The first thing you notice when you step down the mammoth blue train at the Prayagraj Junction is the bright yellow board that spells its name. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing it ever since I was five, and my parents first forced me to accompany them on a train journey to their hometown. Only this time, the board doesn’t say “Allahabad”, and my heart stings a little. The hoard of coolies in their red kurtas run after me, the countless barrage of “memsahib, memsahib” fills my ears; at my far-left a forty-something year old man sits on the staircase eating bhelpuri. It finally feels like home.
Calling Allahabad my home is more of a habit than fact. I can count the number of times I’ve been here on my fingers, but it doesn’t make me believe it any less. I was born in this city, almost twenty one years ago, in a tiny nursing home. It’s a fairly ordinary city, until it isn’t. The journey to this town too, has always been comparatively mediocre; I have never had fun anecdotes or nice pictures of mountain ranges for my Instagram. All that the train journey gives me is large families peeling oranges, competing against both, each other and time; the person on the berth below me snoring a little bit too hastily for my taste, I am used to the slow ringing sound of my father’s snores from the next room. Though my affections for my house are not too upstanding, a train is the last place I’d call home. Being used to compact houses with closed rooms and windows, the rushing wind through my non-AC window compartment aches my bones in more ways than one.
The Prayagraj Junction itself is 161 years old, every day the millions of people stomping across its three concrete platforms add something to its history. I think about this fact more often than I’d like to admit. I am not someone who’s interested in history, or travelling or telling stories that involve either of them. However, this place reaches out from its century-old foundation and yanks a piece of my heart to keep with itself every time I am here.
On our way here, the train looms over the Ganga river, right next to Shastri Bridge. My fondness for these come close to incomparable. The river, in all its silence and vastness, played a significant role throughout my childhood. It reminds me of my Nana’s hands, his pristine white kurta which he’d only wear on Sunday walks where he took my cousin and me on a mini-adventure. This adventure, more often than not, involved grocery shopping and a trip to the banks of the river where he prayed looking at the sun. Only sometimes he didn’t, and now, I wonder if his faith was as precarious as mine.
I lived in this city for an entire year before we moved away. We had to push our cycles up a slope to get to Shastri Bridge. At six years old, I hated whoever built it and aimed to seek vengeance once I was older. Now that I am old enough to know that burning down a bridge is arson and hence a crime, I am not so keen on it anymore. Instead, now the yellow railings surrounding it seem inviting for me to lean on for support. I always make it a point to visit before I return back home. I also leave a part of myself here, each time I visit. It’s where my parents went to college, where they met, where they got married and where they gave me my unusually odd name. I wouldn’t call this city my friend, rather a stubborn acquaintance who never seems to leave me alone.
Allahabad, for most people, is the city of education, and for good reason. Every second advertisement on the radio is about a tuition centre or a book shop. The array of books on the streets of Civil Lines are home to some of the oldest books ever published and keep you in good company as you walk your way towards All Saints Cathedral. One of the few times I have seen my mother be her happiest self was inside the book stores of Civil Lines as she flipped through pages of Premchand and Dushyant Kumar; the dust on the piles becoming an antidote for all the hassle the market brings.
One of the first things I remember while describing Allahabad to people is the clock tower, modelled after London’s Big Ben. Built-in 1913, The Ghanta Ghar watches over the city and the people in all its sturdiness. However, the clock tower stopped ticking in 1999, a year before I was born; I often wonder how much more could I have loved this place if I had the luck to see it at its prime. I had been to Allahabad University before I’d actually gotten to see it, my mother gave her final year exam paper whilst she was pregnant with me. She puked twice during that paper and I developed a bond with the University that I couldn’t let go off no matter what.
Back in primary school, every summer vacation was synonymous with a train journey to Allahabad. As the years stretched past I forgot the smell of books at Civil Lines or the Chaat and samosas at my mother’s favourite restaurant or the shade of yellow railings at Shastri Bridge. Sometimes I look at my mother, who spent her entire life befriending these streets, delving into the most slippery crevices of this city. This place has given her a lot of pain as well as joy. My capacity for both those things run fairly low every time I visit and I think I like it that way.
However, each time, this city leaves me with a slight burden, incomprehensible guilt of not giving more of myself to this place. I do feel quite frightened standing on the banks of River Ganga, staring right ahead at Sangam, overpowered by an emotion I still haven’t learned how to talk about. I feel scared roaming around in Company Bagh, the place where Chandra Shekhar Azaad died, never knowing if this is the last time I will ever come back here. Allahabad may not have given me a lot of joy or a lot of pain, but it does give me fear; the fear of not remembering. I will go to Shastri Bridge once again before I bid my goodbyes, and as I flick another coin down into River Ganga, I hope I never forget.
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