My Allahabad Story is the story of Allahabad as seen by the author. It is a small city with a really long history. It was a prominent pilgrimage center and the Tapobhumi of Bhardwaj Rishi in ancient times. In recent history, many prominent families came from this city to rule the country. During the colonial era, it was a hub of a lot of activity. Being the venue of the high court, it was where the who’s who of the political and administration class lived.
Himendra Nath Varma was born in 1943 and lived in Allahabad in his father’s home until he graduated in the mid-60s. He recalls his life and times in Allahabad. Surrounded by judges and lawyers of Allahabad high court, he gives you a peep into the high-profile life of the city from the bungalows that spread across acres, with an army of servants.
What I liked most about the memoirs of Mr. Varma is the peep he gives into the times of post-independence India. As a young boy in a large Indian family and extended family not too far, he gives you a glimpse of laid back times, when men worked, women worked at home, people visited each other without appointments and drawing rooms used to be full of people in the evening.
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You can not but admire his memory and the way he recalls every single thing that happened half a century or more back. He mentions going back to his siblings for incidents and events, but most of it comes from his own memory. He does not even mention referring to any diary or journal for these. Probably, not having any electronic distractions meant that you observe and be part of life far more intensely.
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Loved the section where he talks about all the servants that were a part of his house. It makes you wonder when did the servants become employees from being your extended family. The author knows every servant, his family, his weaknesses and fondly recalls things he did with them away from his parents’ eyes.
I also enjoyed reading about all the regular visitors to the family including the various suppliers like Milk Man, Bread & Egg Man, Meat Man, Masseurs, Tailors, Barbers, Sellers of all kinds. You realize that in big houses, the market literally walked up to the buyers one by one. Of course, the choices in those days were limited but almost every choice walked up to them. This included bangle sellers, cloth sellers, perfume sellers, utensils sellers or recyclers. It reminded me of some of them visiting my grandmother’s home, or hearing about them from her.
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He recalls each and every member of his extended family and visiting family members. Locus of his memoirs is their house on Elgin Road in Allahabad. He does talk about his school and college, but prime focus is his home and what happened in that home. He does take you for a nostalgic visit to the shops in the area, some of which exist and some do not.
There are spicy stories of English women who used to visit his house. There are stories well known as well as ordinary people. It takes you to the era when being English or speaking English meant being part of the elitist circuits. It is probably the time when we disconnected from our roots that many like me are now trying to re-connect with.
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Language is simple and very passionate. The narrative is engrossing and instantly ports you to the city of Allahabad, though it is now called Prayagraj. It begins slowly with the family introductions that seems useless to begin with but as you read on, they all seem familiar people. How I wish every city in India gets a passionate resident to write about it.
I read this book after my trip to the Kumbh Mela. I did see some of the buildings he mentions like Anand Bhavan during my Allahabad City Walk. So, while reading the book I could visualize the civil lines area mentioned in the book. However, if I had read it before visiting, I would have definitely stopped at his house at Elgin Road.
Read it if you like reading well-written memoirs.