by Namit Arora
‘No man ever steps in the same river twice,’ wrote Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, ‘for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Some also say this about ‘home’, making it less a place, more a state of mind. Or as Basho, the haiku master, put it, ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.’ Still, in an age of physical migration like ours, one of the most bittersweet experiences in a migrant’s life is revisiting, after a long gap, the hometown where he came of age. More so perhaps if, while he was away, his neighborhood turned to ruin, crumbling and overrun with weeds, as happened in my case.
Last month, I revisited my boyhood home in Gwalior, a city in north central India, with my parents. I had grown up with my two sisters in Birlanagar, an industrial township in Gwalior, until I went away to college at age 17. After graduation, I left for the U.S. in 1989 for post-graduate studies and various jobs in the U.S. and Europe over the next two decades. I continued to think of Gwalior as my hometown until my parents also left in 1995 and I stopped going there during my India visits. By most measures I had a decent boyhood in Gwalior, yet I’m loath to idealize it or look upon it fondly. If it had its joys, it was also full of graceless anxieties, pressures, and confusions.
A ‘Temple of Modern India’
Many industrial townships similar to Birlanagar had arisen in mid-20th-century India, including at Bhilai, Durgapur, Rourkela, Bokaro, Jamshedpur, and Ranchi. Most were built around public sector enterprises, housing factories that employed thousands. Nehru, the modernizer, called these the ‘temples of modern India’. Birlanagar, where I grew up, was a private township, centered on two textile mills. The Birlas had started building it shortly before independence on land given to them for free by the Scindias, who ruled the then princely state of Gwalior. The older and larger of Birlanagar’s two mills was Jiyajeerao Cotton Mills (JC Mills), named after a member of the dynasty. The other mill, founded around 1950, was Gwalior Rayon (later Grasim), where my father, a textile engineer, worked for 36 years from 1958-94. Under the once famous ‘Gwalior Suiting & Shirting’ brand (watch this ad with Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore), Gwalior Rayon produced a range of fabrics combining both natural and synthetic fibers—such as cotton, wool, rayon, polyester, acetate, viscose—including some that ‘never tore’ and needed no ironing. Retailers apparently loved these products because their quality required no discounting.
During their heydays in the 1970s and 80s, the Birlanagar mills had over 10K employees—about 6-8 percent were Staff, the rest Labor—sustaining the livelihoods of perhaps over 100K people locally, about one sixth the population of Gwalior. In this otherwise unexceptional cow-belt city, many saw Birlanagar as a relative oasis—a modern township that drew in a diversity of professionals in nuclear families from across the country: Bengalis, Goans, Kashmiris, Tamils, Marathis, Punjabis, and more.
But in the early 1990s, both the mills and the township went into a terminal decline. By 2002 the mills had laid off all employees, shut down all operations, and sold off their looms and other capital assets. Left without jobs, many employees accused the companies of not paying out certain promised entitlements, and used this as justification for refusing to vacate their company-owned homes. Birlanagar turned overnight into a sea of squatters. Some enterprising folks even ‘sold’ their company-owned homes to outsiders for whatever they could get.
While most of my father’s peers left Birlanagar in search of greener pastures, a few stayed, whether they felt left behind in a fast-changing world or, nearing retirement, had nowhere else to go. Living rent-free must have helped offset the pain of living in a degenerating neighborhood. Meanwhile, the question of who owns the homes in which they continue to live remains in court. Any resolution will likely take many more years.
Within the last few years, the new owner of Gwalior Rayon has revived a dyeing unit (no pun intended) by tapping the residual pool of employees who never left. But the township remains a pale shadow of its past, with derelict houses and roads, untended public spaces, meager municipal services, and piles of rubble and garbage. The Birla Industries Club, once the township’s center of sporting activities—and which I frequented for chess, table tennis, and swimming—has succumbed to the weeds: a jungle envelops its playgrounds and swimming pool, tennis, basketball, and badminton courts, billiards, chess, carrom, and table tennis rooms. The Club once hosted state level sports tournaments. Now corrosion and decay pervade everything man-made. The best one can say is that the unchecked surge of weeds, shrubs, and trees in Birlanagar has helped revive the population of worms, frogs, lizards, butterflies, and parrots. I even saw peacocks, which we never had before.
Is There Anybody Home?
Mrs. Gupta, who now lives in our old house and whose husband works at the dyeing unit, receives us and graciously invites us in. So much is still the same! The same yellow cabinets and doors, the clunky fan regulators, the open mosaic kitchen shelves, the passage to the roof. Every corner still familiar, every space charged with memories. Except everything seems smaller than I had remembered. I recall the smell of Flit, which we sprayed in the bedrooms to kill mosquitoes. So many little battles over food and clothes and homework took place in this living room. The courtyard across which our big radio played Vividh Bharti songs each morning. The tiny storeroom that once had a little shrine at which my mother asked me to say a prayer before each exam; after turning atheist at 13, I’d still go through the motions but, with folded hands, murmur swear words at the gods. The corner that once held my study desk, where, in tenth grade, I discovered the shocking scale of the universe and grappled with it for days. The backyard, now entirely barren, had lemon, banana, and papaya trees, and a thriving vegetable garden. Our front lawn where we soaked up the sun in winter and chewed peeled sugarcane. The fragrant jasmine tree, the ornamental ‘vidya’ tree, the custard apple tree, and the rose beds are all gone but the windowsills and the front pillars, which we decorated with oil lamps during Diwali, still remain. We also used the lawn as a badminton court with an imaginary net running across.
I hop over a wall across the road to reach the open field where I used to fly kites, play cricket, and see B&W films projected on a white cloth during Durga Puja. At the edge of the field was a hall, part of a state school, where both students and visiting troupes staged dance and drama performances, which we often watched. It also hosted table tennis and badminton tournaments, where we cheered for friends and local teams. The hall looks abandoned but two statues, of Tagore and Vivekananda, still stand outside. Nearby, at the resoundingly named Sarv Dharm Manav Mandir, kids once learned tabla and harmonium, kathak and bharatnatyam. The open field was where father finally taught me to drive his Vespa, after I’d snuck away with it a few times and, trying to impress a girl with my speed, had crashed it into a wall. It’s where I once fought three boys. Though roundly beaten in the end, I still relish the sweet satisfaction of landing a perfect punch on the big bully’s jaw. Another time, as I ran away from a fight, my opponent threw a stone that landed on my back. That’s how the boys attacked stray dogs, and it made me feel like an escaping dog, tail between my legs. I feel grateful that nothing much worse than this haunts me from that era. How many of us can say that? Indeed, isn’t that a good measure of a decent childhood?
My parents get busy meeting old timers and eagerly catching up: their various journeys; what they do now; whereabouts of former colleagues. Talk inevitably turns to those who have passed away, and there are so many. Their somber tones betray their sense of their shrinking world. They talk about their health, ailments, home remedies. Some speak of heart attacks or other brushes with death. They often relate happy memories but when they speak of their kids or grandkids, it sometimes makes me queasy—especially when they assess their young ones by the most vacuous attributes: obedience, height, complexion, degrees, income. I’ve had to struggle to unlearn so many of these petty, small-town values that had oozed into my consciousness here.
We pass through various drawing rooms. Besides family portraits, wall decor abounds in calendar art kitsch of gods, puppies, infants, landscapes, or flowers. Over cups of tea or cola, stories keep tumbling out: So-and-so pocketed lots of money renting out company venues for private events; Mr K’s son is now estranged; one gent in purchasing went to jail; Mr O’s two daughters are now in England; their ex-president has lost three of his four sons, all of whom were quite obese; I learn that back then one of our neighbors used to abuse his wife, who had escaped to our home one night after a fight, and just days later tried to commit suicide on the railway tracks; another man shot his wife who’d been paralyzed by a stroke for two years and then killed himself. Growing up I rarely heard any neighborhood tales of the darker kind; perhaps they hadn’t been told in the presence of kids, or perhaps I had no interest in them. But almost everyone now extols the glory days of Birlanagar and laments its current state.
Our ex-neighbors, Mr and Mrs Bhadoria, have invited us for dinner. Once a tough guy feared by all, Mr Bhadoria is now retired—even from installing Airtel towers, his last part-time gig—and proclaims himself a ‘full-time heart patient’. Back in the day, his power at the factory flowed from his political clout: first as Congress party activist, then as president of the local trade union, then as president of RJD, Madhya Pradesh. One of his photo albums has him posing with a shirtless Lalu Yadav at the latter’s home. But a couple of years ago, he quit RJD and joined RSS. I give up trying to figure out his politics. Mrs Bhadoria is very devout and worships for three hours daily. With large, glinting eyes, she reveals that she bathes and dresses up little god statues in her home shrine everyday (if she herself needs a daily change of clothes, she reckons, why wouldn’t her beloved god?). Her practice has a long legacy in the Subcontinent but it still amuses me to think of it as a fusion of Bhakti and Barbie. She’s told Lord Krishna that if he wants her devoted service, he must keep her healthy, else she might leave him to wallow in filth. So far her threat has worked, she claims, for she has no ‘medical issues’. She is also a cow devotee. Camped out by their front gate are two cows they don’t own, but who no doubt hang around for the desi ghee goodies they get daily from the lady of the house.
After we take leave, I’m delighted when my parents call her devotion ‘excessive’ and gently laugh at her. My mother’s faith is nowhere near as stringent, my father’s even less so. They hardly ever made a fuss about my teenage distaste for religion. In the quiet night we amble past our former house towards the car of another neighbor who has kindly offered to take us to our hotel. This failed township was once home, and all day I’ve nursed a jumble of emotions towards it: indebtedness, gratitude, sadness, resentment. I know I’ll never fully untangle or unfurl that experience. There will only be a different tangling, a different furling, for the rest of my life.
The City Beyond the Township
Outside Birlanagar, Gwalior’s trajectory resembles that of many cow-belt cities: A newly prosperous class is evident in its malls, big cars, and gated apartments. Abject poverty is less visible now than in my time. Parts of the city have cleaner, wider streets; many new areas seem better planned. CNG autos are common (those absurd, if cute, tempos are gone). But the city is more crowded too—the population has nearly doubled in 25 years—with a lot more vehicles, noise, pollution, and fewer empty spaces.
The city also feels dense with skinny boys hanging about in public spaces, indicative of the 45 percent of Indians below age 19. Ill-educated as they are, I see them less as a ‘demographic dividend’, more as ‘looming disaster’. What future awaits them in jobs, housing, and marriages? Given the current child sex ratio in Gwalior, 17 percent of these boys will not find a mate. What social stresses will this create? A few will migrate to metros like Delhi NCR, which bloats by 700K each year. Some will take up jobs servicing the nouveau riche—as mall workers, security guards, delivery boys, drivers, appliance sales and servicemen, high-rise construction workers, hotel staff, and so on. But the big questions remain: can the economy add millions of decent jobs for the new entrants year after year, for decades—and at what cost to the environment? Can housing, healthcare, nutrition, education, water, sanitation, and electricity keep up?
More soothing than these ruminations is the sight of the Gwalior Fort above the city, and the ease of lounging in the lawns that surround the tombs of Tansen and his spiritual mentor, the Sufi saint Muhammad Ghaus. These lawns remain the site of the annual Tansen Samaroh, where music lovers and artists gather for a four-day, open-air tribute to Tansen. Even in my childhood it was free to all and my father religiously attended every evening. Wrapped up in shawls and mufflers on chilly December nights, this is where I first heard Shivkumar Sharma, Bismillah Khan, Dagar Brothers, Amjad Ali Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, and other musical greats.
Riding in a CNG auto, we soak in sights from our former haunts like Hazira, Padav, Gole ka Mandir, Shinde ki Chawni, Daulat Ganj, Bada, Sarafa Bazar, Kampoo. Even after twenty years, random people across town recognize my parents. Many touch their feet and speak with affection. My parents, now 78 and 73, say they won’t return to Gwalior again so I’m happy for their positive experiences. We reminisce about Ashok Talkies, now razed to the ground but once the closest movie theater to our home, where I watched so many angry-young-man movies. Nearby used to be children’s book and magazine rental shops, which I visited often on my bicycle. Over the years, they supplied me with lots of Champak, Chandamama, Chacha Chaudhary, Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha, The Hardy Boys, and Tintin titles.
We stop at the subzi mandi, the kirana market, and various shops that still bear the old names—venues where my parents once carried shopping lists and looked for bargains. When father began work in 1958, he earned Rs 150 per month (equivalent to Rs 7,600 / $120 today). That inaugurated the years of thrift, watching discretionary expenses, rarely eating out. Fortunately for me, my parents didn’t skimp on their kids’ education, nor on taking two vacations every year: one to a hill station in the Himalayas, the other to Jaipur where most of our relatives lived.
I meet two long lost school friends for dinner and the next day we visit our alma mater, Carmel Convent School. The principal, Sister Ann Jose, graciously gives us a tour of the premises. Now said to be the best girls-only K–12 school in Gwalior, it was co-ed in our time. The Sister says they got rid of the boys because of too many disciplinary problems. We tell her that in our day, the principal, Sister Reprata, whom she knew, used to cane our hands. Times have changed, Sister Jose says; there is no corporal punishment now. I find no general encyclopedia in their library so I offer to donate my Britannica, which she gladly accepts. The school has many new buildings but these are still the grounds where I once negotiated the fine line between being cool and studious. Part of being cool was to speak a language full of expletives, as in every third spoken word being a swear word. Adolescent thrill and peer pressure drove us to invent new curses that were so badass that merely uttering them felt like a transgression. The pendulum swung the other way later in life, for I ended up renouncing nearly all but the tamest of swear words.
The Warp and the Weft of Factory Life
My father and his colleagues seemed to agree that the golden age of Birlanagar had coincided with Hiralal Shrimal’s presidency of Gwalior Rayon. A physically large, autocratic, and energetic man, Shrimal had been more feared than loved. During his reign, Gwalior Rayon’s revenue exceeded $300M in the early 1980s. Things began going south, it was said, after a management shake-up in the late 1980s, in which SB Agrawal replaced Shrimal and began stuffing the ranks with his own cronies. Agrawal also harassed those considered close to Shrimal, including my father, and seemingly made bad investment decisions that contributed to the mill’s demise.
Others blamed Gwalior Rayon’s demise on its labor union, which they alleged had become too strong, until union workers no longer put in a hard day’s work and cost structures became unsustainable (the revived dyeing unit has no union and per capita production is apparently higher than before). Falling profits may have prompted the Birla Group to diversify its investment priorities to other emerging sectors, such as cement and chemicals. Many macro trends also likely played a role. The 1980s saw the closure of dozens of textile mills in Bombay, which was blamed variously on intransigent labor union leaders like Dutta Samant, rising real estate prices, reduction of import duties in textiles, low-cost Chinese fabrics, and the slow pace of innovation in the Indian textile sector.
At some point, my father came to lead the ‘weaving prep department’. His team was in charge of fabric designs and winding the right kinds of yarn on warp and weft bobbins that fed the German looms in the weaving department. Six days a week, father reached work shortly before 6 AM and worked until 6 PM, with a two-hour lunch/siesta break. In middle management, he was squeezed between the demands of upper management and the attitudes of unionized labor. His work environment, far from being safe and hospitable, required frequent supervision on humid and odorous shop floors, with excruciatingly loud machines that caused his significant hearing loss, and fine fiber pollutants, which likely led to his chronic bronchitis. The laborers who constantly worked in these areas had it worse. Father also had to deal with Shrimal’s hot-cold psychological abuse, which left its residue on father’s moods when he returned home from work and took its toll on our family. But Shrimal also made it clear that he trusted and valued father’s work and looked out for him in other ways.
When Agrawal took over from Shrimal, he hired a crony with the goal of replacing father. To protect his job, father was advised to join the labor union, whose president was our neighbor Mr Bhadoria. Rallying behind my father, the union instigated a production slowdown and mass walkouts, inciting Aditya Birla himself to ask why ‘a man of the caliber of Mr. Arora’ would join the labor union—a remark that also betrayed his view of labor unions. Having prevailed in this confrontation and secured his job, father took it relatively easy in the last 4-5 years before retirement, working normal hours for the first time in his life and living without the fear of upper management. When he retired in 1994 and moved to Jaipur with my mother and younger sister, Gwalior Rayon was the only employer he had ever had.
A House for Mr. Arora
An industrial township is defined in part by its housing and employment regime—the logic by which its spaces and its toils are carved out among its residents. A house was a perk of a factory job in Birlanagar. An employee was assigned a house based on his rank in the company hierarchy. As the employee climbed the ladder, so did the size and location of his home. My parents had lived in four smaller houses before the one I described above, where we stayed the longest and during my formative years.
Housing units were clustered: tiny dwellings in one locale, row houses in another, bungalows in a gated area. This created a de facto segregation based on professional rank, as all of one’s neighbors had approximately the same rank. A Laborer could never stay in Staff housing. Nor could junior Staff live around senior Staff. Since one’s house was a direct indicator of one’s status, it bred envy and created a race for upward mobility in housing. Perennial topics of gossip concerned who moved into which house, who got what company perks, who had secured renovations for his house, and so on.
This wouldn’t have been so bad had the mills functioned like the meritocracy they implicitly claimed to be—that is, if they had combined equal employment opportunity with such performance-based rewards as a bigger house. But the mills were nothing like a meritocracy. They didn’t practice equal opportunity hiring. Instead, caste nepotism ruled. The whole township was in fact an upper-caste fiefdom, mixing caste nepotism and housing segregation into a soul-corrupting brew. During this visit, as my parents and I walked by the Staff quarters, I recorded the names of ex-residents. I also noted names that came up in conversations with ex-neighbors and ex-colleagues. Below is this list of about hundred names, a highly representative sample of the Staff members of the Birlanagar textile mills.
- Bania (most Marwari): Mandalia, Kabra, Bajoria, Ganderiwal, Jhaver, Poddar, Singhania, Tibrewal, Chandgothia, Nahar, Budhia, Chapparia, Kathuria, Dwarka, Mittal, Poddar, Samalia, Saraf, Neekhra, Ajmera, Dalmiya, Lakhotia, Rungta, Makharia, two Shrimals, two Chauradias, two Goyals, many Guptas, many Agrawals
- Brahmin: Chakravarty, Fotedar, Kaul, Deshpande, Karandikar, Gopal, Tyagi, Saraswat, Gaur, Joshi, Dindhaw, Kalia, Mishra, two Dikshits, many Shuklas, many Sharmas
- Khatri: Tandon, Khanna, Kapoor, Batra, Oberoi, Sehgal, Chand, Vohra, many Aroras
- Thakur/Jat/Others: Bhadoria, Rathore, Rathi, Taparia, Singh, Rastogi
- Kayastha/Vaidya: Saxena, Shrivastava, Ghosh, Sinha, Sengupta, Dasgupta
- Christian/Sikh/Jain/Others: D’Souza, Briganza, Alexander, George, Thomas, Singh, Mauj, Jain, Merchant
This list confirmed my long held suspicion that the supposed diversity of Birlanagar was in many ways deeply deceptive. I found not a single Muslim, Shudra, Dalit, or Adivasi among the Staff. No women either. In short, not even one person from the constituencies that make up almost 90 percent of Indians! ‘Our management had an unwritten policy of not hiring Muslims,’ father remarked casually. The Labor had many lower-caste men but almost all Staff employees at this ‘temple of modern India’ were twice-born Hindu males, with a profusion of Marwari banias—especially in senior management, starting with Aditya Birla himself—the rest being a smattering of privileged class Christian, Jain, and Sikh men. Father told me that other Staff members quietly resented the domination of Marwari banias. Staff hiring and promotions pivoted more on caste than merit, and diversity wasn’t high on the list. It struck me much later that no one from the Labor class ever visited the Birla Industries Club. While theoretically open to all employees, the club had become an exclusive playground for Staff families, all upper-caste. JC Mills even had separate entrances, and both mills had separate canteens, for Staff and Labor. This sort of segregation never struck me as problematic back then; it even seemed like the natural order of things.
The neighborhood of my formative years was exclusively upper-caste. No wonder I grew up so blind to the unfair advantage of caste in my own life and the handicap it was for others. This blindness, still rife among my family and friends, is an attribute of my caste privilege. It allowed the boys in my neighborhood to use ‘chamaar’ and ‘bhangi’ as casual abuses for each other. It’s tempting to think that Birlanagar’s discriminatory business and social practices contributed to the mills’ demise in the era of globalization, but that would be wishful thinking. Caste, with its hydra-headed ways, has adapted to modern capitalism; both caste and communal discrimination continue to flourish in 21st century corporate India. Yet notably, Birlanagar was then widely admired by outsiders; even the Labor jobs were in much demand. This suggests that to most people across the social spectrum, Birlanagar was no worse—and better in some ways—than the society at large.
But there it is, warts and all, my former hometown as I see it from this vantage point on a journey I began there. That journey continues as I board the train back to Delhi with a newfound appreciation of author Thomas Wolfe’s words: ‘you can’t go home again’.