Bhuj + Mandvi

My ancestry is Kachcchi-Gurjar, a group of ethnic Gujaratis who migrated to the region of Kachchh as merchants some centuries ago. The history is a bit spotty, but as described in the “Mahavir Comics” that accompanied the previous entry, Jain Tirthankaras are all from warrior-caste, Kshatriya families. Indeed, the Buddha, too, was born into nobility, rather than being of Brahmin birth. It’s crucial here to note that both religions emerged as part of a Protestant-Reformation-esque movement in India, critiquing the elitism and patronage of brahminical Hinduism. The Brahmins were the only caste to have knowledge of the Vedas. They guarded this oral knowledge fiercely, thus ensuring their spiritual monopoly over the other castes. But Mahavir and the Buddha argued that a person can achieve Enlightenment without the support of the Vedas, and thus, without the interlocution of the Brahmins. To that end, these anti-brahminical figures functioned as revolutionaries, severing their followers from the old world order by denying its legitimacy.

The largest propagations of Jainism and Buddhism occurred under the grace and support of powerful kings like Asoka. Gaining an upper hand in their power struggle with the Brahmins was appealing. These kings would nationalize or regionalize the religion of their choice, patronizing temples, scholarship, and spiritual activities. Large waves of people would be thus converted, and often not through force. In Europe, even as kings enjoyed the benefits of the new Lutheranism and Calvinism, so did the radical ideals of Protestantism inspire grassroots support as well. The same occurred in the subcontinent. Differently from Europe, however, Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists often got along quite well, and people were generally free to practice all three at once without too much fuss. Indeed, the Buddha is one of the ten greatest incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, scores of Hindu gods adorn many Jain temples, and all three borrow heavily from the others’ cosmology, mythology, and ethics.

The king’s castle in Mandvi

Our family seems to have been part of one of those waves of conversion. Many centuries ago, we were hanging out in Rajasthan as Kshatriyas. After falling under the sway of Jainism, we migrated to Gujarat, and had to abandon that caste. Not only is Jainism casteless, but of all of the possible sources of livelihood medieval India, being a warrior was about as far as you could get from ahimsa. Instead, most newly-christened Jains turned to commerce, which, in pre-capitalist India, was the occupation that seemed to be in best accord with Jainism. It did not require the use, abuse, or killing of animals. It did not require the destruction of trees or the manipulation of the earth. It did not require them to propagate a religious text that they had rejected. And to boot, it was a fairly new, up-and-coming sort of occupation, somewhat outside of the traditional order of things, just like the Jain dharma.

This put the Gujarati Jains in a neat place when we migrated to Kachchh, much later. By then we had effectively become Gujaratis. You anthropologists out there know better than I that ethnicity is fluid and constructed and constantly being renegotiated (ooh-lah-lah!). At that time, Kachchhi occupations were primarily animal husbandry, artisanship, arid farming, and salt harvesting, and Mughal migrants were mostly fishermen. This left a space available in the commercial realm for my ancestors. And fill it they did. The Kachchhi-Gurjars, by and by, became extremely successful traders and businessmen.

A Jain dharamshala bearing the images of my great-great-grandfathers

Even so, it seems that the ethos then was to use wealth to build one’s own community, one’s backyard, one’s family. I find a beautiful Jain dharamshala in the city center with comfortable shelter for the homeless; I find a free school for girls built during a time when girls were rarely able to go to school; I find a marriage cooperative where poor and rich alike pitch in to marry all of their children together in pomp and circumstance; all bearing the name of their benefactor: my great-great-grandfather. I don’t mean to boast in pointing this out, but only to mark a few instances in a long history of generosity, instances which I find humbling. Even as they give me pride for my heritage, they serve to indicate that, no, I don’t know my community as well as my forefathers once did. That, yes, there was a time when everyone in this community knew names and faces like the back of their hand.

By the end of World War II, as India was beginning to hunger for its independence more voraciously than ever, the Kachchhi-Gurjar community was amassing the resources to send the next generation to bigger cities, like Bombay and Calcutta, and ultimately further abroad. Like so many others, they sought to create a future for their children that had more options and opportunities. The world was globalizing rapidly, and the Kachchhi-Gurjars were ready to ride them planes. These youths received Western educations, and many of them settled down there, in the United Kingdom and in the United States. They found jobs as doctors, engineers, pharmacists, or entrepreneurs, and moved into houses with more space than they knew what to do with. They struggled to keep their community together, to find ways to continue religious practices, to maintain their culture even in such a strange new geography. But space in the U.S. is wider and more sparse, and Indian groceries are hard to come by, and English is the lingua franca, and it’s harder to keep to a strict vegetarian diet, and you’ll rarely find enough Jains concentrated together to justify building a mandir. And so, even though they maintained immensely strong ties with their desh, their motherland, these Kachchhi-Gurjars became a diaspora, and were forced to accept new ways to feel at home. That fact is reflected in the generation that came afterwards—in my generation.

Sunset over Bhuj

Bhuj is Kachchh’s biggest metropolis, but as you leave the plane, you wonder what people mean when they say something like that. Because your plane is the only plane landing in Bhuj, and the terminal, though pretty, is small and ancient. Looking out of the window of the plane from the sky, all you saw were hills, shrubs, and sand. You found yourself waiting for the sprawl you’re so used to seeing from overhead. Now, you’ve landed, and yet looking around you, you still see only hills, shrubs, and sand. Where is the city?

Patience, now. Shanti. As with many cities, seeking to avoid the noise and pollution of an airport, it just takes a short drive. And when you finally reach Bhuj, it sets you wondering again, this time with curiosity. Such a mixture of buildings, some clearly very old, and others brand new, interspersed and intermingling. You’re used to seeing cities that are old and coherent, that retain the aesthetic mystique of their past even as they vault into the present. Or cities where modernity has all but buried the past underneath commerce and industry. Or cities where the old neighborhoods and new developments are clearly separated in space, where the crumbling walls of the city fort mark where the traditional bazaar ends, and where the shopping mall begins. But Bhuj is like none of these. In Bhuj, the first floor of a building may be pristinely renovated even as the second remains in ramshackle. A series of shops in the main market would set any historian on edge. Even the piles of bricks and trash would seem to belay consistent carbon-dating. When was this city built?

It is being built still today, comes the answer.

The newly constructed Swami Narayan temple in Bhuj, to replace the old one that was damaged

You ask again, until you get an answer that doesn’t sound like it came from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In 2001, Kachchh was decimated by an incredibly powerful earthquake. Houses and shops collapsed, infrastructure sundered, and thousands of lives were lost in the most brutal manner. That trauma has stayed with the people of Kachchh. The memory of witnessing so much pain and experiencing so much loss is not one that can be easily exorcised. In many parts of the region, it is still inscribed in the physical landscape, as properties remain rent asunder, as plots remain barren, as people remain homeless or unemployed or hungry or destitute.

But pain has the power to trigger not just destruction, but creation. Disaster has the power not just to consume a community, but to produce one. And here the latter function was charged. From the earthquake, a global community emerged, and a global network became reignited.The Kachchhi-Gurjar diaspora generated an immense outpouring of aid, donations, social programs, community centers, creative endeavors, phone calls, and letters. To be sure, many other communities sent in aid as well, be they Gujarati, Jain, Indian, or ethnically unrelated. But the diaspora community had the advantage of knowing the Kachchhi geography. Their understanding of the topography of the Kachchhi-Gurjar social network allowed for an apt use of local resources. They had places to stay and places to offer, and could go to the ground itself to ensure that good things were happening. They knew how to redevelop, rehabilitate, and redistribute without eradicating the crucial aspects of history and culture they held dear. And all of this was due to that key, additional, rare, essential resource: the ties of heartstrings. More than most other donors, the diaspora wanted a home to return to. The cities of Kachchh could not just be rebuilt as functioning urban centers. They had to be rebuilt as homes.

Mandvi beach, where my mom once spent many summer vacations

Bhuj and Mandvi thus continue to be old towns, even if the buildings shine bright and new, even if the modern architecture is more earthquake and cyclone-resistant, even if you now have broadband and cell networks and good roads and power grids. The same social networks remain. People still know everyone in their neighborhood by name and face. People walk slowly, smile broadly, and live honestly. I don’t mean to idealize them as in any way “quaint” or “simple.” All of the complexities of life can be found everywhere. Urbanization is not the only source of depth and thoroughness. But it’s simply true that people walk more slowly here. It’s simply true that they smile more honestly, and more broadly.

We have dinner in a tiny old restaurant. The kitchen would have made a tourist nervous if they had been traveling on their own.But when you realize that all the tables are packed with hungry locals, you know the place checks out. The light has gone out in the main room, and so one of the busboys tries to light a few candles.The strong coastal winds blow them all out. The cook brings us a few plates, and I taste the most delicious meal I have ever had in India. When it comes time to pay, he and my uncle argue over the price. But, wait. Not in the usual way. The cook refuses to accept extra money, and wants to give us a discount, because it is my first time returning home to Mandvi. My uncle is having none of that, and makes sure the cook gets his tip. Urban bargaining and haggling seems to only happen here in jest. Even when rickshaw drivers find out I’m a foreigner, they give me a fair price.

The house where my mother once lived, post-earthquake

I have the opportunity to see the flat that my mother spent her first years in, and many a summer vacation. It is the second story of a building in the old part of Mandvi. Our car can’t make it through the tiny streets, which after all, weren’t built for such things. So we hop into an auto rickshaw, which keenly maneuvers around dark bends and skinny alleyways. After a few turns, a little uncertain of where we are, we ask a few of the people living in the area, who immediately know which house it is, and walk us to the door.

The place still bears the scars of the quake. The balcony is collapsing, its bars and banisters snapped and rotted. The doors are mostly intact, but are cracking in places, and are battered by the black ash of the tremors. In spite of the seismic waves, though, I recognize the place as a home. Much of the old color of the place is still visible, even in the dim light of the night. The ornamentation on the wooden columns is clear, and I can easily imagine what the place must have felt like decades ago, on a cool summer day, with the breeze from the Gulf of Kachchh weaving its way through the tiny streets, up to these balconies. I can imagine the trek to the beach, eating corn and riding carnival rides. I can imagine the entire joint family sleeping together on the floor in the main room of the flat.

My niece dives for Ganesha

I can’t quite express what I feel in words, seeing this place. Part of it is pride for my past. I think we always feel a bit of that, as we learn more about where we came from. Even if our forefathers were cruel or prejudiced, even if we reject everything for which they stood, there is a sense of identity there that seems transcendental, that can still make us defensive of our history. But a larger part of my feeling, in this moment, is an immense gratitude for the present. For all that I have, the space, and the freedom, and the relationships, and the knowledge. For the family and friends that care for me here in India, housing me, feeding me, and showing me everything that fills their daily lives. For the friends I love back home, who always listen to my excited ramblings, who bring me soup when I’m sick, who hold my hand when I’m weary. For my parents, who I love so much more than I can ever express, who have given me so much, whose goodwill has basically orchestrated this entire journey of mine.

They’ll never take credit for this, but it’s theirs.

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5 thoughts on “Bhuj + Mandvi

  1. This is awesome my Sweetu!! So jealous but excited you got to see our native place!! Love u y te extrano muchisimo!! Thanks for this post :)

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