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City on the Plain


Neelum Saran Gour

THE LAST BUNGALOW: WRITINGS ON ALLAHABAD
Edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2007, pp. 329, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 7 July 2007

We Allahabadis grew up carrying our own mythology in which fact, innocence and provincial arrogance mingled in equal proportions. But let me get to the facts. The city of Allahabad, a dot on the map like a mustard seed placed exactly where the spidery, hairline-blue veins of two big rivers meet, was not just another nondescript settlement in the great Indian outback. It was a prominent administrative hub during the Raj, with a high-profile cultural identity all its own. It is to this once-great centre of high learning, activism and literary output that The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, is dedicated. An intermesh of Hindu, Islamic and British influences, Allahabad supplied a battery of civil servants, jurists, politicians, writers, scientists and academics to India’s cutting-edge history-makers. Reading through an account of an average day in the autobiographical anecdotage about the city is like walking through a gallery of India’s Who’s Who not so very long ago. It has been an immense pleasure reading this collection of writings about the city, to revisit bungalows, streets, parks, fairgrounds and bridges highlighted by Hsiuan Tsang’s voice-over, or Ralph Fitch’s quaint Elizabethan locutions, or Fanny Parkes’s lively nineteenth century outpourings or Bhola Nath Chunder’s Victorian jottings or Kipling’s perky confidences or Mark Twain’s intrigued observations. The city’s felt presence comes alive in a sweeping experience of historic sharing that is exciting to a twenty-four carat Allahabadi like me. History unrolls before the eye in a collage of curious pictures that have not been sighted before—sadhu acrobats balanced, like doors on hinges, on poles stuck in the waters of the Ganga; pilgrims leaping to their deaths; nineteenth century Ramlilas in which the child actors who played Hindu gods were given poisoned sweets so as to achieve immortality in godhead. And then 1857, the slaughter of British settlers, the survivors seeking sanctuary in the Fort and the days of the Terror, Indian soldiers of the 6th Regiment Native Infantry rampaging about, killing, robbing, burning. And the retaliation by Neill’s forces in which the victorious British wrought a terrible vengeance on the local population and bodies swung from improvized gallows at every crossroads.   Then villages were razed to the ground and a tranquil, colonial garden-city laid out. Every student of colonial history is familiar with the Declaration of Allahabad, read out ...


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