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Recollections of Allahabad

Recollections of Allahabad
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First Published: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 10 21 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 10 21 PM IST
The salary of a management trainee at the time seemed handsome at Rs1,100 per month and I could dine out, watch movies, and buy books and film for my camera. 
In my initial years during my postings in smaller towns I found friends who were probationers in civil services and recently commissioned officers in the Armed Forces. All of us were embarking on different careers and their messes became my watering hole. At 22, this was high life. 
Alongside learning the ropes of business there was a sense discovery in unfamiliar cities. 
There was Jalaludin Akbar’s magnificent fort built in 1583 in Allahabad on the Yamuna near Sangam. Legend has it that the Saraswati river has its source in Saraswati Koop inside the ramparts.  
The tombs of his eldest grandson and daughter in law are in Khusro Bagh. Prince Khusro was the son of emperor Jehangir and Shah Begum, his mother, a Rajput princess, was Jahangir’s first wife. Khusro was first imprisoned within the garden in 1606 after he rebelled against Jahangir, and was later assassinated in 1622. 
India is special, stories from 3,000 years of continuous civilization leap out of almost all villages, towns and cities.  
The good news is that whether it is ITC, Levers, Nestle or any corporation, the postings in the first few years were in smaller towns and districts. The argument rightly is that a management trainee or indeed a junior manager had to be trained to be familiar with the unfamiliar.  
Men and women who had been to schools and colleges in, say, Bombay were sent off to Assam or Kerala. It took some adjusting to, but it broke down barriers, introduced you to cultures, languages, food, music, cinema, history and indeed to people you had never expected to meet who became friends for life. 
A visit to Anand Bhavan in Allahabad sparked my interest in Indian history and my introduction to the subject was Jawaharlal Nehru.  
The first prime minister inherited a country that was destitute and poor, with only 11% of the population educated and a nation whose confidence in its own history, culture and capability had been challenged systemically and left dented. 
However, Nehru and his colleagues had the vision and will to convert India with its diversity into an inclusive modern republic, fuelled by democracy. Against a colonial and feudal past and the trying circumstances he lived and worked in, this transition must have had its challenges. 
I did not know that Nehru was incarcerated for over nine years in British prisons, making him among the longest serving political prisoners, Nelson Mandela is, of course, the Tendulkar among political prisoners at 27 years.   
There was certain contempt for Nehru in the Left-leaning university I had read in, Allahabad changed that. Evaluating Nehru’s contributions, decisions good and bad through the prism of the reality of the times he lived in provides an understanding of the man. It was also a lesson in seeing things from someone else’s perspective. 
Kaushambi is an archaeological site of importance, next to Allahabad. It finds mention in Puranas. Gautam Buddha was a regular visitor and Emperor Ashoka installed a pillar marking its significance. 
Dr Kennedy, historian and archaeologist from Berkeley, and his research assistant Chris Burrow from Little Rock, Arkansas were camping in Allahabad and working in Kaushambi. They made up the international side to my social life. Dr Kennedy asked me one evening if I was free on the following Saturday to join him for tea at the university.  
I went along and as we stepped into the lawn I found myself being introduced to Indira Gandhi who was the chief guest in the department of ancient history. 
Her decisions in mid 1970s, including imposing emergency, had made her an unpopular person. I reckon when history is written we will get a better insight into her politics. 
However, that afternoon, I was instantly charmed. She was petite, radiant and very attractive. She was wearing a khadi sari, a delicate rudraksh necklace and an HMT watch, frugal and elegant.  
Natwar Singh aptly sums it up when he says that “she possessed what the French so delicately describe as je ne sais quoi—she has that certain style—which made her the centre of attraction in any gathering”.
She had a sense of humour; among her published letters is this reference to a conversation between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon. To a question posed by the latter as to what would be different if Khrushchev and not Kennedy had been assassinated, Mao replied, “for sure Aristotle Onassis would not have married Mrs Khrushchev”.  
On her way out she was mobbed. I could sense that all these people who had little or no hope looked at her as a saviour, someone who understood their desperate situation and they trusted her to throw them a lifeline.  
She was in hindsight the high point of my stay in Allahabad.
My next posting was to Vidarbha, Khandesh and Marathwada, stylishly called Bombay upcountry.
Subroto Chattopadhyay incubates new businesses as chairman of The Peninsula Foundation, and also advises companies and development agencies.
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First Published: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 10 21 PM IST