An Encounter of a Special Kind – Befriending a town – Chandra Mohan Bhandari, Gujarath


The Mission

Like humans, a city or town has its specific identity, its own ‘personality’. For a long time I have pondered over the idea of writing a tale of cities that I have understood relatively closely. The project got delayed to the extent that the present essay is the first of this kind, and its success will decide its continuation or otherwise. That I have chosen this town for the first episode will be clear in the coming paragraphs. Primary motivation for such an exercise is not to merely describe a town ‘as it is’, but beyond that – what ‘it could or should possibly be’. In that case it embraces a considerable degree of subjectivity. Moreover, a description of people is a kind of statistical exercise and could not be applicable to individual cases.

Picking my suitcase, I alighted from the train and walked slowly towards the gate abutting platform No 1. Herein, the first thing that caught my attention was a bill board with a welcome message, “Welcome to the city of culture”. The exact words used were ‘Samskar Nagari’, and in absence of a better choice for ‘samskar’ I settled for the word ‘culture’. Anyway, I was pleased by the message dismissing the notion that there wasn’t anything personal in it. I also dismissed queries about the meaning of the phrase like the one on display. The city welcomes me and I enjoy the moment, here and now. It was my first ever visit to Baroda i.e. Vadodara. The hotel was not far from the railway station and it took me mere ten minutes to reach there; another twenty minutes for the formalities of ‘checking in’. Relaxing in my room, sipping hot tea I mused over the way life had unfolded itself before me. Human mind is complex and its working infinitely more so, this much I had understood during the six decades and a half of my life so far. All rationality, common sense may yield to the irrationality and ‘uncommon sense’ of mind which seems to be guided by some unknown hand driven from some obscure location deep-down the unconscious. And I knew that this time too, the strange working of mind would decide the issues ultimately.

I was on a mission for past five years to take a decision which required an answer to a query: where should I settle after my retirement? A rather unimportant question for many but important for me, and probably for everyone at the stage in life I was in. I had already spent several years of my post-retirement life in search of a satisfactory answer to my query; and at this rate I could possibly spend the rest of it without finding an answer, leave alone getting an accommodation of my own. It was for my better half to get hold of the issue, catching the bull by its horns. She gave me an ultimatum to decide the issue within a year, else ……………..! There were so many options but I will avoid going into undesirable details.

The choice of the state of Gujarat was simple enough as my elder son was there and his physical proximity in hour of need was valuable. However, there was another and equally significant motivation. This is perhaps the only state in the country where power is available round the clock, and even solitary women can move about in the late hours of the night unhindered and unharmed. The die was thus cast and what remained was to decide the place to settle in. This important mission brought me to the city of Vadodara where things appeared to hold promise for me and my budget. The township in the south-western part of the city seemed to fulfil the ardent wishes of my wife: 4-BHK duplex in a relatively peaceful surrounding. That was out of my budget in cities like Ahmedabad and Surat, but seemed to be well within the limits here. I mused over my smart handling of things – a good accommodation in a medium sized city, neither too crowded nor too isolated from the mainstream of national life. The recent finding of it being a ‘city of culture’ seemed a bonus without an extra cost. “Well done”, I congratulated myself. I had enough reason to feel satisfied as soon I finalised my deal with the Pacifica Builders, who opted for an unusual name for the emerging township, San Tropez, Madrid County.

Glancing through the newspaper next morning my eyes got fixed on a news item that drew my attention. It was about a crocodile killing a man. It would have been an accident like others everywhere but what surprised me was the fact that it had happened in the central area of the city. A road accident in a city was not uncommon but a crocodile attack on humans was. The unfortunate person might have gone near the river to attend nature’s call when this happened. I gradually learnt that this was not a rare event, in fact it was very often that humans were being attacked by the beast in the shallow Vishwamitri river which runs almost dry except during the rainy season. Following heavy rains, the river gets flooded and at times overflows its banks spilling water over nearby roads and lanes. And that was what actually happened in the year 2013 when the overflowing river spilled not only water but dozens of crocodiles on the streets and lanes of the adjoining localities. People were advised not to step out into the partly submerged roads and boats were used to ferry people through the lanes for fear of the beast. Newspapers showed photographs of few crocodiles smugly lying on their underbellies on lanes of residential areas, an unusual sight for a city centre.

This news item suddenly changed my mood. Earlier, elated over my wise decision to select the ‘city of culture’ as my home, I was now full of apprehension about the ‘city of crocs’. Culture and crocks together, as if two sides of a coin; take one, you get the other. It was a matter of some relief when the other day I visited the site of a proposed township of my interest which was relatively far from the river. I was lucky to have unknowingly selected an area some distance away from the danger zone.
Things gradually smoothed out but my mind got entangled in a complex debate about culture, crocodiles and croc-cultures (whatever that may mean). In fact, throughout the state I found a strange acceptance of the right of this ancient amphibian to co-exist although the beast did not follow the rule of co-existence. In the nearby town of Anand, a crocodile was found inside a house, while in the nearby city of Surat it was found near a residential area. In both cases the spotters informed the authorities and they got the beast removed to its natural habitat. In most places around the country and the world people would not accept the presence of the fierce beast so close to the town’s heartland. In many cases, it would be killed since if its safe transportation seems difficult. This is, however, not so in this state of Gujarat. I saw this as a sign of compassion for life in general. I was trying hard to grasp the meaning of culture, and the notion behind the phrase ‘city of culture’, even though its nomenclature might not have been thought on these lines. It did not matter if the phrase meant differently to others.

Words of Aldo Leopold [1] flashed through my mind which had a close connection with culture, the wild and the wilderness.
Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered for himself the artefact called civilisation. Wilderness is never a homogeneous raw material, it is very diverse, and the resulting artefacts are quite diverse. These differences in the end products are known as cultures. The rich diversity of world’s cultures reflect a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.
The small Vishwamitri could by no means be portrayed as representing wilderness. Nevertheless, it has earned for itself the status of harbouring wild animals that could be a threat to humans. According to one recent estimate, the river had a population of around 250 crocodiles in and around the town (around the year 2013). What surprised me was that even with that threat before the public, Barodans did not seem unduly disturbed, and no serious concern was shown to take necessary action. Was it due to mere inaction or an indifference generated by a deep psychological tolerance and acceptance of all life, I could not tell. In any case I found it interesting and a matter of academic interest too to understand the wild, the wilderness, the culture and their intrinsic connections. I had some sense of appreciation for the sort of acceptance of the wild in civil areas.

Ruminating about the culture and wilderness I did appreciate that such a query was intrinsic to all thinking beings. The query and related answers get more interesting especially with our recent scientific understanding of the notions of life, its evolution and the understanding that man too has his origins in the wild.

“Man with all his qualities and exalted powers still bears in his bodily frame the indelible mark of his lowly origin.” – (Charles Darwin)

And that origin is same for all animal life. Tracing back along the evolutionary route you come across the chimpanzee, the ape, the monkey. Far back one finds the reptiles and amphibians too which include the crocodiles. What a revelation indeed! The fierce beast could possibly be a distant relative. The indelible mark of man’s lowly origin (The Descent of Man) is not to be easily erased. There is a silver lining too. The cranial evolution somehow brought the real big difference between man and other animal species. A comparison of the human brain(hardware) plus his mind(software) with other species shows that man is unparalleled in the entire evolutionary history known to us, for animals have not yet been proved to possess a sense of conscience, and thus, seem to be lacking in what is called a ‘ Sentient Being’ although the credit goes entirely to Nature to have evolved human brain the way it did.

Tracing Back the Origins

An individual’s detailed identity is portrayed through the family tree, that traces the lineage as far back possible. Similar is the case with cities and towns. The small river that divides the town in two parts is hardly noticeable but makes its presence felt in no uncertain terms and in more than one way. It originates in the hills of the neighbouring Panchmahal district. It’s of some interest to find that the Pavagarh hills were formed by a volcanic eruption around 500 million years ago. What does that mean to a man who is not conversant with the geological time-scale. To make the figures more meaningful it can be said that the great Himalayas were born around 55 MYA which is very small as compared to the creation time of the volcanic hills where the river originates. Himalayas and the great rivers that originated there may be mighty and they really are, but they were non-existent at the time of the creation of these hills, and possibly the Vishwamitri. A look at the structural formation of the rocks shows several unique features which could possibly be the result of longterm erosion over a topographic surface with a volcanic beginning.

The name Baroda seems to have resulted from Englishman’s mis-pronouncing the word Vadodara, which some people think to have originated from Vatodara – meaning banyan trees in the belly. Modern Baroda is a memorial to its ruler Sayaji Rao Gaekwad who dreamt and did a lot to make this town an educational and commercial hub. The university bearing the name of its illustrious ruler finds an important place among academic institutions not only in the state but even beyond. Noticeable among industries are petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and plastics.

Several great names have been associated with the city and the ruler who have left a mark on the national canvas, including those of Aurobindo Ghosh, Swami Vivekananda and BR Ambedkar, to name a few.

Culture has a close relationship with education although it certainly is multi-dimensional. This may be one of the reasons for considering the city’s cultural connections. However, at a deeper level culture could find its connectivity with the wild and the wilderness and our attitude towards it. Again recalling Aldo Leopold’s vision:

The cultural value of wilderness boils down in the last analysis to the question of intellectual humility.I for one thing have always been in the lookout for the thing known as intellectual humility, and even though in the short span of my stay in this town, I had little contact with intellectual community, I could sense in my own intuitive ways the presence of this commodity (intellectual humility) in the people here. The acceptance of the fierce beast so close and that too without much fuss could possibly have those deep cultural roots I have been referring to.

It goes without saying that there are several aspects of city life that need improvement. Cleanliness drive is more a slogan in our nation and Baroda seems no exception. Not easy to elaborate the civic sense is a commodity that embraces several things must become a part of city’s culture and each of us has a share in this.
It is often said that this city has a cosmopolitan character. That gives it an air of diversity which is so essential for the growth of culture.

How Things Hang Together

Life and everything related to it has an unavoidable dualism where opposite trends are intrinsically entangled to the extent that they become indispensable. To be precise, one can see the opposition as some kind of complementarity. Seemingly opposite things in fact complement each other, like day-night, left-right, hot-cold, and so on; what about the pair culture-wilderness! This pair represents a deeper relationship which shows the complex weaving and working of nature in evolving life on the planet. Culture has used wilderness as the raw material (Aldo Leopold) and while doing so did not make a copy of the original. It gradually distanced itself from the wilderness so much so that very often measure of culture becomes a measure of the distancing of things from the wilderness itself. Cities are in some way the epicenters of culture and a repository of the artifacts and the sociofacts which mankind creates, and to that extent, they are quite antithetical to the wild or wilderness. One living in remote locations away from the cities would often be treated down the ladder of cultural growth. These are simplistic notions prevalent, and close to being incorrect or at most being half-truth.

‘We Indians are generally a confused lot’’, my friend often told me. On poking him further it boiled down to ‘having a fuzzy view’ of life and things related. And this trend seemed more pronounced to me among people here in this city. Well to that I agreed, and admitted that non-deterministic thinking is central to Indian ethos. A people with diverse traditions, languages and cultures have to embrace and incorporate all kind of views and notions, many of them seemingly in opposition, or at times – in complementary mode. Just look at the verse from Isha Upanishad:

It moves and it does not,
It is far yet it is near.
It is within all this, yet
It is also outside.
That is probably what my friend wanted to convey when he used the phrase ‘a confused lot’; if so I assure him that it got conveyed.

Aldous Huxley in one of his essays dwells upon the theme “education of an amphibian.” Understandably, he refers to man who is destined to inhabit two different worlds simultaneously. The first is the world of his physical existence as an individual with flesh and blood, and the need for its survival and well-being. This is often referred to as man’s autonomous existence. There is another world where man is destined to consider himself as part of a whole; this may be referred to as man’s homonomous existence. The two worlds are entangled in a complex web in all thinking individuals although usually the autonomous feature predominates. Very often the two domains are in conflict with each other and this conflict is the source of many of man’s problems.

This autonomous-homonomous dualism is the source of many of our problems and conflicts; at the same time this is also at the source of our creativity. The level and nature of this conflict-cum-creativity is an indicator of our cultural maturity and defines the person as an individual or a society in general. There is no quantitative or even simple qualitative measure of such things but you do always have an intuitive feeling of your estimate. In this town, I found people to be possessed with greater degree of empathy which was better than most places I have known. My good impression of the town and its people helped me take a quick decision to take possession of my villa as soon as it became ready, and afterwards I had ample time to visit places, meet people and study the personality of this place. Now, since I have become a resident of the town itself, my job became all the more difficult, as it had all the risk of being biased. However, in the fuzziness of uncertain ideas one thing was unmistakably clear: the people of Baroda could find a compromise between culture and crocodile; that amounted to a balance between culture and wilderness, thus indicating a good presence of intellectual humility.

Cities all over the world are expanding at the cost of agricultural space which had long ago eaten up the space of the wild. Baroda and adjoining areas are no exception with real-estate booming at the cost of the surrounding wilderness or semi-wilderness. Often, I ruminate on the issue of eco-crisis, and find this expanding population accompanied by expanding consumerism is the real looming danger. The ‘crocodile of consumerism and man’s expanding needs’ is infinitely more dangerous than that in the river nearby. These are issues that need serious out-of-the box thinking. All sides -builders, buyers, promoters, government agencies- keep playing their parts and all get entangled in a vicious circle which threatens the delicate balance on which life and things associated with it hang on:

Consequently he who wants to have
Right without wrong
Order without disorder,
Does not understand the principles,
Of heaven and earth.
He does not know how
Things hang together. – Chuang Tzu

We the humans in general, the people of this nation and this city must in particular accept our own shares of responsibilities and blames. We must hang together to look for deeper meanings and implications of notions like culture, wilderness, consumerism and eco-perspective. If we could contribute even a little bit we shall have sufficient reason to be worthy citizens of a city of culture. Gandhi’s eco-vision could always form the core of our effort and initiatives in that direction [2].

[1] Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, London, 1949.
[2] C M Bhandari, Deep Transpersonal Ecology: Gandhian Connection,
Mainstream Weekly, October, 2009.