Ahmedabad Encounter: Experiences of the City (Day 1- 4)
March had been a busy month. Let me share some field notes from one of our authors: Sriram Natrajan
While doing research on a city, figuring out where to start can be a daunting task – especially in a large and physically diverse city like Ahmedabad. But there are interesting stories to be found, even in the most unexpected corners. Here I’ve outlined my experiences with the city while researching for the book ‘People called Ahmedabad’ over the last week.
I arrived at Kalupur station at six in the morning, and immediately headed for Lucky restaurant, now a legendary Ahmedabad institution. The restaurant is best known for the graves that are scattered within the premises, as it was built over an old Muslim cemetery. They sit innocuously as customers enjoy faludas or chai-maska bun around them. Lucky restaurant back in the day was the meeting point for numerous artists and intellectuals of the city - an original M F Husain painting on the wall is a testament to the fact.
I was surprised to find that the proprietor of the joint is from Kerala, one Mr Krishnan Nair. Mr Nair believes that the graves are like lucky charms, and goes out of the way to clean and maintain them everyday. Once a spot for the city’s literati, it today attracts a more diverse crowd – from students and young couples to families, reflecting its rising popularity
After my chai-nashta at Lucky, I decided to explore Mirzapur. Bordering the banks to the north of Nehru bridge, where the last portion of the Ahmedabad’s historic fort wall still stands, Mirzapur is an interesting neighbourhood home to diverse communities, including Parsis, Muslims and Goan Catholics. This diversity is visible in the neighbourhood’s institutions – the St. Xavier’s School is run by Jesuits, while the well-known Cama hotel and Cama motors are Parsi owned. Mirzapur also has a large number of automobile service shops, and is the spare-parts mecca for motoring enthusiasts around the city.
As the morning wore on, the sun got hotter, and soon it was time to take a break for lunch. I decided to stop at Roopali, a tiny hole in the wall place adjacent to the famed but now defunct Roopali theatre, just down the road from Lucky, and also run by immigrants from Kerala. Though the Kerala parottas here lack the flaky crunchiness of back home, they nonetheless serves up a tasty meal at a killer price. One of the proprietors, Mr Thomas, tells me that he is deeply involved with the Malayali community here. On the walls of the restaurant one can see posters for various community events held in the city. The Kerala community in Ahmedabad is quite big, but still closely knit.
On my second day in Ahmedabad, I decided to go far from the central parts of the city, to the neighbourhood of Maninagar, on the eastern edge of the city. Despite it’s location, Maninagar has a vibrant and unique life of its own. Perhaps the best-known thing about Maninagar, though this isn’t immediately apparent, is that it is home to a large South Indian community – largely from the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Most of these communities can be found centred around Madrasi Mandir – a South Indian style temple, which is a major landmark in the locality. I was there to meet Blesson, a long-term resident of Maninagar. Blesson is also a Keralite, but was born and raised here, and thus feels that he’s half-Gujarati and half- Malayali. I catch up with him in a local restaurant, and soon he was telling me stories about the place that one could never have guessed – Maninagar’s hidden criminal underbelly. Apparently, there are a few organized Tamil criminal gangs, which run gambling dens, prostitution rackets, illicit liquor brewing and bootlegging. Blesson has a few friends who belong to these gangs - especially from the younger generation of immigrants in the city – though he told me that he could never imagine himself as part of a gang. My chat with Blesson shed some light on a relatively little known aspect of immigrant life in the city.
I took a day’s break, writing and working on leads.
On day four, I land up at the Ravivari, Ahmedabad’s famous Sunday Market that is set up on the banks of the Sabarmati. It is said that one can find practically everything at the Ravivari, if you are persistent and know where to look. Today, the Riverfront project has greatly reduced the size of the market and re-organized it to make it easier to move around. Somehow, it felt to me that the charm had been lost – it was the Ravivari’s chaos, stalls jostling for space and teeming with activity, that made every visit a memorable experience, something which the organized stalls of today can never replicate.
For lunch, I decided to head to La Bella, another city institution. The restaurant recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. It was first started in the sixties by Mary Lobo, who is affectionately called Aunty by everyone, with help from Anna. Together, they’ve been whipping up delicious Goan style curries served with rice, that have filled the stomachs of generations of students from the city. Today, Aunty is too old to come to the restaurant – and the kitchen is run entirely by Anna. Anna tells me that Aunty’s house is quite nearby, and agrees to take me there soon. “You should ask her questions, not me. She will have lots of stories to tell you. Whatever she can remember of course.”