I dust off university memories and swot up ragging, study two prime ministers, follow Gandhi to the Ganges, and watch clay idols diving.
It’s only 150 km from Faizabad south to Allahabad, but the bus took over three hours. A Leprosy Mission worker queued from before dawn to reserve me the best of the cracked blue vinyl seats, just behind the driver. Passengers spat out the windows as we passed trees striped white-red-white. Helpful exhortations were painted on truck rears: “Horn please”, “Keep safe distance”, “Sound horn okay”, “Use dipper at night”, “Don’t fast.” You know you’re acclimatising to India when the pulse rate “doesn’t fast” too much when you see an oncoming lorry on your side of the road and neither driver slows down.
Straight through a roundabout with Varanasi to the left (the psychedelic sacred city – for a future trip), and Lucknow to the right (my previous stop – see here). Across the Ganges, India’s holiest river, and into Allahabad, literally “construction of God”.
And into the worst traffic snarl I’ve seen, despite the smallish population of one to two million. Half the main roads were dug up for drainage upgrades; people were sleeping in the metre-wide concrete pipes. Allahabad may be the easiest city so far to cross the road, but in places dust billows with each footstep like for astronauts on the moon. Acrid smoke from burning leaves adds to the haze. Motorcyclists wore face scarves like bandits, and car headlights at night glowed as if though thick fog.
One dark night I was about to step on a pile of sand, and realised just in time it was a recumbent cow. Bovines seem more common than dogs here, which makes me very happy, and I sometimes pass a line of bullocks. Like the roading, the electrical infrastructure is also in flux. Charges for the internet café I used in Allahabad: 15 rupees per hour “by electricity”, but 25 “by generator”.
I stayed for six nights at the leafy nine acre campus of Allahabad Bible Seminary (ABS, founded in 1942). I began to explore the possibility of teaching theology at ABS over two years ago, before Dad had cancer, so I was excited to see the place at last. The seminary has lectures in both English and Hindi, in subjects I’ve studied and in Indian topics I haven’t. The half-hour morning chapel is bi-lingual and there are Hindi courses in town. All this seemed to give great potential for me to both teach and learn.
But wires had been crossed. They thought I’d come to teach English and fix their computer networks. Lecturers were busy with admin and the students (around 160) were sitting exams, so there were no lectures I could sample. (The state of Uttar Pradesh has the world’s biggest public school exams – at a city temple, Hindu students with their textbooks made offerings to ensure success.) Despite this confusion the ABS people were a welcoming bunch, from the kid who’d cycle up to say hello, to the smiling guard at the gate who’d pull up a chair when I returned to hear about my day.
From the roof of the guesthouse where I stayed I could see the stone tower of the University of Allahabad. It was founded in 1887 as India’s fourth university, and didn’t look to have been maintained since then. On a deserted Sunday afternoon, with its overgrown lawns, peeling plaster and cracked domes missing most of their tiles, the science campus felt like a Muslim mausoleum. I visited the main campus during the week and saw a few more students, some running late for their exams, others staring at the out-of-place white face. It was very monocultural compared to Auckland. Stacks of wooden desks looked like relics from my parents’ school days. India can seem like a Victorian time warp.
Before this trip to India, I’d only heard of “ragging” in old British novels. I’d seen a simple sign forbidding it at the University of Delhi, but here was a whole list of ragging prohibitions and punishments on a large campus signboard. “Do not cause to… Address seniors as ‘Sir’, copy class notes for the seniors, don menial jobs for the seniors” didn’t sound so bad, but it got worse:
look at pornographic picture to ‘shock the fresher’s out of the innocence’,
force to drink alcohol, scalding tea etc,
force to do act with sexual overtones, including homosexual acts,
force to do act which can lead to physical injury/mental torture or death…
(The list is only indicative, and is not exhaustive)
A quick google for “ragging in india” finds some pretty nasty stuff, and it causes several suicides every year (see Wikipedia). The government even has an anonymous email for victims, email@example.com. Once again I realise how sheltered and blessed we are in New Zealand.
I flourished my Staff ID card from the University of Auckland, where as a first year I experienced nothing worse than nerves, and was admitted to the library. After admiring the colonial architecture, wandering the wide empty corridors, and finding only a few out-of-date looking shelves, I began to ask, “Where are the books?” I’d asked the same question at the University of Madras in 2007 (see here) and surmised that current texts are only delivered on request.
One gloomy chamber was wonderful. Ancient volumes with cracked leather bindings scrawled on bending shelves above dusty tomes stacked on tables. It was like the library of a fairy-tale castle under a spell of sleep. A custodian was hovering so I couldn’t peruse the titles, though I spotted a bound collection of 1930s Punch. Second-hand books are spread along the pavement of University Street outside, a larger outdoor version of the second-hand book stall that used to run in the first weeks of semester at Auckland University. I bought used physics, chemistry and biology textbooks there in my undergraduate years.
The University of Allahabad trained many of India’s top leaders and five prime ministers were born here. The first was Jawaharlal Nehru, who lived not far away. His house, the Anand Bhavan, is now a museum with the furnishings left much as they were. Nehru was progressive – he had the first motorcar in town, educated – bookcases of literature from East and West, and eloquent. On the walls hung photos of independence movement leaders like Gandhi planning their next move against the British, right here in the house. His daughter Indira Gandhi also became Prime Minister. After viewing her house where she was assassinated in Delhi, it was poignant to see her birthplace and pictures of her childhood here. Again I pondered the passing of time, and sadly remembered my Dad.
The city museum had ancient sculptures, Moghul miniatures, modern paintings, and another Gandhi exhibit. I saw the urn that contained his cremated ashes and the “Gandhi Memorial Vehicle”, the festooned truck that transported said ashes to be scattered at Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers. A cycle rickshaw carried me there to complete my personal Gandhi pilgrimage.
The Sangam is one of the holiest sites in India, where the two geographical rivers meet an invisible spiritual one. It’s approached through wide open fields that are filled with pilgrims in January-March. Every six years there’s a special Mela festival. Over 70 million people came in 2007, making it the world’s biggest ever gathering. Upon arriving, before I could object, Shiva’s trident was stamped in red on both my wrists and oily paste smeared on my forehead. I rubbed it off, not wanting sweat to wash gunk into my eyes. I walked past tour coaches and assorted temples to the riverbank, where men had their heads shaved, leaving one tuft at the back, before taking a holy dip. No matter how polluted it may look, Ganges water will wash your soul clean. Long narrow boats lined the shore, with cylindrical awnings for shade, waiting to ferry worshippers out to where the rivers intermingle.
I followed a narrow dirt path between the water and the battlements of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century fortress. It’s still used by the army so you can’t enter. Some men struggled to free a large dinghy stuck in the mud. Back on the riverside road, a stream of women disembarked from a bus with head shaven bald – pilgrims from Hyderabad in the south. Then I heard amplified Hindi music and saw a procession of young guys straggling along with around six idols. These were richly clothed and painted in front, but of rough clay behind. The employees with their boss cheerfully invited me to descend the steep steps to the river with them. Once or twice a statue was nearly dropped and I could imagine the Hebrew prophets, saying, “Like scarecrows in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk” (Jeremiah 10:5).
After holding up each idol for me to photograph, one at a time was manhandled onto the bow of a boat, rowed a few metres out, and dumped into the water. Only floating garlands marked the spot. They encouraged me to join them in cheering “Hail, Ma Durga”, but were understanding when I demurred and said I was Christian. One guy kept repeating “God bless you” until I left. An example of the common Indian tolerance that’s sadly not universal – witness Ayodya (see my previous post here) and other sporadic attacks on minority groups.