By Priyam Moonka
One out of the endless list of things humans crave most commonly is newness. The kind we think can only be achieved by moving away from the old. While the old brings comfort, the new brings excitement. But the notion that one needs to step out to experience the newness, and that comfort and excitement cannot coexist, was easily debunked for me as my hometown unfolded before me in ways I had never imagined.
We can live in a place all our lives and still be a stranger to it. We may think we know our cities and towns well while being unbeknownst to where their hearts lie. That was my relationship with Jamshedpur – a city which was merely a densely forested land on the Chota Nagpur Plateau a little over a century ago. It was not even chosen to be a city, actually; it was perfect for building a steel plant. Thousands came from all over the country looking for employment and a city washed into existence as a result of that. Among the thousands was my great-great-grandfather, who hailed from a village in Rajasthan. So, the city I am talking about is not just the place of my birth, but also my father’s, his father’s and his grandfather’s. This is the only home we have ever known. You’ll find people of all ethnicities here – Gujaratis, Punjabis, Biharis, Bengalis, Marwaris, Tamilians, the list goes on; they’d have similar stories to tell. As much as we all love Jamshedpur and know that it’s a confluence of cultures that reflects in its linguistic and food culture that we’re proud of, there is something none of us would deny. More than once in our lives, we’ve cribbed about the lack of modernity; the absence of an airport, malls with premium brands, cafes like the ones in Delhi and Bombay, and those typical city-like high-rise buildings; a symbol of modernity and urbanization.
While most of its young residents move out for better opportunities as soon as they finish school, just as I did, what’s left behind is the rich history, heritage and culture. Jamshedpur is vastly overlooked and lies mostly unexplored. While I’ve cursed Covid for closing a lot of doors for me, I am immensely grateful for the time I got to spend in my hometown after so many years of staying away from it. It is only now that I know what it is like to be a tourist in your own city. Never did I know that this new journey of rediscovering my hometown, which I was embarking upon, would reshape my relationship with it, the relationship that I only see deepening in the times to come.
I’d set out on my two-wheeler in the early hours of the day. What was truly beautiful about my ‘explorations’ was the fact that what I was now exploring was what had always been around. The buildings that I was so fascinated by now and could not get enough of were ones I had passed by many a time, and thoughtlessly. There was familiarity and comfort, along with newness and exciting curiosity.
Knowing that more and more old houses and buildings are consumed by the fever of urbanisation with each passing day, I relish in stumbling upon the remnants of the good old times. Most of these traditional mansions were built in the 1930s, within around two decades of the establishment of the city. This implies that people had gradually started settling here, permanently. They’re majorly built on lands allotted by the Tata Company, and on leases. The allotments were meant to attract more workforce for the growth and expansion of the Steel plant and the city in the making. These houses, many of them crumbling, are now occupied by the old and the retired who are seen watering their plants or reading newspapers on their airy balconies in the morning. Overly spacious for barely a couple of occupants, generally an old couple, parts of them are rented out. As I stop in front of them, I imagine the houses in their days of glory and all the stories that their walls contain – the dreams of a new bride, the laughter of children as they run around sowing seeds of memories in each corner, the fragrance of succulent sweetmeats prepared on festivals year after year, the ageing of the old and cries of separation. Another edifice, a mansion from the era of the Raj – Bharucha Mansion (or the Regal Building), said to be built in 1935 using leftover steel from the Howrah Bridge, has fallen prey to the obsession with modernization. It once housed one of the first theatres in our town – the plush Regal Talkies. It was shut down in the 80s with its portions sold off to a couple of businessmen. Today, with many parts of it pulled down and replaced by their modern counterparts, this heritage building is losing its glory.
One of these mornings, I came across a dilapidated building which serves as a guest house and a mosque. An old man helped me with the Urdu scribbled on its walls – Musafir Khana, it says. Sensing my eagerness to know more, he ushers me to an Eidgah. Built in 1911, a gift from the Raja of Dalbhumgarh, it is older than the city of Jamshedpur itself. A brief Instagram conversation with Shah Umair, popularly known as Sikkawala on Instagram, revealed to me a very interesting fact. His great-grandfather, Abdul Rab Ansari, was one of the first Imams to read Namaz there.
I was gradually falling in love with the Jamshedpur I had never known. But what really brought me closer to it was what I had been the most oblivious to, what I had earlier thought was missing but had always been around. My visit to the Muslim Library bridged that gap. The oldest library in the city was founded in 1932. Contrary to what the name suggests, the library is open to everyone and houses books on a wide range of subjects in Urdu, English and the Devanagari scripts. As I enter, I see round tables on the corridor, some occupied and some not, with 8 different Urdu Dailies which I have never seen before in Jamshedpur. There are English and Hindi dailies as well. The corridor leads to a room dedicated to books in Urdu Literature, and for the first time I regret not knowing a language as beautiful as Urdu. I chance upon one English book among the many in Urdu. The title is gripping – Purdah and the status of women in Islam. Many more are to follow. A staircase leads to a library which is called the JRD Tata Students Corner. Among books on Commerce, geography and various sciences, I find a few caked with dust as if they hadn’t been touched in years. These are the ones that draw my attention; Fall of the Mughal Empire by Jadunath Sarkar, Ghalib: Life and Letters (1797-1869), History of the Freedom Movement in India (1947-1857), Guru Nanak by Gopal Singh, Hindu Names by Maneka Gandhi, Bengal Divided and an ancient copy of The God of Small Things. I have clearly found a new home within my home.
To the people of Jamshedpur – Our city is way more than what we think it is.
Priyam is an independent researcher and writer. She documents narratives of the Partition diaspora. She is a history buff who loves to read about South Asian history and culture. Her work is an attempt to find the umpteen stories around us, waiting to be told.