court had to get into the act not that much came out of it. The PW Department and the body that is in charge of the sewage line construction are too weighty in their own might to pay heed to the High Court. The city is covered in dust; trees, plants are layered and while one might wish for rains as that would help the flora get clean one shudders since that same rain may just wash away whole sections of hastily filled road.

One day while this construction juggernaut edged its way into my area of town I saw that majestic ship of the desert and right royally at home it seemed to be.

And why not, cars are bogged down in the dust; commuting time in Allahabad has suddenly tripled and quadrupled. One is never certain if the road one has taken will reach to one’s destination. For more often than not, one has to brake suddenly, reverse and then try to figure out a new way. Of course, the fact that the main city roads are parallel to one another and the radials perpendicular helps.

Dust is not the only outcome of all this digging and construction. Even as I write, about 4 telephone exchanges have been rendered “dead”, my home BSNL phone is deader than a dodo and consequently, the poor DSL/broadband is left high and dry. The digging on the city’s main thoroughfare, the MG Road is responsible for this. Banks, ATMs, institutions, medical colleges, hospitals, and residences, common internet users are all hung out to dry. And what lament does one raise for that famed MG Road or the Civil Lines area that it services: a dusty, pot-holey, shock absorber-breaking lament.

And if this state of affairs weren’t enough, preparations are being made for next year’s Maha Kumbh (Dec’12-Jan’13). Heavy trucks meander their way in and out near the Sangam area and the approach to the new Naini Bridge…ah well; it can’t be called an approach any more. The road, oh I am sorry, there is no road, it is what we know as an ‘ubhar-khabhar’ track, no two 6” across are on the same level. Vehicles traversing that section cant dangerously to one side or the other, overloaded lorries balance their way precariously; I am surprised they haven’t tumbled as yet. I had the unique joy of witnessing, indeed experiencing this section personally. Since my cousin, his wife and kids were down, we brave (maybe foolhardy) souls ventured to visit another cousin based in Naini. Dust enveloped everything, it was not yet dusk, but that heavy cloud of dust made it seem so. And as my cousin navigated the multi-leveled, pot-holed stretch, my sister-in-law’s comment was apt: “had we known it was this bad, we would have never made this plan.”

Walking is an exercise best left alone, for bones are verily in danger of being broken; nicely tarred roads have been replaced by dust-filled, wet-mud pressed tracks. The High Court's injunctions of digging a 100 mt, filling and repairing it have fallen on deaf ears. Once can only wish and hope that sanity returns to this city soon, that this pipe-laying madness will end soon.

But Allahabad is a city in transition and that is not going to end anytime soon. A city known for its bungalows, kothis, wide roads and open spaces today is cluttered, unplanned and chaotic. Most of the bungalows and kothis are either bedeviled by non-occupation or caught up in litigation on possession rights; those that are free have seen their frontages, sides and backs crowded by new construction, multi-storied apartment blocks with more coming up.

Do I sing a dirge for Allahabad as I knew it (I don't seem to be the only one dismayed by the changes, friends, cousins agree: we can't recognize this city any more) or do I hold my breath in the hope that new Allahabad with its constructions, new buildings (albeit, ones built on stilts and absolutely senior citizen unfriendly, let's leave the differently-abled out of this) will rise like a phoenix from the ashes (read: foundations) of the old one. And that somewhere, the unique character of this city will be retained in the rush to have similar looking glass-fronted structures. They do say, "the old order changeth, yielding place to new" and so it is for "change is the only constant", but they never said a word for those that undergo or experience the change. Ah, but human kind rests on hope and so will we....hope of a brighter, cleaner, better developed city that retains its cultural heritage (some buildings too) and character even as it proudly gathers itself up for the march into the 22nd Century.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Relocation Tales: Settling in and ATM travails

Once the decision to relocate back to hometown had been taken and the necessary approvals obtained from the PTB (powers that be, aka, big boss/es), the planning, subsequent ticket booking, et al, was done. September 7, 2011 was chosen as the D-day, when yours truly would once again call this city her home. And so it was, on the morning of Sept 7, 2011, when the Prayag Raj Express steamed into the Allahabad Junction a circle was complete. And what a homecoming it was; as with most of the denizens of the city who reside on the Civil Lines side, I rarely use the city side of the station. But given that mom was with me, stairs were best avoided, so the city side was opted for. Allahabad has progressed as I said before; while taxis are non-existent, autos (Vikram's and some Bajaj's) abound, but nary one has a meter - oh please, we are people of our words and we go by set fares ;) meters are required for those who waver! (The standard fare from the station to my side of town varies between INR50 to INR75; can go up depending on how green you seem to be). There is one such auto-wallah who resides near home and is available on the mobile and will oblige you with a pick-up and drop. And, so it was, that on that day, his services were availed of.

The ride home was accomplished without much trouble, unless one counts a pot-holed road where a beautiful smoothly tarred stretch used to be, this new road courtesy of the sewage line being laid out in the city. Dust of course rose with each vehicle that passed either way, necessitating comprehensive use of hankies to protect noses and lungs, but it was a dust that would be my constant companion for months to come (little did I know it at that time).

The truck bearing household possessions, precious ones, had already arrived so, once home, hectic preparations ensued to accommodate stuff coming in. September is a hot and humid month in Allahabad, whence even a minute without the fan is dripping agony and it was in this that Lady Power decided to make her daily exit. Of course, Lord Water dutifully followed her out, for he is, if not anything else, dutiful.

The house and indeed home had been locked up for 2.5 months, dusty months, so a spring cleaning was effected and undertaken. Hats off to my mom! My return turned her world upside down, yet nary a complaint was heard from her.

By noon, all the unloading had been done, boxes, bags had more or less been deposited in their designated places, but unpacking, well that would take more time. The inner courtyard, or angaan was box-filled, an obstacle-course as it were, and the rains came pelting down. There was a concerted rush to get things under cover, safe from the rain: plastics sheets are very handy as are thick old bed covers.

September was a month of settling in, of getting reacquainted with this city, my once hometown and education center. It was hectic and stressful. having lived in a metro for over 16-yrs, I realized how unprepared I was for Allahabad's chaos. In all the time that I was in Mumbai, I have to admit I never felt the weight of my wallet, literally speaking, for most transactions are effected and can be completed with the use of plastic - debit or credit. Allahabad is an exception (as probably most small, inner towns and cities are), cash rules here! Very few establishments accept cards, notwithstanding the "Visa/MasterCard accepted here" stickers on their doors. To be fair to them, for most it is not a choice but a compulsion, brought about by the daily scheduled power cuts. But there are always exceptions to the rule and I found establishments that would accept card transactions even while Lady Power was absent. And so I have too have learned to carry around a wallet filled with cash, uncomfortable as it makes me...:(

Queues are meant to be broken, they are in name only, something I can personally attest to. And please do not expect privacy at ATMs. There will always be someone either peeping over your shoulder as you conduct your transaction or offering unsolicited, helpful hints to hurry you up on your way. Telling these off results in naught, for they look at you as if you have returned from another planet, and indeed for them you have. Appealing to the ATM guard in most cases is futile, people don't listen to the guards.

It is this that caused me to switch ATMs though my primary banker does have an office and ATMs in the city. I prefer not to have people looking over my shoulder or edging close to me when I conduct my ATM transactions. Oh and most of the ATMs are 1st generation or perhaps even pre-1st generation ones, black and white and ponderously slow - even domestic private banks. Informed sources tell me that two leading private sector banks are in the process of upgrading their ATMs now. As for ATMs belonging to the nationalized banks! Well, except for the ones belonging to a premier nationalized bank, most are, for some reason, private-bank unfriendly and even if they do work chances that the ATM might just gobble up your card (hungry as it is) are very high. Fortunately, the city's growth trajectory means that a couple of international banks have an office and indeed ATMs in the city and it is to these that I turn for my transactions. The guards know their jobs and ensure that you are the only person inside when transacting.

In fact, on Dhanteras, the ATMs of 3 private sector banks had 7, 10 and 15 people crowded around the machine, if you somehow did manage to get a turn, it would be a miracle if you walked out with all your cash intact. I did the rounds of at least 5 private sector ATMs before I turned to the aforementioned international player. And bliss it was to be able to have the machine to myself, with none peeping over my shoulder, no unsolicited advice and no one to hurry me up....

Oh and one evening, a recourse was sought to order in food, but more of that deserves a separate post...:-)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Relocation Tales

Sometime in the earlier half of this year, my mom was taken unwell (much improved now); subsequent examination/investigations concluded that it would be better if she weren't to live alone anymore. And since she is more comfortable with the city where she has been living since 1983, I decided to move back home.

I moved out in 1995 and have since been living away from home, first in New Delhi and then in Mumbai. It's been a long 16-years away, living independently, my own life, so to speak. Living in a metro, Mumbai, have kind got used to the conveniences and life in the big city, so moving back does entail a lot of adjustment.

Relocation Tales, as the title says, is my slightly whimsical, sometimes sarcastic take on my experiences ever since I returned to my hometown, Allahabad.

The difference between the two cities, Mumbai and Allahabad, could not be more stark. One is the financial capital of the country, the other rests mostly on forgotten glory, even as it is home to Uttar Pradesh High Court or the Allahabad High Court, as it is more commonly known, Anand and Swaraj Bhavans (homes to/of the erstwhile Nehru family) and yes, that once-famed, Oxford of the East, the University of Allahabad.

One is vibrant, ever on the move, never sleeps, the other shuts down by 9Pm, has no night life to speak of, no pubs/discs. One is hectic, people always on the move chasing after dreams, running hither and thither (a purposeful run, mostly for work), the other laid-back, time moves slowly, mostly inhabited by retirees, an army town also, wide roads, greenery. Oh yes, the Judges of the High Court, top businessmen, doctors, professors comprise the creme-d-la-creme.

And, yet lest you think so, this is not a ghost town, it is indeed alive. Alive and living, expanding and growing. Every auto marque you can think has a presence here, from Ford, to Hyundai, Honda, Toyota; goes without saying that Maruti is definitely present. Big names, WestSide, FabIndia, Big Bazaar, Nokia, Sony, Liberty, HP, ICICI, HDFC, StanChart, IndusInd, ING, are there, too. The Old nestles with the new, sometimes in harmony, others not so.

I have to admit I do not recognize my hometown, it has changed and how, the march of progress has put its stamp on the city; I cannot help but rue the loss of open spaces, order and harmony (structural, development, urban planning). Stores, i once knew and frequented are no more, landmarks have changed, none more poignantly so than BN Rama (there is debris of a pulled down building where BN Rama once stood), the corner seems desolate without it.

The Civil Lines I so fondly frequented has changed and indeed expanded beyond recognition. I could easily get lost there :( But, as the wise say, Time marches on, progress whether it seems planned or unplanned will have its sway. All is not lost, however, the city thrives. The numbers of young people out there has certainly increased.

I hope to be able to update this series of the blog frequently, starting off with the day of my return.

To begin, there are some things/aspects of Allahabad life that could be called a standard. The city is controlled in tandem by two deities, Lady Power and Lord Water. The two indeed govern this city hand in hand, side by side. Daily routine, therefore follows their diktats. Precisely at 9.30am (summers) and 10am (winters) Lady Power makes her first exit of the day and Lord Water obediently follows. Sometimes, when she is in a very generous frame of mind, Lady Power bestows her blessings on the city's denizens before 1pm (sometimes, just sometimes :)! ). Lord Water, however, does not return. He blesses the city with his presence again at maybe 2pm (rarely), more often post 4.30pm and fortunately then stays on till night. Of course, it goes without saying, should Lady Power decide to take a break, Lord Water trots off after her dutifully. The city's denizens therefore are a practiced lot when it comes to following a strict routine. Consequently, the level of the conversational volume does tend to be a lil on the higher side, and why not, with all the generators contributing the background music :P

Lady Power and Lord Water (LP &LW) are likely to make repetitive and frequent appearances in my updates and therefore it seems only fair they be introduced here :P

More later, for the now, I take myself off to spend some time with my mom, conversations, exchanges, which undoubtedly will be punctuated by moments when we cover our ears with our hands, since it is Diwali eve and crackers, oh well, it is crackers' time!

On that note, wishing all readers and fellow country folk (and all those who celebrate) a Happy, prosperous Deepawali :-)