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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Tale of Two Cities (Trivia)

Guwahati is the place where I did most of my schooling and had spent six years of my life, till I left the place in 1996. This week, I traveled to Guwahati after four years. Some of the things had remained the same- the lush greenery, the blue hills, the mosquitoes, the 10 hours a day power cuts, the heat, the spaces, the humidity, the best bus network and the most expensive auto-rickshaw system in the country. Bandhs and strikes, which are frequent, are still rejoiced as public holidays. And the city is still capable of hysteria when it wakes up, only the themes have changed: While earlier the hysteria would be caused by anti-Bengali and sometimes anti-India sentiments; now, it was for Debojit Saha, the Sa Re Ga Ma winner (No means of transport was available while he was performing in the city last week)

But several things had changed. The great Indian consumerist culture has also infected this sleepy town. Shopping malls had replaced the Kamakhya temple as the pride of the city and glitzy brand stores could be seen all along the town. The economy had always depended on government spending and PSU employment and this story had largely remained the same in this land of Lahe Lahe (slow slow). But quite a few private sector jobs were now available: mainly in the sales networks of insurance, banking and telecom companies. Also, I found that the earlier strong “sons of the soil” sentiment was now absent. Over the years, deliberate actions had reduced the Bengali dominance in education and PSU jobs and therefore the local discontent has waned. Large scale immigration from Bangladesh and local conversions to Islam had given the minorities a significant voice in the political system. Regionalist parties had little hope in the current elections. Surrendered militants had been completely integrated and were now thriving in a benevolent “tit-for-tat” culture. It was now difficult to distinguish a Bengali from an Assamese from the way they easily spoke both the languages.

When I returned the Mumbai, I found that Mumbai had also changed in a week’s time. The traffic jams were worse. All the way from the Airport to my house, I consistently had a feeling that walking might have been faster. Roads which had been dug up for expansion two years earlier are yet to be completed, while new stretches are dug up every day. Now, even late night weekend travel in Mumbai trains means jostling with the crowd. V S Naipaul had written in “India- A Million Mutinies”: “When does a city seem to be nearing its death? When people leave or don’t take up jobs they need because of their fear of the commute”. He had said this about Calcutta in the late 80s; Mumbai in 2006 seems perilously close if his musings are true. Calcutta seemingly escaped that fate, may be Mumbai too will.


Anonymous said...


Your blog appears to be interesting. I am a researcher in Delhi University and I am from Assam. I hope you would not mind being interviewed.I am fascinated by your blog....the sheer amount of reality that you have included here is commendable. My email address is



Shivaji said...

@ Asim:

Thanks for your interest...

You can reach me at

Anonymous said...

Hi..nice post. Struck a chord with me because my mother too spent the first 20-22 years of her life in the North-East (Guwahati, Shillong etc.). Following the anti-bengali riots in the 70s roughly, her family had to flee Assam.. sadly she's never been able to go back. I'm a student now, but it's my aim to take her back there once i begin working :)
Have heard so much about the places u mentioned - Kamakhya :) and some others like Shillong lake etc.
Speaking of tongues, yeah my mother speaks fluent Assamese too.
Long ramble - couldnt help myself:)

Rather interesting when parallel lines meet somewhere in time and space