For me, hinterlandsand plain bound cities of Uttar Pradesh have never been very enticing to travel to or visit, probably because for most people living in my part of the world, growing up, travelling has always meant hill stations, nani ka ghar or going for a wedding. But having all grown up and (if I could say so myself) having gained some perspective, I now realise that there can be many things to ‘see’ in these places as well, only if you are ready to erase all earlier perspectives, ready to gain some new ones. Getting an opportunity to visit Aligarh Muslim University (a stalwart institution in the Western UP region) and also not having travelled anywhere in a long, long time, I jumped at it when the chance presented itself.
What made this trip from Agra to Aligarh even more interesting, as I realised only after having been on it, was that in the background were looming the most cacophonous general elections of the country ever. We had to reach AMU by 11:30 in the morning. We started with a good two hours in hand. As a mid April morning in northern part of India would be, it was a little warm, a little crisp but pleasant. Then as we were turning left from a road to another one, I saw a poster of a national party, well known for its cacophony, (yes cacophony is my word for the day). The poster was put up on these new age tube-light illuminated canvases which don the outside of public urinals or dump houses (I suppose there is an analogy here somewhere). Since it was daylight the poster was obviously not lit, but I decided to put on my sunglasses anyway, what with that radiant face of a great leader shoved into my face.
I forgot to mention before, I was travelling with my family (as I mostly do). We had decided to take the expressway since the foreknowledge was that the state highway was in shabby condition and we wished to reach in time. The petrol prices had just gone down by 70 paise per litre and luckily we had to refuel our car. But I suppose everyone had known, unlike me, about the price drop, since the first petrol pump that we stopped at had run out of it. So we decided to fuel up at another one near the highway. We had taken a light breakfast and in the way laid an old favourite halwai shop. Long before fast food became all the rage, Agra had acquired its own taste for fried food and how. The dal filled kachauris known as bedei coupled with a spicy hot subzi (stew) of potatoes, paneer, garnished with coriander leaves and what not, is ‘the’ takeaway order and unlike those international fast food chains, you don’t have to wait till 10 or 11 o’ clock for the halwai shop to open. They are well in business as early as seven or eight in the morning. (SATUATORY WARNING: Do remember to have jalebisafter these, because they are the only antidote for all the spiciness).
Anyway, contrary to all the buildup for all the tastes that we were expecting out of this oh-so-healthy breakfast, the traces of ghee that were left over in our palms from the poorisand the monotonously flavoured subzi really disappointed us. (In fact had we been implicated in a murder right then and there, the first clue that would have done us in would have been our finger prints in ghee on the body). Having satisfactorily fuelled our car and unsatisfactorily fuelled ourselves we resumed. Soon we were on the expressway. So sparsely is it occupied by vehicles that you almost feel like you are on a boat on a river of cement with chimneys from brick kilns appearing as lighthouses afar. As the toll booth came, we asked the toll collector which exit we should take for Aligarh. What seemed then a very benevolent advice from a seemingly well wisher, we heeded to it and soon we had exited the expressway with 100 rupees poorer and got on to the ‘short’ cut to the city.
The super six lane highway soon shriveled out into a lean two lane road travelling through the countryside and small villages. Lined by Eucalyptus trees on either side and occasional groves of Neem trees here and there, this road was like a realist novel where you appreciate all the little details very much in the beginning but soon as the plot progresses you grow tired, especially if the pace is slow. And slow did the pace turn soon enough. Wondering how one no longer comes across the filmi villages spotting little hand pumps, the two person hay cutting machine, men idly playing cards in an abandoned bus stop whilst women tend to housework, cows and children we realised that the idea of a laid back quality of life has always been qualified by an inequality among those enjoying it.
As we kept passing through villages and our thoughts, we kept wondering how did we chance upon such a long stretch of rural world with the one storeyed, gaudily painted homes that occasion not side by side but after every some stretch of farmland or cold storage buildings etc. And then as we kept moving ahead, the small homes kept turning bigger, more shops kept appearing and the road kept getting worse. One couldn’t drive for a 100 meter stretch in one go without completely halting to a stop to avoid sinking in cliff sized pot holes. We were regretting the oily, spicy, heavy breakfast we had had and were celebrating every smooth stretch of road that came in between. But all the time we kept getting late for the function at AMU and even though everyone with me was cool and calm, my mind was sounding alarm bells.
We were entering the city from the direction of Mathura, Iglas and some places that I had never even heard the names of. This way was much longer than the one we could have taken from Agra. And for the longest time all that we saw of Aligarh were the milestones bearing the city’s name that kept saying we were close, but looking at no signs of an approaching city we were not convinced. Eventually we began to notice some evidences of urbanity, which ideally is not a good thing since it only means more vehicles, buildings piling over each other, cattle roaming on the roads and in general more chaos. And much like an incessant rural landscape that greeted us for a long time, so came a never ending chaotic urbanity which indeed followed us right from these outskirts of the city, well into the inner core of the city and further.
But what was strikingly common in both these stretches of rural and urban landscape was the conspicuous absence of an election euphoria in terms of posters, insignia, banners and what not. The closest that the rural parts came to exhibiting signs of canvassing were those old style wall paintings that have been fashionably come to be known as graffiti which bear the name of the party, candidate and a barely recognizable election symbol. As for the urban areas, I could only spot, (contrary to my expectations) one forlorn banner from a national party which is well known for its ultra-aggressive campaigning, that too hanging inside out from a halwai shop apparently as a visor or a sunscreen for the shop vendor. It was such a contrast from Agra where election season is being identified with big jeeps bearing huge party flags right on their bonnets (I wonder how are they not meeting with accidents with that giant flag waving in front of them), huge banners with redundant slogans etc.
That said, Aligarh was different from Agra in some other respects as well. The part of the city that we visited, (because there is always another part of any city that we claim to know inside out, which we haven’t yet seen) didn’t house any of the big retail outlets of any variety like food, clothes etc. Or maybe there were, but since our aerial view was obstructed by the gigantic buses and lateral view by tempos, cars, rickshaws, autos etc. we just missed them. Meanwhile we also had to keep asking for directions to AMU which apparently only meant to “go straight”. The traffic only thinned out near the railway station which had no formal entry, as most stations do (especially ones built by the British administration). After the station there was this amazing U-shaped bridge which as my father knew from recollection was known as “Begum pull”, but this was not verified by any passerby that we asked for directions from. Climbing over this bridge and coming down, the two parts of the city were separated. As we ventured forth there was a busy market where a famous halwai shop was located known as “Ghantewala” (I know there has been a lot of halwai shop talk, but this is UP and that’s how we roll). We didn’t have time to stop as we were late.
We kept on driving and now the roads were getting more spacious and posh. The university area is immaculately clean and well maintained. Having stopped at some of the buildings in the way for directions to the Kennedy hall we encountered an old gentleman who had been asked to lift his cycle and pass through the smaller door within the larger iron gate that was shut closed and he was very miffed about that. He said “I have been working here since 1946. Now I am retired and old but they ask us to lift our cycles and pass. Well if they want to check the passing motor vehicles why should we suffer on their account”? It seemed a legitimate appeal but we didn’t have the time to introspect. So we rushed forth and finally arrived at the Kennedy Hall and all this while I kept wondering why have they named the hall after Kennedy?
The hall looked very vintage. The tall ceilings, the heavy curtains lifted up in folds above the stage, the mercury lights reminding of the yester years, yet a dimly lit hall and a royal balcony with a separate VIP entrance.
It reminded me of all those songs in the films from 50’s and 60’s where the hero or heroine would deliver those long, well orchestrated songs (without an orchestra) and would enchant the audiences. Frankly I was hoping for a similar feat. However it was a boring old ceremony and we were tired, but still our enthusiasm for mummy’s felicitation was indomitable and we enjoyed every bit. So much so that even when the closest mercury light to our seat died after a last flicker and we were transported from the colour to the black and white era, we still found humour in it and kept clicking a few selfies in the dark. The retro afternoon and the long drawn out ceremony came to an end. It had gotten more humid and the high ceilings were not helping out anymore.
We were hungry and so we rushed to the old ghantewala halwai shop which was famous for its puri-sabzi. The traffic was ever so lighter and we got everything packed planning to eat it somewhere in the outskirts of the city or a dhaba.
As much surprised as we were whilst entering into the city over the sheer pathetic conditions of roads, wondering how a major city like Aligarh does not have a decent entry accorded to it, we had made up our minds that this other way out won’t be satisfactory either. But as we exited we were in for a surprise again. The road directly towards Agra which goes through Hathras, although double laned was extremely smooth. With the evening descending upon us and the smooth roads, the exit was quite a contrast to the hot and heavy entry into the city. We stopped under the shade of some Neem trees while the sun was setting, and as halwai shops were the theme for the trip so was the disappointment with them. I wonder what happened to good old fashioned halwai shops where the oil stayed in the wok and the fat went in your arteries. Now with the greasy fingers you can’t even pretend to not notice that you are on the highway to high cholesterol.
But the good road took our mind away from the terrible food. The dhabas in the way were not how they are usually on more travelled national highways. To be honest this was a state highway which had only two lanes throughout and it was a long time since we had travelled on a road like this. In fact there was a lot on this trip that we were experiencing after a long time. So much was different everywhere that it was hard to imagine we were in the same region of the same state of the same country. (So much for homogeneous empty space of national imagination).
The road only bifurcated into four lanes when we neared the national highway 2 which runs through Agra. The lights were bright now as the night became dark. More brands were visible everywhere and roads were wider. The chaos of urbanity was less chaotic. The cars were more posh and there were food joints, car showrooms and all that jazz. We kept returning through the same old scenery which we had passed by in the morning. The huge party posters had returned and there were jeeps with party flags mounted right on their bonnets. The FM kept playing advertisements from various national parties, till finally we couldn’t take any more and turned it off. And then finally we came across again the very poster outside the dump house or a public urinal (whichever it was) only now illuminated by tube-lights from behind and the very radiant face of one of the hopes of the nation was even more radiant but what I realised now which I hadn’t in the morning, someone had torn off the face from one of the posters and the tube light behind it now remained exposed.