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A beautiful but divided city.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Delhi is like The Complete Works of Shakespeare. You may read just that book and nothing else in your whole life and you would still be wiser. But if go to other cities, walk in their alleys, talk to their dwellers, you would realize that how enlightening it is to read other books.
In other words: Shakespeare is great but not everything; Delhi is great but not everything.
I'm in Surat. I had come here with much reluctance. I mean why leave Delhi? It has everything – forts, palaces, tombs, bookstores, bazaars, malls, gardens. It has surprise streets, sweet secrets. It has character. It has soul.
But Surat, too, has all that.
I arrived in this town with some skepticism. This city maybe a diamond and textile hub but it has also seen riots between Hindus and Muslims. Worse, it lies in Gujarat, a state which would always stay in my mind where thousands of Muslims were killed in the beginning of the new millennium. Worse, the Muslim victims were denied justice in the aftermath of the riots. Worse, the state government which had turned a blind eye to the massacre was re-elected by Gujaratis.
So I was prepared to dislike Surat. I couldn't.
It's a beautiful city. Dirt free streets. Colonial buildings. Smooth roads. The old Surat is cleaner than old Delhi. Havelis are as stunning. Mosques are beautiful. There is Shahjahan's fort, Dutch cemetery, Parsi neighbourhoods and lots of vegetarian restaurants. (The Pizza Hut here has no non-veg option!)
Did I mention the river?
Like Delhi, Surat, too, has its river. But, unlike Delhi's Yamuna, Tapti doesn't divide the city into social hierarchies. It unites it.
In the night, people drive to the bridge, park their cycles, scooters and cars on the roadside, and sit by the balustrade. All sorts of Suratis come here: couples, families, solitude-seekers. Rich, poor. Hindus, Muslims. Women in saris. Women in burqas. The city lights twinkle into the river making it all look dreamy.
This late night dream world in which followers of different religions gather together at one place is, however, too unsubstantial to exist in the clear light of the day. Then Surat comes into its own. Its divisions are laid bare. Navigating through the city means crisscrossing Hindu part, Muslim part, Hindu part, Muslim part, Hindu part, Muslim part.
You don't find this kind of Jerusalem in Delhi. The Indian Capital might not respect its river but at least it respects its people. That's why Delhi is slightly better than Surat.
A Muslim Surati?
The Hindu Part?
The Muslim part?
Hindu part? Muslim part?
A divided city