A bustling market, trendy restaurants and gleaming marts welcome me as I step outside the Maninagar railway station in Ahmedabad, home turf of Gujarat’s controversial chief minister Narendra Modi.
At first glance Maninagar, located in southern Ahmedabad, is no different from up-market areas in Delhi or Mumbai. But a few kilometres away hovels line the roads, stray cattle roam the alleys and little boys in rags chase runaway kites.
I have been hearing a lot about “vibrant” Gujarat and how Modi has brought development to its people.
Yes, there are Reliance Marts but I am not impressed.
Except maybe by the electricity situation here. It amazes me that there are no power cuts here – till I am told power has been privatised.
I am on one of my rare visits to Ahmedabad, the city of my birth – where my Malayalee grandfather had migrated in the early half of the 20th century. No, I am not conversant in Gujarati – my parents shifted lock, stock and barrel to New Delhi when I was five years old.
And the nursing home where I was born no longer exists, apparently burned down in one of the frequent communal clashes that hold the city and the state in a deathly grasp.
“It’s good Modi has been re-elected,” says my cousin wryly. “Christians and Muslims will be left alone for another five years.”
I make my way to the market at Lal Darwaza, to a section populated mostly by Muslims. It’s here that you get quality stuff – the best bedsheets are invariably found in shops owned by a Khan, Salim or Mohammad.
Shops here are burned and looted during riots, then re-built and re-stocked. Hiccups may come and go but life goes on as usual.
I hear shouts behind me and I turn to look – but it’s only a bunch of unruly kids fighting over kites. It’s Uttarayan festival here, the time when the Ahmedabad sky is replete with kites.
Kites in all possible hues are everywhere and Modi smiles at me from several of them. A little boy in a skull cap is happy wresting a Modi kite – I guess he doesn’t care his prize catch flaunts the face of a man hated by most Muslims in the country.
As night falls, I walk down the main Maninagar street. And am surprised to see several women riding scooters even at 10 pm. It’s like committing hara-kiri for a woman to go out alone in Delhi or Mumbai but my young cousins have no qualms venturing into deserted lanes at night.
Well, cases of rape and molestation (except during riots) may be fewer in Gujarat but it doesn’t really mean the men here are saints.
“There are lechers around but they would think twice before molesting a headstrong Gujarati woman,” explains my cousin.
But the autowalas here are really nice. They ply by the meter. Whether it’s actually honesty or morals kept in check by local residents, I may never know.
And what of prohibition in the land of Mahatma Gandhi? Downing liquor in Gujarat is illegal and I was indeed impressed – until I saw a tramp walk home drunk.