(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
‘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.