The next day I was lucky to meet Hamid Raj, who is currently faculty at Cept University. Hamid was born and raised in the old city, and loves it deeply. He is an explorer, who knows the city inside out. “I’ve been roaming these streets for years, but there is still so much that I discover everyday. That’s how rich the city is”, he tells me. Hamid frequently takes students to explore the hidden gems and unknown corners of the city, as part of a course on urban history. Excitedly, he recounts stories of a mosque with four domes enclosed in each other, which could have been one of the greatest architectural marvels of the city, but was unfortunately never completed. When I ask him about migrant communities, the first that comes to his mind is the Siddis. There is still a vibrant Siddi community in the city, he tells me, a lot of who work in the areas around Astodia Darwaja. The Siddis are descendants of African slaves brought by the Arabs and Persians, who have culturally intermingled within society over hundreds of years. All Siddis now speak Gujarati, and have adopted many Indian cultural practices, while still retaining some unique traditions that have African roots. I ask him if he could help me find where they live, and he agrees to accompany me. Unfortunately Hamid is currently busy with academic work, and I now have to wait for the promised walk through the old city.
The next day began early, with a trip to the flower market. The Ahmedabad flower market is one of the largest markets in the city. By 5:30 am, the place is already a hive of activity, as trucks loaded with flowers roll in. They are then unloaded into large fragrant piles of various hues. I roam around the area, inhaling deeply and taking care to avoid getting in anybody’s way. It’s incredible how busy a market dealing in just flowers can be.
That afternoon, I make my way to the Tibetan Palace restaurant. Referred to simply as Amdo’s, the joint is located in a slum in Paldi, and is another small informal setup that serves authentic Tibetan food. The proprietor Amdo has been settled in Ahmedabad for many years now, and his two children were born here. “They speak Hindi and Gujarati better than me!” he says with pride. Though the city is his home for most of the year, he finds it difficult to deal with the extreme heat in the summer. “Around April we shut shop and head North. We have many relatives there – my wife is from Mcleodganj.” Amdo is a second generation Tibetan, meaning that he has never been to Tibet in his life. “I’ve only seen pictures of it. It is beautiful.” Amdo is not particularly interested in the politics and agitation surrounding the ‘Free Tibet’ movement. “Of course I support it, but sometimes I wonder if it will lead to anything. Besides, India has been a good home – I am happy and thankful for what I have. Now I just want to make a living!”
The next, following a discussion with anthropologist Prof. Seema Khanwalkar, I decided to visit the city’s only synagogue. The Magen Abraham synagogue is in fact the only one in the whole of Gujarat, and caters to about 300 Bene Israeli Jewish families from all over the state. I meet the head rabbi, Mr. Joseph, who gladly shows me around the prayer hall and elaborates on the unique features of the synagogue, which differ from more traditional synagogue designs. “This is to suit the rituals and ceremonies of the Bene Israeli community, some of which are quite different from the ones found in more orthodox Jewish traditions.
The synagogue is situated right across from the city’s main fire temple, the place of worship for the Parsi community. Non-Parsis however are forbidden from entering the temple, so I have to satisfy myself with a view from outside.
My last day of exploration in Ahmedabad took me to Juhapura, a suburb in the southwest edge of the city. Juhapura had always been a mixed community, with both Hindus and Muslims living side by side. However, the area was badly affected during the riots following which a process of ghettoization started taking place. A wall was built separating the Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods, which remains to this day, though tensions between the communities have eased in recent years. Today, Juhapura is a thriving business centre, mainly for the Muslim community. Denied opportunites in the rest of the city, Juhapura’s businessmen have set up a parallel economy of sorts. Contrary to general opinion, many of Juhapura’s residents are quite wealthy. There are many large bungalows and villas, and even large luxury apartment housing that caters exclusively to the Muslim community. However, there are very few paved roads and other public infrastructure, revealing the government’s relative indifference to improving the quality of life for residents in the area.
With the amount of information I had gained over the week, it seemed to me that I had a lot to work with. Ahmedabad is a city that keeps its best parts hidden, and one needs to follow the threads in order to uncover its surprising secrets. I had still only scratched the surface, but I now had some great leads to work with. Another trip to the city is inevitable -