Talk about the timing of my books. I picked up this book about 3 years back when I was supposed to move from Gurgaon to Ahmedabad. The move never happened. We moved to Hyderabad and then to Goa and the book kept moving along. Now, just before I am planning a trip to Ahmedabad, I picked it up to read. I must say it prepares us well to meet the city. This book received a fellowship grant to document the history of the vibrant city. And this book offers insights into the evolutions of the city very well. Moving chronologically, it starts with the Ahmed Shah laying the foundations of the city. Then it’s expansion to its current megacity status with highways and flyovers.
Current generations probably know of Ahmedabad’s history since the time of Gandhi. His setting up the Sabarmati Ashram here. Not many are aware of setting up of the city on the banks of the same river by Ahmed Shah. Authors try to trace the habitations earlier than the setting up of the city and come up with three settlements by the name of Ashapalli, Asawal & Karnavati that pre-date the city of Ahmed Shah. They trace the various extensions of the original city. The walled fortification of the city on the then Eastern bank of Sabarmati. Furthermore, the capital moved back and forth as various rulers came and went.
What comes across as a very common factor is the turbulent nature of the city. It has always faced a conflict between its various segments. And that has kind of defined its nature. Be it a conflict between warring princely states, or between mill owners, workers. Or between various religious segments. Even to this day, you can see the evident conflicts.
A prominent element of the fabric of Ahmedabad is its entrepreneurs. The business community that has always played important role in the city irrespective of who the ruler is or was. Especially the Jains and the Vaishya community took up the role of Nagar Seth or Seths. They would use their strength to keep the city peaceful or to make sure that the trade flourished. Even today we see that element very strong here. Focus on education also began pretty early. And this also emerged in terms of setting up of lots of premier educational institutes in the city.
The days of Gandhi and Sardar Patel are the most interesting part of the book. The chapters on 15 years that Gandhi spent in the Ashram. His relationships with Ahmedabadis are eye-opening and tell us that not everything was hunky dory between the two. Mill owners resented his interference in their affairs. Authors also highlight how Gandhi though based in the city, never actually became one with the city. And how he remained on the outskirts emotionally and psychologically too just like his ashram. This comes in sharp contrast with Sardar Patel who was a part of Municipal Corporation. He also led much public interest works for the city. Someone they portray as a true Ahmedabadi. Who contributed a lot to the city even as he was emerging a national leader. Someone who was good at negotiating with the various fragments of the country.
The post-independence evaluation of the city carries the biases of development workers. Where people consider everything done in the name of development as bad. This part becomes a bit of a rant than chronicle like the earlier parts of the book.
If Ahmedabad intrigues you, read it.