Neelesh Narayan looked like a schoolboy. He was thin and compact and was dressed as if for the first day of class. (Under the high ceilings of Coffee House, this impression of a schoolboy was heightened.) At twenty-five, his touring company Holy Waters had successfully wedged Allahabad into the global industry of “colonial tourism”.
With options ranging from the “Rudyard Kipling trail” to the “Chronicles of Alfred Park”, Holy Waters invited you to rejoice in the “European attitude... the classic case of English flair” that was once typical of Allahabad. “My customers come from all over the Commonwealth,” Neelesh said. “The locals aren’t interested.”
Before all of that, though, how does a twenty-five- year-old end up on a “Rudyard Kipling trail”?
Born and raised in the industrial hub of Naini – “that side of the rivers” – Neelesh is a self-professed ’90s child. Paradoxically, as the country had opened to the world, Neelesh’s universe had only gotten smaller. Though he lived in a city of a million people, he really grew up on the handful of streets between his home and his school. The isolation, perhaps even a feeling of anonymity, only became more acute in the intervening years. It riddled Neelesh with an intense internal life and a strong desire to leave.
Neelesh left Allahabad for an MBA programme in tourism in Gwalior. He learnt about different tourism niches – colonial, poverty, roots – and spoke of places using terms such as “USP” and “heritage”. Before he knew it, he was obsessed with the city he had spent years yearning to leave.
He combed through Twitter and Facebook, research done by students and professors of Allahabad University and was floored by his discoveries. “This is the same architecture,” he declared, “Hogwarts-wala, Edinburgh’s. Why are people not coming here!” There it was – the elusive “gap in the market”. He’d be the first to parcel the past of Allahabad, to have his own touring operation. Holy Waters was born.
In his own retelling, Neelesh’s was a truthful but predictable arc. And why not? For he skipped over the messiest bits.
In the vast array of books written on Allahabad, the words of an unnamed British soldier appear in at least four. Writers bring them up summarily but, in the reader’s mind, as if a bullet from an 1853 Enfield rifle has dug in and is expanding, they activate an insidious horror. The soldier is recalling the mutiny of 1857. “One trip I enjoyed amazingly,” he writes...
[w]e got on board a steamer with a gun, while the Sikhs and the fusiliers marched up to the city. We steamed up throwing shots right and left till we got up to the bad places, when we went on the shore and peppered away with our guns, my own old double-barrel bringing down several niggers.
In the travelogue The Travels of a Hindoo, the aristocrat Bholanauth Chunder visits Allahabad a decade after the mutiny. The dominion has been transferred from the Company to the Crown; Allahabad is the new capital of the North-Western Provinces. The city is being rebuilt – Alfred Park and the residences of Rudyard Kipling included – on the ashes of eight villages that were burnt to suppress the revolt. Chunder stays up with his host and learns the fate of the dead:
Near six thousand beings had been thus summarily disposed of and launched into eternity. Their corpses hanging by twos and threes from branches and sign-posts all over the town [...] for three months did eight dead-carts daily go their rounds from sunrise to sunset, to take down the corpses which hung at the cross-roads and marketplaces, poisoning the air of the city, and to throw their loathsome burdens into the Ganges.
My first question for Neelesh, then, was thus – did he feel that he was peddling a crooked history?
He responded coolly, his MBA-speak taking over, “Look, my first priority is to check the USP of my territory. The city is colonial and is marketable in the colonial circuit – Shimla, Lucknow, Kolkata. The churches, the parks, the clubs – all that sells. That’s what people want.”
That was the other thing, what people want.
Before our meeting, Neelesh had WhatsApped me some photographs from his tours. In one of them, I came across a group of “European tourists” posing in front of the Gothic-style Civil Lines church – sunglasses on, a bottle of sanitiser going around. What were they doing here, travelling across the world for things they’d find down the street from their homes? Did they feel proud of their ancestors? Did they ever worry about the poison in the air?
I wondered if the questions had ever bothered Neelesh.
“Aap aise pakadiye,” he said, “suppose if we go to Paris. We find a temple there. We get excited. ‘Look, yahaan bhi, same to same.’ Similarly, Europe ka tourist, when he comes here and sees all this, they are also excited. ‘We have left our mark here.’”
Evidently, they hadn’t.
Coffee House is where I grew up. My family would come here every other Sunday. My siblings and I would race in for the seat by the air coolers. Baba would call for Vijay, a waiter whose son went to school with my father, and there he’d appear – a tray hoisted aloft on his palm.
I always marvelled at how quickly he’d switch between bussing our table, plunking down clean plates and Picardie glasses, and memorising our order of South Indian and English breakfast staples. Some years ago, and old enough to quit racing, I no longer saw Vijay here. He had moved on to another place, and better pay. Even so, I realised, I kept an eye out for him.
Perhaps it was the memories, or the wafts of the summer loo, but as twilight approached, my conversation with Neelesh grew less rehearsed and more perceptive. He told me that there was a reason he wanted to meet here. When he was doing his MBA, his friends would often poke fun at his circular and animated patterns of speech. “From the dacoits of Gwalior or the bakaiti of Allahabad,” they’d say, “no one can save you.” Look around, he said, this is our city at its maximum!
I did and indeed, Neelesh was onto something. If you were to zoom out while focusing in on its peach façade, you’d consider Coffee House anachronistic. Gaudy hotels and shopping complexes had squeezed it into a corner. The inside, though, was another story.
Above the colourful Eastern UP conversation, filled with innuendo and double entendre, the screeches of tables and chairs getting pushed around after a surprise run-in and the loud debates enjoyed solely for their blistering comebacks, the noise of traffic and McDonald’s etc. barely registered. In Coffee House, at least, the city felt invincible.
“Some of my customers,” he continued, “contact me with very special requests.” I learnt of the Australian couple that had come looking for more information about the husband’s mother. The husband remembered eating a special Christmas cake that his mother got from Chowk.
Neelesh found them a similar tasting cake; he also located the church where she got married. Another time, a woman from Germany returned with her grandfather’s watch. She knew that he had bought it from someone in Civil Lines. Neelesh asked around in the shops and learnt that the pharmacy next to Paradise Bakery, where Eat On customers enjoy plates of biryani, was once a horologist’s boutique.
It was in the light of these impressions and stories that I began to see Neelesh differently. If he so pleased, Neelesh could have easily lied about the mini-anthropological missions. He didn’t. Perhaps he saw a bit of himself in those travellers. After all, his journey from the small quarters on ‘that side of the rivers’ to a beguiling yet rooted city was comparable to theirs. Drifting like stray kites, they were waiting for a line to reel them in.
Still, most of his customers were like the ones in the photographs. What was I to make of Neelesh’s posing in front of them?
Excerpted with permission from A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad, Udbhav Agarwal, Aleph Book Company.
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