On 23 September 1887, the fourth oldest university in India was established in the holy city of Prayag, also known as Allahabad. In 1921, the University of Allahabad became a unitary teaching institution and over the next four decades slowly rose to become one of the best known centres of higher learning in the north. As home to India’s first two prime ministers, Allahabad saw a brief intoxicating period in which eminent scientists, scholars and writers such as Meghnad Saha, A.C. Banerji, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Harivansh Rai Bachchan from the university became national icons.
But by the late 1960s, things had begun to change. As science and higher learning came to be dominated by the political and bureaucratic circles, the heart went out of things. During my visit some five years ago, the campus looked derelict. There had been a confrontation between students’ groups and after a couple of deaths the university had been closed sine die. Then in 2005, a long-pending demand that the university be given the status of a Central university was met. In February 2008, it threw its gates open for a first-ever meet of its alumni in 121 years.
Thus a second visit.
On the face of it, nothing much has changed in Allahabad. The early morning trains still regurgitate their usual load of passengers on the platform and all of them—babus, netas, the rustic pilgrims with sleepily obedient families in tow, white foreigners trying to look Indian—must trip delicately around dozens of sleeping forms rolled within quilts. All hurtle ultimately towards the exit where a sleepy babu checks a few tickets perfunctorily and waves the rest on.
The first sight of the university confuses the visitor. The elegant heritage buildings that house the Senate Hall and the departments of English, economics and the law faculty stand amid once-lush lawns now sprouting a variety of weeds. Outside the walls, the area continues to be dusty, noisy and overcrowded. The expansion of the university, like the current widening of roads around the campus, has been rather unplanned and somewhat chaotic. The university lies within the heart of the cantonment city. This 2.6km area has a high population density with residential and commercial buildings spanning centuries, and the edge of the district is owned by private trusts which run many popular grocery and bookshops and eating joints that cater to the students. This makes the effort of sealing or removing buildings here like pushing your fist into a wasps’ nest.
Real life has remained on hold for decades in this town. A little architectural charm or a trick of light may sometimes turn other people’s poverty into a tourist snapshot but years of deference to political bullies have wrecked the city. Our hotel has smelly corridors, unlockable doors and only one lift operating, but it is full of foreigners. These, the driver informs us in a melodramatic whisper as we are leaving, are Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s disciples, come all the way from Amsterdam to immerse their guru’s ashes in the holy city and will leave only after the 13th-day shraddha ceremony at which they’ll all get their heads shaven like Hindu sons. Or, one should say unlike Hindu sons today.
We are received at the University Senate Hall with genuine warmth and grace.The front rows are filled as usual with wizened but elegant senior citizens, most of them alumni. They patiently riffle through the pages of the special souvenir volume brought out to mark this occasion and make small talk. Delays are not unusual for them. The honourable minister for human resource development, himself an alumnus, arrives after a long wait and the programme begins to move as academic activities all the world over do, with a certain touching, shuffling and dislocated pomp. As in a Hindu temple, it is easy to suspend disbelief here. All of us in the hall want the noble premises that had nursed our minds to be blessed. We want the long tormented campus to regain its old peace and the ugly immediate past acknowledged and shriven. Any feeling of anger against hypocrisy, against big money masquerading as eminent global citizenry evaporates because the moving spirit of this particular wandering ceremonial springs from a simple and brief harking back to the ancient personality of the Allahabad University and the hierarchical, half magical trust of its creators in the essential nobility of the human mind.
Later, standing amid a chaotic medley of buildings in the Women’s College, I ask the dean, “What are you going to do to undo such bad planning over such a large area?”
“Do?” his forehead puckers slightly, “We’ll raze the old building in the middle and replace it with a modern, multi-storeyed structure for sure. And (here his face breaks into an enchanting smile) we shall plant many gardens. Roses, yes, we shall have an ocean of roses for our girls.”
A lonely man standing in the midst of a wasteland of facts, the dean was perhaps the most apt symbol for this ancient city of slowly dying holy rivers. The city that as a repository of India’s otherness has sustained the grandest dreams of higher learning for the nation’s young minds even amid all kinds of dusty longings and death.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org