“Allahabad means ‘City of God’. I get this from the books. From a printed curiosity — a letter written by one of those brave and confident Hindoo strugglers with the English tongue, called a ‘babu’ — I got the more compressed translation: ‘Godville’. It is perfectly correct, but that is the most that can be said for it.”
It was 1897 and author Mark Twain was pinning every hope on his fifth and last work of travel — Following the Equator — to bail him out of bankruptcy. From South Africa to Australia, he had many stories from a worldwide lecture tour, but the ones from India seemed to be the most gripping.
A city of confluences and congregations, Allahabad overwhelmed Twain with “a mighty swarm” of pilgrims and the display of “unwavering faith and belief”. In the din and dirt along the banks of some of India’s holiest rivers, the writer didn’t miss the presence of multiple faiths; “a monolith which was placed… more than 2000 years ago to preach (Buddhism)”; a fort, built by a “Mohammedan emperor”, which then belonged to the English and contained “a Christian church”, he wrote in Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World* . It did seem the obvious abode for the gods — gods who had found and retained their little nooks and crannies in the city.
Cut to 2018, more than 120 years since Twain visited it, and the city is still as dusty and noisy. The display of faith albeit has assumed a new dimension — that of billboards and posters that urge Hindu pilgrims to visit the Kumbh Mela at Triveni Sangam, the meeting point of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers, between January and March 2019. Images of sadhus in saffron robes, complete with tridents and kamandals (water pots), watch over the city from various traffic intersections. The only detail missing from this picture of one of Uttar Pradesh’s largest districts is Allahabad. The entry of Prayagraj explains its ouster.
On October 15 , Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, announced his government’s decision to rechristen Allahabad. The formal order came three days later. The ghar wapsi (homecoming) of Prayagraj, in keeping with the “wishes of people”, was touted as a bid to revive the name that the Mughal emperor Akbar is said to have discarded in the 16th century, when he built the riverside fort that Twain referred to. It may be a sheer coincidence that the announcement was made on a day regarded as Akbar’s birth anniversary.
The hue and cry that followed the order didn’t drown the voices that welcomed the decision. Some argued that what Akbar named Ilahabas or Ilahabad was a separate entity. Others stuck to the view that Prayag had lost its name and identity to the dynasty of Muslim rulers.
While Akbar’s fort, now an army base, continues to guard the holy Sangam, government websites and offices promptly dropped Allahabad for Prayagraj. Some right-wing Hindu groups were seen throwing banners with the new name over signboards at the city’s busy railway station. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit served to fix the country’s gaze on Prayagraj. He addressed a rally, performed puja at the Sangam and visited the sacred Akshayvat tree in Allahabad fort. This show of strength made many in Allahabad nervous about an identity they were once fiercely possessive of — a vibrancy of intellect and politics. The city of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Mahadevi Varma, Rudyard Kipling and Dhyan Chand was being painted with a brush that seemed in danger of smudging the fine lines of syncretism.
With an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the NDA government at the Centre is unlikely to undermine the dividends that its Hindutva agenda might reap. The Allahabad name-change — which comes after the renaming of Mughalsarai and Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh — is in keeping with this school of thought.
Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju’s tweet — he was among the first to lash out at the renaming — was a jibe at the Adityanath government for trying to change history by eliminating traces of the Mughals: “Dear @myogiadityanath, Congratulations for renaming Allahabad as Prayag. But surely that is not enough. I recommend the following further name changes of UP cities be made to eliminate names of these Babur ki Aulads altogether.”
Justice Katju listed 18 potential changes , including Agra to Agastyanagar, Aligarh to Ashwatthamanagar and Lucknow to Laxmanpur.
Daughter of a retired judge of Allahabad High Court, 22-year-old Mekhala Saran’s mind was caught between her city’s old and new names: One that she had grown up with and the other she was being asked to embrace. Her restlessness found expression in poetry she posted on The Quint, a news website, on October 18. In Dear Yogi Ji, Prayagraj Ain’t My Home, Leave My Allahabad Alone , Mekhala argued that:
Prayagraj is not the town/ In which I saw my first dreams/ The dreams I still see sometimes.
Prayagraj is not the town with narrow roads/ And a lot of potholes/ That I circled on my dainty cycle/ Painting pictures in my head, imagining/ That I’m in a Disney movie/ Escaping a filmy catastrophe/ On my long Lady Bird cycle…
You can mess with the country’s memory all you like/ But leave my town’s history aside.
“The poem [also available in Hindi] was well received but she also got trolled for it. It made us a little nervous about her security,” says her father, Justice Amar Saran. The trepidation, however, didn’t stop the former judge from brainstorming with a group of lawyers and social activists on ways to reinstate the name Allahabad. The obvious choice was a public interest litigation (PIL), which was filed before the Allahabad HC in October. “The deliberate destruction of culture or upholding the culture of any one community at the cost of another is antithetical to the secular nature of the country,” says Justice Saran. Name changes are not a new phenomenon; countries all over the world have done it, he adds. “But a government can’t impose a name on its people; it must consider sentiments and history. In the case of Allahabad becoming Prayagraj, the matter was closed in just three days,” he says.
Advocate Syed Farman Naqvi, who has been practising at the Allahabad HC for the last 38 years, is no stranger to PILs. But the one that challenges the renaming of his city is close to his heart. He now spends most of his time in strengthening the case against the government. This means meetings and more meetings. And keeping the morale high, he says. Representing Allahabad Heritage Society and 12 others in the PIL, Naqvi says the unifying thought among the petitioners was to keep Allahabad’s Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb alive. The Hindustani (a mix of Hindi and Urdu) usage is a pointer to the composite Hindu-Muslim culture of the plains of northern India — one that is said to have flourished in cities such as Lucknow, Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur and even Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram. While the HC has reserved judgement on the PIL, Naqvi has been advised by friends and family to arrange a security cover for himself. The man, however, refuses to entertain such suggestions. He, in fact, is counting the number of temples and mazaars that have been razed in the name of preparing the city for the Kumbh. “I would say at least 300 religious structures have been done away with. Some of these were encroachments but a few had been around for decades. Let’s see what else they are planning,” he says, adding that the city is experiencing serious air pollution due to the beautification work underway.
Naqvi’s affection for Allahabad — more than just the geographical entity — is something that Neelum Saran Gour, author and professor of English literature at the Central University of Allahabad, would easily relate with. “Allahabad now provokes extreme reactions — great affection in those addicted to it, and violent criticism from many who despise it, even while living in it,” she says.
With titles such as Three Rivers and a Tree: The Story of Allahabad University and Sikander Chowk Park to her credit, Gour has been wearing the tag of a raconteur of Allahabad’s history for years. It’s not a mantle that she acquired consciously; it “descended” on her after Marg Publications invited her to guest-edit a pictorial volume on the city’s history and culture. The book — Allahabad: Where The Rivers Meet (2009) — touched a chord with Allahabadis (also known as Ilahabadis) scattered across the world.
The nostalgia of its “so-called Oxford of the East days and high-profile judicial ambience” stands out against a new “cosmopolitanism of consumerism”, she says. And the old Allahabad — “the city of interlocking cultures: Indic, Islamic and European” — may seem like a notional thing.
“It’s there, I am sure, quietly present, waiting. Although much of its former European ambience has gone with the departure of its extensive Anglo-Indian population and the migration of its senior citizens to cities where their children have relocated, social media has generated a space where Allahabad residents from far-flung parts mingle and keep the city’s layers of culture alive,” adds Gour.
Poet, translator and anthologist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra goes back to the city mostly for the books he has there; they occupy two rooms of a second-floor flat he still keeps. “Some of these books are from the 1930s — from the time my uncle was teaching at the university. When I was an undergraduate [in the ’60s] at the same university, I started adding to the collection. The library was nothing to speak of and seldom had what I needed. Before I knew it, the shelves were almost touching the ceiling,” he says.
In 1968, after two years in Bombay, Mehrotra returned to the city as a lecturer. He stayed in the same job till 2012, but Allahabad, he says, had little to do with his decision. It was more the permanent job. “Till the early ’80s Allahabad was a liveable place, with its tree-lined roads and colonial-era bungalows. But its ‘uglification’ happened rather fast,” he adds, referring to official beautification drives. He moved to Dehradun after retirement, where he lives in a house he inherited. “In my mind, I had left Allahabad decades ago. Those who continue to live there do so not because they love the city but because they, like me, have inherited an old house with high ceilings and skylights. These houses are impossible to leave. In some ways, we are all prisoners of our inheritances.”
Resident of one such bungalow in the Civil Lines area, author, editor and translator Sara Rai considers herself lucky to have grown up in a house with gardens and orchards. Also the granddaughter of Dhanpat Rai Srivastava — better known as the legendary Munshi Premchand — Rai’s earliest memories of the city involved a “raucous crow” in her garden, one that refused to shut up. “Some of the roads were lined with tamarind trees; you went to school on a rickshaw, stopping on the way to hurl stones at the juicy fruit in an attempt to bring it down,” she says.
The Rais lived close to the Ganga. During the long and hot summer, a procession of camels carrying watermelons walked past their gate, with the bells around their neck making soothing music. “The winters were sudden, with a rapid elision into the melancholy of spring,” recalls Rai.
She concedes that the depredation of this Allahabad has been rapid and of many kinds. “The bungalows have disappeared. High-rise buildings have taken hold of the town like a disease. Hundreds of flats have sprung up overnight,” she says.
The civic amenities have not kept pace though. “Despite widening, the roads seem narrower than before, for the number of cars has increased; not so, the parking spaces. Everyone is in a hurry, though there is nowhere much to go to. The gentle grace of the town is all but lost,” she says when asked to list the changes in the last 30 years. The city now seems to have no “time to read, to think, to spend hours watching things unfold in nature, to have people drop by for visits, or to go unannounced to friends’ homes, confident of finding them in…”
What Rai seems to rue the most is the exodus of the city’s middle-class population. She puts this on the coming of another Prayag Raj — a daily superfast service between Delhi and Allahabad — and a host of other trains. “The middle class used to form the town’s backbone,” she says. “The state of the university, once prestigious and home to poets, writers and educationists, is now abysmal. The local population now sends its children to study in Delhi, Pune or elsewhere.”
Yet Rai’s internal compass, like that of many other Ilahabadis, seems to send her back to the city that has seeped into her consciousness.
Cricketer and commentator Mohammad Kaif, who grew up in the neighbourhood of Kydganj, still misses his early-morning swimming classes at Saraswati Ghat. The dahi-jalebi breakfast, almost a daily affair on his way back home, was as much fun as waking up in the wee hours to watch live telecasts of cricket matches from Australia in the company of siblings Asif, Saif and Uzma. He remembers sitting on his father’s shoulder for a glimpse of Amitabh Bachchan, also from Allahabad, in 1986. “For us, hiring a VCR [videocassette recorder] meant watching Bachchan’s films. He enjoys a god-like stature in Allahabad. Meeting him in 2003 was one of the finest moments of my life,” says Kaif. He was only 12 when he left Allahabad — in the early ’90s — for the Kanpur Sports Hostel. Kaif, who also contested Lok Sabha elections from UP’s Phulpur constituency on a Congress ticket in 2014, still visits his family in Allahabad.
While recent debates over its name change have dented the city’s legendary inclusiveness of cultures and communities, many of its ordinary citizens — the ones who seek respite from traffic tangles and the dust and pollution — are watching what they are being offered in terms of infrastructure and development.
The old Allahabad may have slipped from between their fingers. It remains to be seen if Prayagraj will do them any good.
(With inputs from Vijay Lokapally)
*Published in The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad (2007), edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra