When Guwahati used to be Gauhati
The author reminisces about the old, sleepy Gauhati that held its own rustic charm and traces its transformation into its current bustling metropolitan avatar.
I was born in the early 1950s in ‘Gauhati’ (now spelled Guwahati) in Assam. Those born during that time have witnessed the tremendous transformation of this city. Gauhati then was a small town with a modest population. I still remember the red coloured building of Assam Flour Mills on GS Road - a landmark and the entry point of the city if one comes from the upper Assam side. That building was our indicator of having reached Gauhati. From Khanapara to that point, there was hardly any habitation. On the Maniram Dewan Road, The Assam Tribune was the last landmark beyond which there was practically no road. On the western side, Maligaon was the last point though there was hardly any population beyond Santipur.
Panbazar was the hub of eateries, bookstalls, confectioners, departmental stores, etc. There was ‘The Delight,’ a posh restaurant in Panbazar where the Kalpataru building currently stands. It was unlike any restaurant today; its decor was aristocratic with a high ceiling and beautiful chandeliers and we had to think twice before entering it. There was a verandah in front of the BN Dey liquor shop where groups of youngsters used to assemble – the proverbial addda point of different generations of young people over many decades. The famous departmental store was the Jamatullah opposite the Mahamaya restaurant. The Lawyer’s Book Stall was probably the only book store where one could get all the required books. Bharali Brothers, Radio Phonics, and Assam Sports House used to play loud music in the evenings, making the atmosphere lively.
As a student of Don Bosco School during the 1960s and Cotton College during the early 1970s, we loved visiting restaurants like The Gauhati Diary, Kalpana, Madhumita, Mahamaya, and so on. How can one forget the tasty liver fry, Mughlai paratha, and Chicken cutlet served in those outlets, particularly Madhumita? These places were famous for addas by the intellectuals just like the Calcutta Coffee House.
Fancy (Phasi) Bazar was the hub of fashionable stores for clothing. The Delhi Cloth House catered to the school uniforms of almost all the schools. There was a petrol pump where the Mohni store is now located. Barogola was another landmark store in that area. Kunja Thakur’s shop catered to the needs of all items required for religious functions.
In those days, we were very fond of watching English movies. Every Sunday there were morning shows in almost every cinema hall. We normally went to Urvashi Cinema to watch English movies.
There was no railway station in Gauhati. One had to cross the Brahmaputra River by ferry to go to Amingaon to catch a train. The trains ran only on meter gauge tracks. The first over-bridge in the town was constructed at Maligaon during the Congress session held in 1955. The rail-cum-road bridge over the Brahmaputra was completed only in 1962. There was a shuttle train that ran from Uzan Bazar (near Satrakar Temple) to Maligaon, basically for the railway employees working in Maligaon. This shuttle train was abandoned a long time back but the track is still there. If a similar facility was available today, it would have served very well for the commuters just like the local trains in Mumbai.
There were few schools in Gauhati and the prominent ones were Cotton Collegiate, Kamrup Academy, TC School, Arya Vidyapeeth, Bengali School, Panbazar Girls, St. Mary’s School and Don Bosco School. During those days St. Mary’s English High School was a co-educational, where the boys used to study for five years from Class A to Class 3. Thereafter, the boys automatically joined Don Bosco High School. There was no primary section in Don Bosco in those days.
We have seen huge developments in electronics and telecommunication during our lifetime. In our own place, we have seen manually operated fans (pangkha), manually operated gramophones, grain crushers (Dheki), and Xals for weaving. We also had a ‘bharaal’ to store the grain and a ‘gohali’ for the cows. In our childhood days, we used to ride in our Ford convertible car bearing registration number ASK 303. Not many people owned vehicles during those days. There was a radio made by my uncle which was used by the elders to listen to the news clandestinely during World War II, as radio was banned during that time.
Telephones were manual then. One had to call the telephone exchange to make a call. The required number was conveyed to the exchange and then one had to wait for the line to be connected. One had to mention ‘lightning’ or ‘ordinary’ to describe the urgency level of calls. The most urgent mode of communication was the telegram. Carrying a telegram form when travelling to remote areas was almost mandatory and the ‘Arrived safely’ message sent from the destination’s telegraph office to home was virtually a norm.
There were hardly any diagnostic centres in Gauhati. Doctors did not have access to any diagnostic reports; they relied on physical examinations of the tongue, eyes, stomach, and prescribed medicines accordingly. In most cases, their diagnoses were correct. In the Uzan Bazar area, late Dr. Bhubaneswar Barooah ran a clinic catering to the needs of the people. Late Guruprasad Barua who was associated with the clinic was full of humour and very sincere in his work. People of Uzan Bazar area will always remember the services rendered by Dr. Akhay Dutta, who was not even an MBBS, but who always attended patients in times of need even at odd hours.
The present-day Nehru Stadium was actually a dumping ground. It was known as Morixali. Late Radha Gobinda Barua who was keen to develop sports in Assam, dreamt of building a stadium on that plot of land. In order to raise funds, he organized wrestling shows in the Church Field now converted to Nehru Park. We remember having seen the great wrestlers like Dara Singh, his brother Randhawa, King Kong, Tiger Joginder Singh, Saudagar Singh, John Da Silva, Jenny Murphy, etc. When the stadium was being constructed, we thought that it belonged to RG Barua as he was always seen at the site supervising everything. On completion, it became the hub of many sporting activities. The Bordoloi Trophy for football was a huge attraction in which many foreign clubs participated. The tennis courts within the stadium complex were used to host India vs Ceylone (Sri Lanka) Davis Cup match. Tennis greats like Metrovelli of USSR, Illie Nastase, Ion Tiriac of Romania had come to play on these courts along with Indian stalwarts like Ramanathan Krishnan, Premjit Lal, and Joydeep Mukherjee among others. Even the indoor stadium witnessed many famous table tennis and badminton players.
Prior to the Nehru Stadium, the Judges Field was the hub of almost all outdoor sporting activities.
Football tournaments, as well as cricket tournaments, were played on that ground. The Uzan Bazar Bihu Committee also organized sporting activities like cycle race, horse race, etc on that ground. It was also the venue for public meetings where people in thousands gathered to listen to the speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayprakash Narayan, Vinoba Bhave, etc.
From Gauhati then to Guwahati now, the transformation has been massive. Guwahati now has expanded from Khanapara to Azara and beyond, from Pamohi to North Guwahati and beyond. The population today will surely cross 20-25 lakhs and vehicular traffic has increased manifold. With the increase in population, the demand for housing has also increased. People have started looking for apartments rather than buying land and building their own houses. Several multi-storied buildings have come up at locations that are not suitable for such construction. The unplanned expansion of Guwahati city has led to the drainage system being affected. The filling up of all wetlands is perhaps the main reason for frequent floods within the city limits.
We people often say that we loved ‘Gauhati’ more. But does it mean that we hate Guwahati of today? No, never. We must accept the changes and be happy. We all love our city and we will continue to do so.
(The author is a retired banker from a nationalised bank. The views expressed are his own.)