So readily recognizable, so readily wearying, are the woes of the expatriate Indian on a trip to India. But bear with me, gentle reader. My hometown is the place about which the writer Upamanyu Chatterjee, who was born in Patna, has said, “I can’t efface that from my history, it’s in my passport…” Here is my brief travelogue published today in Tehelka:
Going to Patna for a vacation sounds a little bit like going to the bus-stop for a martini. But my parents live there, and Patna is where I visit for the holidays. I find myself reciting the familiar woes of the NRI in the motherland, the endless clichÃ©s about the heat and dust, but a part of me also believes that a trip to Patna offers a glimpse of the real India. I’m not talking of “poverty tourism” here, but something quite specific. A report from the UN stated that in India it is easier to have a mobile phone than to have access to a toilet. Well, ladies and gentlemen, come to Patna–you’ll see that the rickshaw-puller has tucked into the little pocket of his torn ganji a small phone, while on both sides of the street, as you ride the rickshaw into the market or the station, arises the distinct aroma of drying urine.
[The fab painting above, of a rickshaw-puller in Patna, is by my yaar and Patna star, Anunaya Chaubey]
I exaggerate, of course, but only marginally. You can go for a boatride on the Ganges in search of fresh air. If you can stand the loud roar of the engines, and the snout-up-in-the-air pose of the boats, it is a fun ride. The brown and pink tones of the buildings seen from a distance, the city revealing another side of itself, like a face glimpsed from another angle. As the boat zooms, what comes close is the magnificent concrete expanse of the five kilometer-long bridge across the river. When the boatman turns around and you are on the way back to the ghat, the human scale reasserts itself in the line of buttocks that form the indelicate horizon. We have always been told that the Ganges is the eternal river, it is pure, and not even this massive outpouring of shit will sully it.
When I was a boy, growing up in that city, relatives who were visiting would sometimes go to the airport in the evening to watch a plane land and take off. And near the airport, the wide roads that lead to the Governor House served as a boulevard for strolling. I was often taken to the Soda Fountain, near Gandhi Maidan, for ice-cream. Of course, neither the place, nor the people, are the same now. In modern-day Patna, you can play pool or visit the fast-food restaurants or stroll in the Maurya Lok shopping centre among the unusually high number of jewelry stores.
But in both the Patna of old and the city that is thriving today, a popular site for visitors remains the Gol Ghar. A giant, dome-shaped granary built by the British in 1786, after the famine that killed ten million people, it is a marvel of architecture. The Gol Ghar is constructed like a stupa; it is pillarless, and has a spiral stairway leading to the top. I always enjoy climbing it. I can look at the city, but also at the people coming on the stairs after me, eager to capture their personal view of Patna. We shouldn’t, I think, search for symbolic significance in the fact that because of a fatal flaw in the construction of its doors, the Gol Ghar has never been put to use in the way that it was originally designed.