Gorakhpur waiting for a new dawn

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“The sadness is, that every leaf has fallen before…”

Allen Ginsberg in his book KADDISH AND OTHER POEMS

Writing this piece, I am aware that societies struggling to come to proper shape thrive on assumptions regulating these societies. And with the job in hand, I will go with the assumptions even naïve one of the place I belong to, for realties divorced from such assumptions when reflected upon, irrespective of time and period of reflection, portray distortions in experienced realties. The cards have to be laid on the table. Ingenuously. On my recent visit last month, after many years, to Gorakhpur, a city in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where I was born in 1960 and where I spent first twenty-three years of my life — the most important formative years in any individual’s life — what welcomed me there amid many things, usual and unusual, were memories that had been quiescent, with sporadic remissions, but this confrontation with the place: the streets, the shops, the colleges, the schools, the university, the vendors, the hospitals, the libraries and above all the individuals peopling the city brought a somewhat cumulatively animated revival and reminder of the past. A visit to the past makes one judge how far societies have moved, how matured, well-behaved these have become. It was in 1980 that I did my masters in Economics from the Gorakhpur University and like many other students, I was also sieged with the apprehension and hopelessness likely to be embedded in the days to come. To overcome that, I went to meet Dr BK Singh, then Head of the Department of Economics, entreating him to accept me as his research scholar for PhD. His stern looks matched his equally firm and icy voice, “What will you do after that? Go back and prepare for competitive examinations.” The end was nearly complete. The time to stay with languid feelings of being an unemployed youth, in a lower middle class family, losing precious moments of life had come. However, unfortunately after that I could never meet late Dr Singh.

Then times were different. Strange considerations caused bizarre decisions. So was the case with the opening of a degree college about which this was what was in the air. A degree college was opened by a rich and liberal person in order to offer job to a young man who was reportedly going to be his very close relative prospectively. Unaware of this immutable relationship in the offing, I applied for the post of lecturer in that college. A few of my “well-wishers” approached me with a sagacious advice asking me not to appear for the interview as there was only one post. I declined. The day of reckoning was unlike other days and the interview board was headed by none other than the same late Dr BK Singh. It transpired that he was determined to offer the job based on merit but the relationship between prospective relatives duo was too much for him. Refusing to succumb to pressure, he declined to conduct the interview. Later on, a new board was formed; this time headed by another gentleman, flexible enough, from some other university. I felt the atmosphere was relaxed and the ease out there was really piquant. 

The gentleman heading the board asked me about the difference between economic growth and economic development. Realising that the die was already cast, I decided to give my best and tried to explain the difference by citing the concept of “instrumental value premises” enunciated by economist Gunnar Myrdal and further amplifying it by citing ten indices of economic development again as suggested by Myrdal and relevance of these to Adelman and Morris’s forty-eight qualitative indicators applicable to developing countries. I could sense the disquieted demon of “holier than thou” syndrome raising its head in the room as the learned members seemed to be the least interested in what I was mouthing. Obviously they might have found it miffing. Then one more member asked what should be the aim of economic development in the context of Gorakhpur, the city. Another economist of eminence, Paul Streeten, came to my rescue. “Transformation of human beings is the ultimate objective of economic development. Gorakhpur requires transformation of human beings.” By that time the level of discomfort was at its summit and Chairman of the board told me very curtly that interview was over and I must leave. I left with late Dr BK Singh’s icy words ringing in my ears, “What will you do after that? Go back and prepare for competitive examinations.” I realised the pivotal message given to me by the Professor: he placed his belief in competitive examinations as a relatively fairer means to have one’s talent scrutinised. So did I. My deepest regards to such a rare and uncompromisingly forthright breed of teachers as that of Professor Singh.

Thirty-five years later, during this visit, what impacted me the most was the relevance of the question learned members of the interview board asked me and the reply I gave. Society grows only when human beings realise the need for transformation, yearn, by all means feasible, for achieving that transformation and be prudent enough to see logic in the steps taken towards such transformation and to accept these. A society which lacks the power to question itself, to confront itself with the questions so bare as not to escape even the blindest eyes and to seek answers to such questions and which feels incapacitated enough to assess itself is a society where such a transformation, which economists like Paul Streeten cogitate, is met with maximum resistance. Individuals need no safety-valve; they are comfortably ensconced in their daily routine shunning any disturbance. They want their world reflected in others but never others in their own. The idea of not looking beyond oneself is the most lucrative idea as it bars the possibility of interpretation; the possibility of having a renewed or fresh look at one’s interpretations of oneself or the way one looks at things around.

In my conversation with a seasoned poet and senior journalist of a national Hindi newspaper who had spent a few years in Gorakhpur roughly the same time I had, my ideas got pepped up: the place had been, not to speak of stagnating, actually going downhill. We tried to remember Gorakhpur as it existed almost thirty-five years back and we were approaching the discussion from students’ point of view as at least some of them might prove to be marvels of the city in future. He fondly recollected about the book stall, a middle-sized shop in the heart of the town, the only shop selling important magazines like The Sunday, Illustrated Weekly of India, Caravan and many others and further recollected how the big-moustached owner of the stall, had equally large heart who was all agog to help curious students by arranging books and magazines for them. What was abstruse started clearing up; I too was constant visitor to that bookstall, the jovial-all helping visage of the owner reappeared before me. “Where is he?” I asked. “You should visit the bookstall in the evening,” the journalist’s voice: a dimmed voice, I heard. Next day I had to board the flight to Delhi. “So I ought to meet him this evening itself.” I thought.   

Then Golghar was considered the poshest area of Gorakhpur with a relatively wide road: two cinema theatres located side by side with huge rush every show; the bookstall was in the front corner of one theatre. Books and magazines got throne there and these illuminated the mind of any student capable of fathoming the value of books. It was 7 in the evening. Traffic was very dense; almost impenetrable. I reached up to the point; everything seemed hazed. The bookstall was nowhere in sight; large concrete structures said to be the future hub of business activities were rising. There was no way I could access the stall. Roads were worse than detours. I really felt guilty. Later I came to know the bookstall was very much there but it had a highly skewed existence; it was almost unnoticeable. Someone else informed the bookstall had ceased to exist. An example of concrete structures replacing places of knowledge and learning. Development entails costs.

Virtually a decade back — the same place — Gorakhpur, a professor of mine was talking about the status of libraries in colleges: there had been no or very meagre funds for the books; there were books bought years back but not issued to any student or teacher; very few students entered library; for them there were attractions galore inside the campus excepting the library; nonchalant nature of teachers added further insult to injury; contentment was with “kunji or key-books” with no or limited desire for main text books, everything was in complete disarray. “But why the man in charge of the library, the librarian not ask for funds or raise other issues you just spoke about?” I asked him. “He wouldn’t do that. His seniors and colleagues would warn him of possible consequences. He might be asked to explain his utility to the college: how he is useful to the college when books bought are not in demand. You are in bureaucracy. I suppose you know how systems work; how mirrors are diverted.” I found the Professor very candid and facile. But he was successful in making a point. He continued further, “People have no trouble with the form; they know the art of fitting into particular forms as these suit them. But they have complaints about the way systems work. Why to blame the librarian? Or even the system.” The professor concluded and he implied an effortless conclusion.

Empty spaces: possible places of public rendezvous, where children used to play and old people used to spend mornings and evenings sharing time together are no longer empty: these are completely and mechanically filled: there is a definite pattern: there are doctors’ clinics, adjacent to which are privately-run hospitals; adjacent to which are medical stores and then coaching centres for MBBS and IIT-JEE. The number of patients waiting outside for their turn to come was simply choking. Their patience harrowing; many times their turn might not come the same day. The vicious circle continues; students getting trained to pass MBBS examinations; they will open more clinics; more hospitals; more medical shops: the chain — robust one is already in place. In the Mohalla called Sumer-Sagar, where I spent my childhood and early adulthood and where walking, running or even playing on narrow roads were easy and comfortable, this time I found narrow roads had become narrower beyond imagination; not even two square feet space was available on either side of the road; everything was perfectly occupied. What was the most horrendous was movement of people. Fabulous cars fabulous families dream of; rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, scooters; motor-cycles, bicycles, umpteen number of pedestrians, all vying with each other to make a movement forward. Every movement seemed locked. There was no sense of dispersal nor of relief. Their patience was really distressing. It took me forty minutes by car to cover a distance of thousand metres. “Har sham yeh numayis dekh sakten hain yehan” (Every evening this exhibition can be seen here,) my co-passenger said it and then laughed boisterously. None seemed to take note of either what he said or his boisterous laughter.

Enamoured with new models, modern developmental economists now fascinatingly talk of “human thriving” and “functionings” as indices of development. Economist GA Cohen explains these concepts by saying that the life a person leads can be seen as a combination of “doings” and “beings” which can be generically called “functionings”. These “functionings” accrue from elementary matters such as being well-nourished and free from disease and also accrue from complex matters such as having self-respect, human dignity, participating in community life, etc. In brief, these modern concepts, heavily influenced by Rawls’ and Dworkin’s philosophical outpourings, connote how people conduct their lives; how and what quality of health and medical services they enjoy; the nature and quality of education available to them; how labour is rated: whether it is rewarding or monotonous; how citizens conduct their social and personal relations; how family relations and sexual relations are structured; how societies permit their inhabitants to imagine, to have feelings of emotions like love, appreciation and gratitude. All these modern indices of development were what perhaps Paul Streeten had in view though not in as articulated form as available in economic literature today, when he equated economic development with “transformation of human beings”.

When one looks back at past, about assumptions talked of in the beginning, one looks at it with a hope that things must have travelled forward and a bigger, clearer world will be in sight. As I initiated myself into services, a senior bureaucrat, with a mischievous smile, buttonholed me, “So you are from Gorakhpur, the place known for mafia gangs and encephalitis.” “Yes, of course, Sir, but also for the Gita Press, the famous Gorakhnath temple, literary legends like Munshi Premchand, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Professors like Dr Raghuvir Singh of Political Science and many more.” “Yeah, I see but that is not the point,” his meek voice accompanied a smile the nature of which, I must admit, I have not been able to unravel thus far just like “what” of “that is not the point”. But his question introduced me to another question: the question of visiting and revisiting the concept of self-definition. Should one stand where one stood decades back? Should one not seek more exquisite self-definition? Should one not strive for a bigger world — an altered world? Incidentally this time, one very remarkable thing was observed at Gorakhpur Airport, a tiny one, the behaviour of police personnel on duty: they were very courteous, well-behaved and helpful to the passengers. A good augury. And this will be seen in many other areas soon. So people hope.  

Something akin to what was experienced in Gorakhpur each time I visited there, I came across in a recently published novel which seeks to tackle humdrum life of a Man, a Woman and a Child with their pseudo-civilised characteristics. It is SHE WILL BUILD HIM A CITY by author Raj Kamal Jha. In this intellectually engrossing work, Jha makes a threadbare and true pasteurisation of typical modern day society with all kinds of diversities: life in the slums to the lavishness of the affluent, day-to-day miseries of the lowest strata of the society, frustrations of middle and upper-middle class working men and women, boisterous life styles of children and teenagers of the upper and most affluent in society, perversions of the meanest kind, all these and more find display in the narration and these are a few of the different forms of fuel that helps to kindle the embers lying dormant within the soul of the author. It is a tale of a society determined to develop where, to quote Jha, “She cannot understand what he says because he speaks a language she has never heard.” Jha actually sets a puzzle of human existence amid steely development in cities. So true of cities like Gorakhpur.

Economic development does not lie in figures set forth in tabular forms alone nor it is achieved in terms of haphazard growth of roads, schools and colleges, clinics, hospitals, medical shops, coaching centres, schools and old-age homes. All these are required but in a planned manner. Commercial relations don’t explain and end economic development. Statistical tables cannot narrate all stories. They sometimes contain facades, commercial facades, conceptual facades. To me, Gorakhpur seems like a box-diagram of international economic theory: one box with one equal size box superimposed over it. People, crowd, events, happenings, stories all tightly packed inside. The group dynamics at its nadir: its vision considerably obscured. Movement should be in terms of creation of physical assets which no doubt is a Herculean task with long “frution-effects” given meagre developmental efforts during last decades. What is really more Herculean is how not to allow concrete structures define and determine the nature and character of the city; how to make students visit libraries very often and at least have a look at the books; how to make ordinary citizens — the most marginal man — enjoy “human functionings”; making them capable to feel life, to love it, to draw pleasure out of it. The senior journalist, the Professor, the librarian, the co-passenger in the car whose wont was to laugh boisterously for no reason or rhyme, the bureaucrat who had evolved himself to judge people in terms of uglier facets of the place they were born and raised, the members of interview board getting perplexed at mere mention of names of Myrdal, Streeten, Adelman and Morris and many, many more from the general populace like them can hardly be said to have enjoyed much of “human thriving” or “functionings”.

The way to cope with Ginsbergian pessimistic outlook that might also emanate from realities as obtained in cities like Gorakhpur is to remember Henry David Thoreau’s words recorded in his celebrated book: WALDEN AND OTHER WRITINGS, “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn.”

It is high time Gorakhpur should swallow uglier facets of its past. Gorakhpur with its vast spiritual, religious, historical and literary past can factor in elements from its marvellously gargantuan heritage into overall developmental model of the city and make headway towards a new dawn. And then let history judge it — the city — for history is the best judge when it judges dispassionately. Recent past, in many parts of the world including India, is privy to it.

(The writer hails from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. Currently he is working as Director General in the Office of Comptroller & Auditor General of India, New Delhi. He is an acclaimed poet, literary reviewer and columnist. In this article he shares his experiences about the place he belongs to. Views expressed here are his personal views.)

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