“A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad” by Udbhav Agarwal
‘It must have been five or ten years ago,’ Akshat began, unprompted, ‘when Holi fell on a Friday.’ If Chowk ki Holi was famous for its booming processions and rowdy play, then the Chowk Masjid delivered the most teeming morning prayers in Allahabad. The Holi procession was to pass next to the masjid at midday for the muezzin’s call. On the day of, a sea of white kurta’s hesitated as they approached the masjid. From the other end, a colourful brigade staggered forward. A handful of gulal and there would have been blood.
‘It was such a beautiful sight,’ Akshat declared proudly, ‘for the ten minutes, as soon as the azan began, all song-band was immediately halted. People … all people stood in silence. They came, went in for the prayers, came out, the songs began at once.’
One story followed another, as if they were waiting to be summoned. Akshat told me about the parade of horses (‘Duldul ke ghodhe’) that is taken out during Muharram, and the uneventfulness with which a Hindu family (Bachaji’s) paid for it. I learnt that if Muharram and Dussehra fall on the same day in Allahabad, the Muslims don’t lift the bad taziya ( a procession carrying a giant replica of the tomb of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain) that year. Akshat’s great-grandfather was the only Hindu landlord in the Muslim neighbourhood of Chail. He had such a good relationship with the residents that they gave him the title of Asharfi Lal. Even Akshat grew up referring to him as Asharfi Lal. When his great-grandfather passed away, Akshat remembered, his Muslim neighbours didn’t let his family light a stove in their household. They brought all the food. In fact, for most of his life, Akshat had seen Hindus and Muslims playing Holi together. Even on that fateful Friday years ago.
‘And now?’ I asked him.
‘These days …’ Akshat snapped in anger, ‘Jai Shri Ram slogans are shouted like a rallying call in the same celebrations.’
What were these stories about? And how had they disarmed Akshat?
In his treatise Awadh Symphony, Aslam Mahmud describes the cosmopolitan fabric of Allahabad under the Mughal empire:
Ganga-Jamuni culture [was] the culture of the plains of Northern India, especially the Doab region of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, regarded as the cradle of the fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures. […] While the diversity came with the migration of different groups who settled in this region, the unity came from the peaceful coexistence of these varied communities and cultures. There [were] no fault lines and the mixed social fabric [was] not brittle or fragile. […] Festivals were shared and there was mostly an atmosphere of conviviality.
Allahabad or Prayagraj as it has now been rechristened is going to the polls on Sunday, 27 Feb 2022, in the fifth phase of the Uttar Pradesh state elections. It is a crucial election since it unclear whether the present chief minister will return to power with a simple majority or will he and his ruling party, the ultra-nationalist espousing Hindutva politics, the BJP, be given a decent fight at the polls by the opposition especially the Samajwadi party? Will caste be a significant factor or will the rise of communalism affect polling? Will the rising prices of basic commodities be a key factor or will the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya surpass all other considerations of daily existence? No one knows. Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state. It sends the largest number of members to Parliament. It has tradionally been a state that is keenly watched by politicians, psephologists, journalists and of course by Indian citizens themselves. The idea of Indianess is a conundrum. The sub-continent is known for its syncretic culture. Can a hegemonic narrative tear this intricate social construct called India apart? Again, no one can tell.
Allahabad is a city known for hosting the mahakumbh mela, every twelve years. It is also considered to be the site of the confluence of three rivers, triveni sangam, of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical river Sarasvati, mentioned in the Rig Veda. It is also known for being the city of rich cultural tradition, a centre of learning, literary stalwarts, origin of many schools of poetry and literature, language and much else. But today, the emphasis is increasingly on its Hindu characteristics, which as political scientist Udbhav Agarwal points out in A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad is only aspect of this incredible city, “…this place, a centripetal force that spools you back?…Yeh shehar kasturi re.”
Read A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad, published by Aleph Book Company. Like the book title itself, perhaps this slim biography will give insights into the syncretic culture that is the soul of our Indianness.
24 Feb 2022