'Ahmedabad' Is Characterized by Uncertainty and Suspicion

Ahmedabad is not a history or even a thorough study, but an unassuming glimpse at the forces that have most profoundly shaped the modern landscape of the city.

Ahmedabad: A City in the World

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Author: Amrita Shah
Publication date: 2016-05

Contrary to instinct, Amrita Shah begins her book about Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India) -- a 600 year-old city -- in 2002. Striking at the heart of one of the most dramatic events in the city's recent history, Shah sets out the details of the dramatic riots delicately, as if to get the matter out of the way up front, and only afterward circle back to give the reader a quick primer on Ahmedabad's more ancient history.

She opens with the story of Meraj, a Muslim displaced but not necessarily embittered by the events of February 2002, when inter-religious violence between Hindus and Muslims throughout the Indian state of Gujarat cost hundreds of lives and injured thousands. Contrary to the pace of the rest of the book, Shah carefully takes her time in the first chapter to present Meraj's story as a microcosm of what unfolded that month. Her choice to open with the riots sets the tone for the remainder of the book, in which the shadow of 2002 is cast over nearly everything Shah observes about the city.

Her early patience with Meraj's story, and its position in the larger context of violence, is all the more puzzling when she decides to absentmindedly delegate the details of the related 2002 Godhra train burning (which killed 58 Hindu pilgrims and is believed to have precipitated the later violence) to a two sentence footnote buried at the back of the book. The choice, in fact, seems to gloss over the very nuanced portrayal she's trying to accomplish.

The subtleties of her interlocutors' feelings toward the riots are hollowed out by her decision to tack on a sparse coda at the end of the first chapter on future Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (and Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002) without fully exploring the scope of violence that consumed the city and state in February 2002. When their feelings toward Modi don't fit with Shah's expectations of what they should feel, she quickly injects her disbelief:

"[C]ould he be complimenting the person so widely perceived to have abetted the violence against the Muslim community? ... I am puzzled by his recommendation of the man responsible for his plight."

In the end, Shah's commendable effort to portray the violence in a stark, honest manner is undermined by this neglect.

Ahmedabad is not a history or even a thorough study, but an unassuming glimpse at the forces that have most profoundly shaped the modern landscape of the city. Throughout the book, Shah's focus draws attention to Ahmedabad as a city of turbulence and agitation: of students and others against former Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel's management, of participants in the 1857 Indian rebellion, as the beginning of Gandhi's historic March, and of the even darker agitation of late.

Alas, hardly any of Shah's interlocutors are given ample time to develop or fully flesh out their narrative. Some scenes pass more quickly than others; some just come in bursts and fade before any conclusion is drawn. But this isn't their story and surely that's her point. Ahmedabad is a city of over five million people. The swift bursts with which she introduces and moves beyond each resident highlights the array and disarray of the city. Ahmedabad is an organism, Shah's sparse vignettes reveal, and its residents are legion -- cells in a much larger entity.

The book's rapid pace gives one the impression of a woman racing from isolated community to isolated community. She builds a narrative out of the stories Ahmedabad's men and women, but struggles to find bridges to connect each group she interviews. It could simply be Shah's style to dispense her subjects piecemeal to avoid making Ahmedabad any single person's story.

No matter whether she's visiting communities directly shaped by the violence of 2002 (such as the displaced Muslims like Meraj), surveying the city's oldest religious architecture, or attending entirely secular political events, the book never escapes the shadow of 2002. If there's one open-ended question Shah leaves for the reader, it's when or if Ahmedabad the city can escape its shadow.

Prime Minister Modi, too, is never far from the story but somehow always distant. If anything personal intrudes from the edges of Shah's narrative it's her own suspicions of her subjects' praise of Modi. Midway through the book, she arrives at a large auditorium where Modi is scheduled to speak. Never bothering to try and fully understand his supporters' passion for him upon his arrival, Shah alternately portrays him as the platitude-speaking "child-god" of a secular religion and as "the hook at the end of an episode of a television soap." She never directly articulates any blunt criticism of Modi except to express disbelief when those she speaks to don't share her doubts.

All this, ironically, leaves her own unvoiced doubts all the more distracting. Even when Modi makes his appearance after such a long time off-stage he isn't allowed to speak; he can only be spoken about. Shah writes that Modi is a brand, and it's undeniably clear that Shah isn't buying.

Shah's Ahmedabad is a city of uncertainty -- uncertainty for minorities; uncertainty about its future; uncertainty about the city's legacy or even its history; filled with uncertain development projects and by many pocket communities uncertain about their right to belong. Shah raises many questions about Ahmedabad and even subtly interjects her own answers.

Shah's suspicion of Narendra Modi and her portrayal of him as a political surrogate for religious figures portends her overall suspiciousness toward religion in general. Religion's role in the lives of her subjects is rarely spoken about and when it is, Shah describes it more as a nuisance to her work. When one interlocutor's cell phone rings to the tune of a Vishnu mantra, Shah at first feels "assailed" by the noise, then when the woman admits it has a "calming effect" on her, Shah resigns herself to working over the noise. While staying with a Jain family, Shah admits their religion's strictures place hardly any constraints on her but she feels weighed down by "trepidation", nonetheless.

Even the common pronunciation of the city's name (contracting Ahmed to become Amdavad) must hide some sectarian motive. In a city with millions of Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims, it's only the dramatic events of February 2002 that truly allows any discussion of what role religion might play in her subjects' lives. When she does give her Jain interlocutors a patina of religiosity, it's brief and unfamiliar. When she travels west to a newly-prosperous area, Shah finally speaks to a priest, but their momentary conversation centers only on what the residents do with this newfound wealth before Shah rushes on to speak to another person, in another neighborhood, on another subject. Religion for Shah is like architecture. It's there, she'll describe it, then she quickly moves on.

Shah paints the picture of a city somehow always in development but never complete. Projects, such as the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, are referenced but nothing is ever given to suggest hope that anything will be finished. Shah writes:

The city is in flux. Across town one can see fissures in the tar, the mounds of sand and stone, chains, stagnant water pools, the paver blocks, axes, rollers, cranes and other paraphernalia required to crack a city open and expand it…. Cities across India are being broken, rattled and knocked to fit into the contours of a neoliberal economy.

Shah's writing is beautiful, it's poetic, it can even be moving at times, such as with the care she takes to tell Meraj's story of displacement and healing. However, it also struggles to find its narrative. It knows there's a story to tell -- thousands, perhaps millions -- but here it can never settle on telling a few to illuminate the many. It becomes drunk on the nature of a city as energetic as Ahmedabad. It leaves the reader stumbling from encounter to encounter with too little foresight or certainty that each interlocutor's contribution will eventually lead to a more comprehensive understanding of Ahmedabad.

Shah is a methodical storyteller, clearly trying to capture a broad view of the city, but exactly what we're supposed to learn about "the mind of Ahmedabad" is never clear. In the end, perhaps that's Shah's point: that her journey into Ahmedabad left her uncertain about drawing any conclusions. Perhaps Shah's uncertainty about the city is just another uncertainty to lay atop the city's many others.


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