Where is our Good Old Guwahati?
From Pragjyotishpur to Guwahati to becoming the gateway to the Northeast, the City of Eastern Light has seen many a transformation. As much as the city has transformed, it has also held its roots and significance as it branched and expanded into becoming the metropolis that we so dearly call “Home.”
A few years ago, on a winter morning, standing on the terrace of my home, I remember looking at the lush green hills beyond the silver partition of the fog and I first witnessed a sense of wonder. “Such a beauty this city is,” I sighed. But this home of mine is fast changing.
The skyline today is undergoing dramatic change, within the city, and beyond the blue river. Today, my heart grows heavy over what I see. My beloved Guwahati is fast losing its crown of beauty. To be sure, there are good things too: starting from schools and food, to race relations, public safety, and social manners. The city certainly is wealthier and richer than what I remember when I was a little younger.
Guwahati is credited as being the melting point of Northeast India. It’s a hub for individuals to immerse themselves in various cultures and open their minds and hearts to brand new exciting elements. With people from all over the state and the other seven sisters flocking here in search of better opportunities, there has been a population explosion of sorts. Although this has created issues in the maintenance of civic amenities; it has also accounted for the growth of business in the city.
As I set to time travel and discover things that we have lost in the quest of modernization, I look back and try recollecting what Guwahati, my home of yesteryears, was.
Guwahati in the early 70s and 80s was ‘silent.’ The salient features of the city were the vacant streets, college addas over tea at Dighalipukhuri, a picturesque view of the never-ending Brahmaputra River from Kharghuli, love that bound the people of the neighbourhoods and celebrations that were not covered with plastic beauty.
Panbazar, which is one of the fastest growing localities of the city today, was very different years ago. Nestled in the heart of the city, the locality was clean, green and slow moving. Manjumala Das, a long-time resident of Panbazar and retired professor of Handique Girls’ College, shared her experience of witnessing the place turn from a quaint to a noisy one and gave a fair description of the evolution. Being a resident of the area since 1963, she has seen it all in front of her eyes.
Unlike the high rise apartments today, the houses of the people there in the 60s and 70s were small, adorned with a garden in front. No residence was an exception. The relationships between the neighbourhood families were simple and strong at the same time. “Families used to know each other. During time of need and illness, neighbours served each other with special food items. Today we don’t know who our next door neighbours are,” she said. While sharing the memory she quoted, “This was our good old Assamese society.”
The charming Assamese neighbourhood of Panbazar is lost today amidst the crowd of people from different regions and languages. The soothing silence of the old days is today dominated by noise and clatter. There was a sense of freedom and peace in the hearts of the residents. People had a sense of responsibility towards their neighbourhood, as much they had towards their residence. Contrary to people’s fascination towards loud environment, people back then loved tranquillity.
Between the history, art, lifestyle and people, Guwahati is arguably the capital of the Northeast. Everyone in this city is trying to establish themselves, while trying to carry the traditions and the lifestyles on which they were raised.
Paltanbazar was always a commercial nerve centre of Guwahati. Yet, during the late 70s and early 80s, the place had a sleepy feel. The main reasons of its importance to the city were the location of the Indian Airlines city office, the Guwahati Railway Station and the ASTC bus station headquarters within the locality. Things suddenly changed when private bus services like Blue Hills, Green Valley and Network Travels started operating night bus services from the locality. This changed Paltan Bazar forever giving rise to anti-social elements, crime and prostitution. The traffic increased manifold making it severely congested. A long time resident of Paltanbazar, Chitta Bharali while sharing his experience about the locality’s transformation, said, “I remember one 5 storey building that had a different hotel on each floor. It still exists I think. Suddenly, it became evident to me that my patriarchal property was no long a suitable residence and I had to relocate with my family to another part of Guwahati. However, one thing good that happened was that real estate prices shot up in the area like crazy and small plots went for crores of rupees.” Today, Paltan Bazar is a bustling madness of trade activity and cannot support bus operations and these have long been shifted out.
The culture of Guwahati is not just culture, rather individuals formatting to an “ideal” in hopes of potentially fulfilling their dreams.
Memories are strange things. Sometimes it could be as trivial as a smell. And that’s exactly what shapes the old Guwahati memory for Dhruba Hazarika, and IAS officer, and a long-time resident of Hengrabari. “The beautiful Brahmaputra had once emanated a foul smell. And that smell which spread along the ghats of the river, continued for many years. But a gentleman, JP Rajkhowa, who was also a remarkable DC, made efforts to clean the ghats and gifted the city the beauty of river Brahmaputra, that we endearingly hold close. Guwahatians owe him,” he said.
Being a student of Gauhati University, Hazarika certainly had emotional attachments with the vast stretches of roads of Jalukbari, which were beautified with the blood red Krishnasura flowers. In the chapters of the old Guwahati, there were no girls who rode a two-wheeler. Boys of the university ruled the city streets with their 350 cc Bullet bikes, and one could make out whose bike passed by from its sound. The silence in the backdrop was so prevailing. Animals, starting from elephants to leopards, were a common sight. “We would go around fishing, stroll along the sparkling paddy fields, swim in ponds. Guwahati was not such a materialistic city when we were young. The greenery was fascinating, traffic was smooth, people were laid back and hardly had competition. This is my old Guwahati for me,” shared Hazarika.
The lost essences of the Guwahatians represent the general lost qualities of Guwahati. Probably that is why the old Guwahatians relate back to what is left behind, sometimes, even long for an allure that seems to be missing within the young generation that weren’t brought up during that age.
The charm somehow seems elusive today and this is not because of the glib seductions of nostalgia. We Guwahatians live in a dynamic city, rapidly changing, always evolving and forever growing, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The city’s enduring slogan could be: Go, fall in love with it, my dear.
(Feature photograph image by - Hirak Baishya)