India !

Johannes Manjrekar


Of late my claim to the status of an urban limpet, firmly attached to the ebb and flow of life in a single city, is being seriously undermined. In the past couple of weeks I have had to make repeated trips to the state capital of Ahmedabad. All this for a passport which will enable (or is it compel?) me to travel even farther.

My first trip disabuses me of the notion that the larger a city, the fewer camels per square mile it is likely to harbour. With a population of some six million, Ahmedabad is more than four times bigger than my city - but the camels! They are all in the cart-pulling trade, but when I get there at eight in the morning a goodly number of them are not yet in harness. Next to the tea stall outside the passport office, a camel is lounging beside its cart. At the same time that - seated on an empty paint tin doubling as a stool - I get my ginger tea, the camel's owner plunks down a large, almost bucket-sized pot on its cart. The camel lumbers to its feet and proceeds to eat its breakfast of chick peas. With each mouthful, it raises its head towards the sky, and I am not quite sure whether it closes its eyes in ecstasy.

a lone car
the camel drools
as it chews

A couple of hours later I am through at the passport office. My job only partly done ("You must get an affidavit made before a First Class magistrate in your city, then come back here"), I hit the road a little despondently. But there are the camels to cheer me up. With that supercilious air which the meanest passport office clerk could never hope to dent, they wait at traffic lights, hold their own against trucks and buses, and look down on the puny cars and two-wheelers.Even more slowly than the camel carts, I drift with the traffic till I reach the bridge over the Sabarmati. The river which, nearly a century ago, lent its name to Gandhi's famous ashram. The river which, two years ago, divided the old part of the city, wracked by violence and death, from the newer part of the city, which went about its business as if nothing unusual had happened. Today the river' s sluggish water sparkles in the noon sun. As I look across the river at the dead smokestacks of the extinct textile mills, a bell tinkles behind me. It is an elephant with a large load of banyan leaves. I walk across the bridge beside the elephant. It's easy to keep pace with it.

slow river
a bus rumbles
across the bridge


Copyright Johannes Manjrekar, 2004