‘The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad’ is an anthology of prose pieces, poems, letters and memoirs edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. The editor in his note says that the selection mainly focuses on the colonial city from its rise in roughly 1800 to its catastrophic end two hundred years later. The colonial legacy traced in the book offers a fitting perspective into the description of the orient by the occident, rise and fall of colonial power and the aftermath of it in the post-colonial India.
The first piece in the book is entitled Descendants: an introduction where the author describes a few Bungalows along with their occupants. The names of bungalows are English and their inhabitants are Indian in blood and colour and more English in their manners. The bungalow is a symbol of colonial architecture and taste. The city also was a home to the research scholars that produced as well as edited masterly literary pieces in English and Indian languages like Bengali and Hindi. This part has loose threads that are joined in the end with the pieces on the lives of the next generation of these after1970s. ‘In the last one hundred and fifty years, Allahabad has seen two migrations: one after mutiny till a decade after independence and second in 1980’s that has been a local affair’ (p 30). The descendants are the Ghoshs, the Chatterjees, the Nehrus, the Dhondys, the Jhas and the Rudras. These people migrated here in 2nd half of 19th century and flourished in medicine, business, trade, administration and judiciary.
In his account, Hsiuan Tsang talks of the festival at Prayag during Harasha Vardhan’s reign and also talks of stupas that contain hair and nail relics of the past Buddhas. He finds rajas, priests, heretics, widows, orphans and mendicants here at the festival where even monkeys and mountain stags assemble. He talks of religion and charity and Ralph Fitch, amongst the first Englishmen to set foot in India finds it a land of naked beggars and horrifying forests. The same place is a fit romantic spot for religion for Bholanath Chander and nasty with different sects of sadhus for Ved Mehta.
Reginald Heber, the bishop preaching and administering the sacraments to natives finds only the garden of Sultan Khusroo as an architecture not ‘in bad taste and barbarous’ alongwith a few other ‘considerable buildings or ruins’. Bhatnagar gives an account of European philosophers, explorers and scientistsalong with British administration and rule.
The scholarship lies in the selection of the narrative by Fanny Parkes who is appreciative of India and critical of British Government. She talks of a pleasant journey in ‘bringing up our horses and baggage uninjured and in not having robbed en route’ (p 51). We find mention of native superstitions (as frantic dance by Indian women at the outbreak of cholera, torturing a bull to ward it off ), native servants in an English household and their works and wages, caste system prevalent in India (one man will not do the work of another but says, “I will lose caste” p. 58), snakes, the items at display in Indian bazars and a long description on the process of ice-making in this hot country. She also refers to the pilgrim tax imposed on British subjects. ‘Every native pays tribute of one rupee to govt. before he is allowed to bathe’.
The 1857 mutiny and its impact in Allahabad is discernible from the letters of Matilda Spry who refers to burning of bungalows, thieving servants, scarcity of food and medicine for English women and children and the relief given to them by the govt. Chander also presents the horror of corpses hung everywhere.
Heber justifies British governors in place of inferior and inexperienced local courts and Chander finds Indians with bare feet and bare heads before British as signs of their subjugation. In Kipling, we find an English chiseling his pen in Allahabad whereas Nehru, Bachchan, Jha, Nirala, Mehta, Mehrotra, Mishra and Gyanranjan trace bildungsromian and literary voyages of themselves, their friends, their English education, university life in Allahabad and production of Indian literature chiefly in Hindi but in Bengali and English as well over a span of fifty years or more. When Kipling finds the English children acquiring a chi-chi accent under the influence of native maids, he certainly is referring to the British hegemony and his disdain for the place where his muse sang to him. At the same time it talks of the joy and ecstasy of Indians at their self-discovery and freedom of their tongue from English chains.
We find summing up of Western idea of India in Mark Twain. ‘India is the land of contradictions, the land of subtlety and superstitions, the land of wealth and poverty . . . and the land of the private carriage’ (p 114).
Then the author takes up freedom struggle and the subsequent fall of the city in a way emphasizing that British administration was good. Lelyveld considers Swaraj Bhawan as ‘cradle to the Indian freedom’ and explores the role of Sayyid Mahmud and his son who talk of ‘impossibility of real friendship within any system of colonial domination’. Bachchan talks of national song, Tilak and his funeral and Gandhi and his movements and Dayal supplements it with accounts of civil disobedience and death of Azad. If History is not one grand narrative but there are histories of the ordinary people, histories to be traced from other accounts not ordinarily read as history but contributing to the formed notions of events in history, the book is indeed purposeful and guides us to explore more such accounts to trace alternative histories.
The decadence can be traced in the writings of Mishra, Sealy and Mehrotra who portray dowry deaths, rapes in estates of rich, violence and murders, rule of hooligans at gun point and sex scandals. There is a lament that ‘the certainties he longed for could have been supplied to him only by a radical political ideology’ (p 284).
The anthology is a good read and an excellent record on ancient, Moghul, British and modern India though some pieces appear deliberately thrust like on Ghalib, Kipling and Nehru. Moreover the editor may have made these insignificant as a huge corpus of works by these three exists and one can follow his/her own road in one’s reading of them. On the whole the book is a guided tour of colonial history with its chronological presentation of profound thinkers and commentators and is a thoroughly researched one.
The Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad, Ed. by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Penguin, New Delhi: 2007. pp 331 Rs. 395/-