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Mainstream, VOL LX No 21, New Delhi, May 14, 2022

Allahabad Diary | Ather Farouqui

Saturday 14 May 2022, by Ather Farouqui


(For Abhishek Tandon)

Allahabad, officially renamed Prayagraj in 2019, houses one of the oldest and largest High Courts of the country, retaining the city’s earlier name, just as does the Bombay High Court. The city of sangam was the last internal port of the country, and is known to many for the Kumbh Mela, a major Hindu pilgrimage. While talking of the city, the University of Allahabad merits special mention. Established in 1887, the fourth oldest modern university in India at one time churned out civil servants by the dozen, who were free of any ideological baggage. Even today, to its people, Allahabad is still ‘Allahabad’, not Prayagraj.


Anand Bhavan and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Like every other old city, this culturally rich city also has many tales to tell, chiefly about the Nehrus. One of them, given currency to by the Muslims of South Asia, especially the Alig community (that is, the alumni of the Aligarh Muslim University), is about Anand Bhavan, that served as the Nehru residence and one part of which, Swaraj Bhavan, was later dedicated to the Indian National Congress. Both are now museums rather two parts of one museum run by the Nehru Memorial Trust. The legend is that Annad Bhavan originally belonged to [Sir] Syed Ahmad [Khan]—‘Sir’ and ‘Khan’ were titles given by the British and the Mughals, respectively. Distorted oral history is responsible for the inaccurate fact mentioned on a plaque at the entrance of the Anand Bhavan. In reality, the house briefly belonged to Syed Ahmad’s son, Syed Mahmood, a judge in the High Court. Syed Mahmood was one of the finest legal minds of his time but a confirmed alcoholic, for which he was stripped of the judgeship. He sold the house to Raja Jai Kishan Das in 1894, and Motilal Nehru purchased it from him later. Syed Ahmad never had any direct connection with the house, and he never lived there with his son.

Feroze Gandhi’s Controversial Parentage

Indira Gandhi’s biographer Katherine Frank, an American author and biographer, is almost certain about the parentage of Feroze Gandhi. In her controversial book, Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, Frank noted: Feroze, "a Parsi with Gujarati name…was raised…by his unmarried aunt Dr Shirin Commissariat…possibly because Feroze was actually her own child. If this was the case, a likely candidate as his father was a distinguished advocate Raj Bahadur Prasad Kakkar".

Interestingly, not many in present-day Allahabad are either aware of or interested in Feroze Gandhi though his present generation of relatives continues to live in the city. After much probing, the only detail that can be dug up about Mr Kakkar is that he was a Khatri.

Salman Rushdie and Mehmood Butt

Another rumour that circulates among the city’s elite is that Salman Rushdie studied at the city’s Boys’ High School while his maternal uncle Mehmood Butt served as the administrator at the Allahabad Municipal Corporation in the early 1970s. Back then Uttar Pradesh had five municipal corporations for the so-called KAVAL towns—Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Agra, Lucknow. Around 1967, the elected corporations were superseded and their charge was entrusted to administrators who were IAS officers of the rank of commissioner, that is senior to the district magistrate. Saiyid Hamid was the first administrator at Allahabad, succeeded by Butt.

When Butt was at the helm, he became unimaginably powerful due to his integrity and imperviousness to political influence, to the extent that he had the courage to disconnect electricity supply to Anand Bhavan over non-payment of bills, and it was restored only after full payment was made. During the Emergency, he was made chief secretary of the state.

Even to this day, legends surrounding Butt are as popular as Motilal Nehru’s laundry fiction (that it was shipped to Paris for washing!). He is known to have been eccentric both as an officer and as a person. He introduced several reforms and almost cleared all encroachment from the city. His file notings and notices were scrupulously precise and, surprisingly, many people of Allahabad still remember some of them by heart. By training a Royal Air Force pilot, he had joined the administrative civil service, then the ICS and now the IAS. His appointment was made in 1948 with effect from 1945, meaning that he was given a notional seniority of three years for the reason that no appointment was made to the ICS after 1943. After Independence, bright officers from the army were co-opted into the administrative civil service based on an interaction, according to another civil servant of Uttar Pradesh cadre with encyclopaedic knowledge of the bureaucracy.

As chief secretary, Butt implemented the family planning programme of Sanjay Gandhi enthusiastically. He had been brought in by the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, H.N. Bahuguna. Within a year of his succession by N.D. Tiwari, Butt was removed. The Janata Party government was evidently vindictive towards Butt, though he had been marginalized during the Emergency itself. A disciplinary action was initiated against him by the Janata Party government on the flimsy grounds of the appointment of a clerk. Flimsy for the reason that it would have been difficult to hold him responsible for his misdeeds: the chief secretary himself does not make such appointments, but they can be made on his verbal instructions, which is what apparently did happen. In Allahabad, Butt faced a lot of opposition and a few litigations due to his highhandedness. An Uttar Pradesh cadre officer of the 1965 batch vaguely remembered the incident and the enquiry while dealing with Butt’s file after his retirement; he had visited him at his house with regard to settling his retirement dues.

What is little remembered in Allahabad now is a scandal surrounding Butt. He had an affair with a Swedish lady who belonged to an Indian family of Allahabad. She deserted her husband to move in with him, but found herself abandoned sometime later.
Evidence suggests that, like his nephew, Butt had no liking for Indira Gandhi. Though Rushdie’s apparent dislike was perhaps motivated by the professional agenda of selling his Midnight’s Children, Butt’s was based on his interactions with her, like many others who worked with her and found her mediocre in comparison to her image.

After Allahabad, Lucknow also witnessed Butt’s eccentricities. Interestingly, he fought the Lok Sabha election from Lucknow in 1980 as a candidate of the Janata Party! And lost.

After Allahabad, Butt then went to the Planning Commission as joint secretary where he had a tiff with R.K. Karanjia, the editor of Blitz—a Bombay-based weekly tabloid in English, with editions in Hindi, Urdu, and Marathi—who was known for his bulldozing ways. An enquiry was set up to look into Butt’s relationship with foreign missions, particularly that of the US. However, nothing was found against him. Presumably, he used to visit the US embassy for free, imported alcohol, which was almost impossible to obtain from the open market then. After retirement, he chose to settle into a quiet life in Bangalore.

His father, Dr Ataullah Butt, was the first principal of the Aligarh Muslim University’s Tibbi[ya] College in 1927. Earlier he had been in charge of the university’s health services as well as the chief medical officer. Aligarh still remembers his brother-in-law, Mohammad Shaghil, the first husband of Salman Rushdie’s mother. Mohammad Shaghil was appointed lecturer at the university in 1936, but a few years later he went to the United Nations Organisation (UNO), sources in university town unanimously confirmed including those who had interacted with Mohammad Shaghil sahib. He returned in the 1980s and died in the university town in the 1990s. He is remembered as a very gentle soul and never talked of his first marriage or Salman Rushdie. Butt’s uncle, Abdullah Butt, was also a professor of mathematics at the AMU. Mehmood Butt sold the house at the famous Marrice Road of the university town after his father migrated to Pakistan in the mid-1960s. The house was named ‘Butt Kada’. A legendary professor at the AMU, equally well known as a humorist, Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqui, in a light vein suggested to Atauallah Butt that the house should be renamed ‘But-kada’, literally a temple, since in Urdu poetry ‘but’ is a metaphor for beloved indifference. It is difficult to differentiate in English between Butt, the surname, and but, an idol but the two are pronounced quite differently in Urdu. Additionally, the pun on Butt and but could have also referred to what male university students felt about Ataullah Butt’s very beautiful and very modern daughters who were, unlike most young Muslim women very visible, but unattainable. Now the house is being developed by a builder and a few flats have also come up. Just like his post-retirement days in Bangalore, very little is known about Mehmood Butt’s days in Aligarh.

Salman Rushdie in his autobiography Anton Joseph has said everything with purpose and in a way that it has a fictional aspect evoking readers’ interest. He has been somewhat economical with stories related to his mother’s family background, and whatever he has stated falls in the category of convenient truth. Though Rushdie loves controversy more than any formidable writer of 20th century simply because it has selling potential, he somehow ignored Aligarh, a phenomenon indeed with a lot of potential to sell anything related to it, and whose ethos is part of Rushdie’s DNA in many ways. His close connections with the university town did not find sufficient space in the book. Since Mohammad Shaghil as his mother’s first husband did not figure in his scheme of things, he had almost ignored him though he did not spare his mother from what is crudely called ‘bitching’ which is generally not allowed neither in the East nor the West.

Anita Desai

Another important literary figure whose connection with Allahabad many are unaware of is Anita Desai. Her father-in-law was the chief justice of the Allahabad High Court, and she, according to those who claim it as a fact, stayed with her in-laws at Thornhill Road. The literati believe that the central character of her novel In Custody, an ageing poet with a chaotic life, is based on the famous Allahabad University lecturer Firaq Gorakhpuri, an avowed homosexual with a terrible temper. However, Desai avoided touching on the aspect of homosexuality in her book, although another scholar from Allahabad has written a scholarly book on it.

Colonial Legacy of Schooling

The city also boasts two schools run by the Roman Catholics, St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s, as well as the Girls’ High School and Boys’ High School, managed by the Protestants, as symbols of the elite education status and colonial past of the city. The Protestant schools vaunt eminent alumni like the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and the redoubtable Justice Markandey Katju. St. Mary’s [Convent] was Indira Gandhi’s first school. St. Mary’s Convent and St. Joseph’s, Allahabad, are still considered to be the best convents in the chain. Ewing Christian College, which was once amongst the finest educational institutions in British India, has now completely lost its glory due to diocese politics. Knowledgeable people affirm that diocese politics is extremely ugly, but Christian institutions have survived in India because they fulfil the need of teaching English even though they are arrogant and suffer from the same level of corruption as the public school system. However, Christians generally do not wash their dirty linen in public, unlike Muslims followed by Hindus, as far as community institutions are concerned.

The Sorry State of Memorials

Firaq Gorakhpuri’s house at Bank Road now stands divided ruthlessly, with the usual bureaucratic indifference, into two houses by the university. Harivansh Rai Bachchan never opted for the accommodation offered to him by the university, but the two houses he lived in are not a matter of concern either for the civic bodies or his distinguished progeny and one of the ‘wisest men’ of contemporary India, Amitabh Bachchan. More mindlessness can be witnessed in building a sports complex in Civil Lines named after the cine star. The younger Bachchan represented Allahabad in the Lok Sabha as he humiliatingly defeated H.N. Bahuguna in the 1984 post Indira Gandhi assassination elections. However, he ended his political foray disastrously thereafter. The vast and beautiful Civil Lines, the distorted name of the Civil Station, renamed some of its network roads, but the new names have not replaced the old in public memory.

Dying Intellectual Glory

The present-day city has hardly any intellectual life; there exist no study circles and no literary gatherings. Most of those who teach at the university fall short of the requirements of the ‘teacher’ as guru. A majority of them are not educators or motivators like Firaq Gorakhpuri, S.C. Deb, Amarnath Jha, Ehtesham Hussain, or Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Interestingly, they all belonged to an English literature background and particularly enriched and enhanced literature with their considerable contribution to Indian languages.

Above all, Premchand—along with his sons, Shripat Rai and Amrit Rai—enriched Allahabad’s cerebral life. The third generation, consisting of Alok Rai, a retired professor of the English Department at the University of Delhi, is now continuing the good work of his forefathers. He too is a resident of Civil Lines.

The living legend S.R. Faruqi, again an alumnus of the English department, also lives in the city and works tirelessly in a classy and enormous study-cum-library at his Hastings Road residence.

Sadly, there is no evidence of the new Indian English poetry’s revival in the city as was earlier noted by Bruce King in his book Modern Indian English Poetry. In all likelihood this statement seems more poetic than real.

A City of New India

There are a few decent restaurants in the Civil Lines area, the heart of the city, but none of them is a space for any intellectual activity. The legendary Coffee House has fallen on wretched times, as has the quality of its coffee. Caste politics, because of Sanjay Gandhi, led to the downfall of the university. Amazingly, the present inhabitants of Civil Lines especially those who are leading post retirement lives, generally do not mingle even with their own brethren.

Sad but true, Allahabadis of new India do not read books with the same passion as did their forefathers.

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