A couple of months back, I received an invitation from an Allahabad-based cultural group named Sanchaari. Sanchaari hosts an annual event focused on culture in different forms: food, crafts, the performing arts, and literature among them. One of Sanchaari’s members had noticed my Food and Food Movie project, and decided it might be a good thing to talk about at the festival. I accepted.
So, I was booked to travel on the overnight Prayagraj Express from Delhi to Allahabad, to arrive in Allahabad (yes, I know it’s officially Prayagraj now, but for me, this city will always remain Allahabad) the next morning.
Most lit fests I’ve been to have been fairly predictable: you take a flight or train, you arrive at the destination and are taken to the hotel where you’ll be staying. A volunteer (usually a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college student) will massage your ego by calling you “Ma’am” and insisting on doing pretty much everything for you. You will be taken to the venue, you will make friends with organizers and others at the fest, you will speak at your session (and before that, have kittens wondering how many people, if any, will turn up for your session).
This one, the Sanchaari Sanskritik Parv, was not destined to follow the norm. This one, as it happened, turned out to be an adventure from the word go.
For one, the odd-even rule was in force in Delhi on the day I was leaving. Our car’s number is an odd one, so—since I was leaving on the 8th—my husband couldn’t drive me to the railway station. No matter, I thought. I’d take an Ola or Uber.
Apparently, that was what thousands of others had decided too. We tried, apps open on both my phone and my husband’s, but no cabs were available. After 15 minutes, we threw in the towel. My husband said he’d drive me; if we got caught and challaned, too bad. So we did it, heading towards Delhi (we live in Noida) and stopping every now and then to see if it was possible to get a taxi, an auto, anything. I eventually managed to get an auto, made it to the railway station well in time (more than two hours before departure, actually, since I’d planned to eat dinner there)…
… and discovered that, contrary to what online reviews had led me to expect, there is no decent restaurant inside the station, at least not at the Ajmeri Gate end. I ended up dining off a packet of biscuits and a bottle of Sprite.
I hadn’t even got into the train yet. But once I was seated, and had made friends with my fellow passengers (also speakers at the Sanchaari fest), I was feeling much happier.
Despite the fact that the journey wasn’t fun (stinky loos! Noisy people! Mostly sleepless night!), I was pretty upbeat in the morning, waiting for the train to arrive in Allahabad.
We were greeted by the requisite bright-eyed college student (who also turned out to have a fondness for shaayari, spouting poetry to us in the taxi as we went to our hotel). I was to stay at the Hotel Milan Palace, which turned out to be undergoing renovation.
This wouldn’t have been a problem, if the hotel hadn’t decided to release rooms which the construction team had quit perhaps only the day before. My room stank of paint and other unpleasant and unidentifiable stuff. There were loose wires hanging about left, right and centre; instead of a full-length mirror, there was a grubby plank of plywood.
There were streaks of cement-and-dust stains. There was not a single hook, railing or hanger in the bathroom and room… and, basically, it was a room that should have been cleaned several more times and inspected by an eagle-eyed Housekeeper before being given to a guest.
Anyhow. I was only going to spend one night here, so I didn’t let that bother me.
Just as well, since a few minutes after I’d entered my room, I got a call from one of the organizers. The Supreme Court’s sudden decision to announce its verdict on the Ayodhya matter had meant that the Allahabad administration had decided to take steps to prevent violence of any sort from erupting as a result: Section 144 had been enforced, which basically meant that the Sanchaari Sanskritik Parv could not be held.
While it meant a spanner in the works for me and for the other speakers, I felt bad for the organizers, who I knew had been working really hard for this. But they weren’t giving up so easily: we were told that they were trying to get hold of a bungalow or some such private space where the festival could go on, in a truncated and toned-down version. That, however, would take time, so we were free to do our own thing till about 3PM.
So we did. Travel writer and food blogger (among other things) Nikhil Kamath, writer and poet Pratyaksha and I—we had been on the train together—decided to go off on a drive. The Triveni Sangam, where the Ganga and Yamuna meet (and, according to some, so does the Saraswati, although in reality that’s no longer to be seen), was our first stop.
It’s been less than a year since the last Mahakumbh—‘the world’s largest religious gathering’—and for someone like me, who detests crowds, this was probably the best type of day to visit. Pratyaksha and I, both togged up for our aborted sessions (we hadn’t even brought along clothing more suited for travel adventures!), were picked out easily by the many eagle-eyed beggars, boatmen, and vendors of sundry stuff. A sadhu sitting under an umbrella watched as a little boy came around showing us a tiny but lethal-looking cobra coiled up in a basket, which he hoped we’d probably bow before and offer up some coins to.
Gulls squawked and wheeled beyond the rows of boats that fringed the riverbank. Boatmen gathered around us, offering to take us right up to the Sangam (the actual confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna—you can see the waters mixing only if you’re on the river itself; it’s not visible from the bank). Much haggling later (and with telephonic advice from a local, one of the Sanchaari organizers), we settled on a price that seemed acceptable. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to haggle any more, but I’m pretty certain we got conned anyway.
As our boatman rowed us away from the bank, the Allahabad Fort—built by Akbar, and with most of its structures demolished by the British post 1857—behind us, the gulls followed. They’re all around, flapping about and swimming around the boats, eagerly waiting for any scraps that might come their way. A vendor of birdfeed, all neatly packaged, came by in a boat, but we shooed him away.
The confluence was where all the boats congregated, jostling for space, making their way surely towards where greenish waters met brownish. We had declined the chance at saving our souls by dunking ourselves in the Sangam, but we watched some of the more devout accomplishing what looked like a horrendously dangerous enterprise. A wooden platform, slung between two boats, is lowered into the water—low enough for an adult to stand on it and be chest-deep in the water—and bamboos are placed, spanning the gap above, to act as handholds. You are lowered onto the platform, you dip yourself in, and you pray—I suppose—that you don’t lose your footing and your handhold. Or (I guess) it’s straight up to heaven. What surer way of achieving instant nirvana than by drowning at the Sangam?
Once we’d seen the Sangam and gotten back, it was a tough job to wade through the sand (which stuck to my wet shoes—I’d slipped while getting off, and one foot had gone into the water), and we were harried by beggars.
We got back into the car, and drove past several temples (one of these, which features a reclining statue of Hanuman, was mentioned to us by a local as being “very appropriate for the character of most Allahabadis”). We were too hot and dusty after our Sangam cruise, so allowed our driver to drive us through the University area, which has some lovely old colonial buildings. The boundary walls, and several buildings themselves, were vividly (if not always aesthetically) painted recently, in an attempt at beautifying the city for the Mahakumbh earlier in 2019.
By the time we were done (a short ride, since we didn’t know where to go, or what specific places to see in the University), we headed for a restaurant named Eden, at the Samrat Hotel. After the heat and grime (my shoes were still full of sand), this was truly paradisiacal. It was cool and pleasant, there were plants all around, and the food was simply heavenly. Nahari with khameeri roti, mutton fry with Malabar parotta, and chicken with bhut jholokia and tingmo were what we shared, with a velvety panacotta to end.
After that sumptuous lunch, all I wanted to do was go back to the hotel for a long siesta—but the good people at Sanchaari had been busy as beavers. One member had arranged for her wonderful, tree-fringed garden and bungalow to be the venue for the literary sessions that were to be part of the festival. While this obviously made for a smaller gathering (basically members of Sanchaari and their friends), it was more intimate and friendly than any other lit fest I’ve been to.
Over that evening and the next, I attended several sessions. Pratyaksha read some of her absolutely beautiful poetry; Nikhil discussed food blogging with two restaurateurs. I listened to the brilliantly knowledgeable, irreverent, and hilarious Pushpesh Pant in several sessions—talking about everything from food to Allahabad to history and the mountains.
I even attended two book events that had something to do with Hindi cinema. Both were about books by Saba Bashir: one featured her books on Gulzar (including one on Aandhi), and one her translation, Women of Prey, of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Shikari Auratein. Women of Prey also includes two Manto essays that were not part of Shikari Auratein but mirror the boldness and unpredictability of most of the women for whom Shikari Auratein is named. These are essays on two actresses from the 40s and early 50s: Paro, and the dancer Sitara Devi.
The discussion on Women of Prey included a little bit of unusual entertainment: one of the stories in the collection was acted out, in the original Urdu, by theatre artiste Asgar Ali, who really brought Manto to life.
And, naturally, there was my session. I was in conversation with Samina Naqvi, and we talked of food and films, about the project I embarked on last year, and what emerged out of it.
I got all too little time in Allahabad. I would have loved to have gone to the Allahabad Fort (even though I believe all that outsiders are allowed to see is one temple in the premises, the rest of the place being occupied by the Army). Even more, I would have loved to visit Khusro Bagh (a group of Sanchaari invitees were able to swing a trip there, but thanks to a sad misunderstanding, I got left out). I would have preferred breakfasting on kababs or chaat instead of picking at the chewy poha and rock-hard idlis at the Milan Palace.
But yes, I did walk down to the impressive All Saints’ Cathedral on Sunday, in time for service. The cathedral, which is part of the Church of North India (CNI), was less than ten minutes’ walk from my hotel, so getting there and back was a cinch.
Built in the late 1870s (and consecrated in 1887), All Saints’ was designed by Sir William Emerson, the architect who also designed Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial and Mumbai’s Crawford Market. This cathedral is all beige stone, with rows of arched windows, almost like French windows, down both sides. At one end, there’s a beautiful rose window, and more stained glass decorating the windows as well as behind the altar.
The carved columns, the fine jaali (stone filigree) behind the altar, and the high sloping ceiling, all dark wood, is impressive and beautiful. Since I got here about half an hour before service started, I had enough time to wander around and admire the church. If you’re coming as a tourist rather than to attend service, this is probably a good time to come—just before service, when the church is open, but service hasn’t started.
That, then, was Allahabad. It started off sounding like an adventure gone all wrong—a lit fest that almost didn’t happen—but it ended up being a memorable experience anyway. Much better than I’d hoped it would be, and it gave me reason to want to visit Allahabad again.