One approach to knowing a country is through its major cities. For me, for example, most of France is just padding on a map of Paris. I've just never spent enough time outside the capital to know how non-Parisians live. Some people argue that you have to visit the most out of the way hamlets to know a country, but I believe that a completely urban experience is legitimate—unless I were to pass myself off as an expert on the French countryside, which I am not. Country living too involves some trompe d'oeil. Some years ago I stayed in a lovely village with a mossy graveyard and thirteenth-century church in Oxfordshire in England. I soon learned that despite the rural atmosphere, the majority of the inhabitants in fact worked in London. It's expensive to maintain a medieval cottage, after all.
But even as a committed urbanite (who occasionally needs to get out of the city), I admit there's something remarkable about small towns. Tourists often make moral judgments about the small town landscape but it seems to me that the inhabitants of the periphery are not somehow guardians of a nation's culture but rather that a lot of metropolitan distractions are stripped away. It's easier to experience a place when you're not battling with people trying to sell you things or being nearly run over every time you cross the street. In some ways small towns are like cities that are more relaxed, more manageable, but there is however a different orientation. A small town has a centre, and people from nearby areas are drawn to it. Its centripetal force is even stronger than in a big, spread-out city precisely because it is compact.
Of course all of this is an after-the-fact justification for the overwhelming feeling that I needed to get out of Delhi, with its noise and pollution on the one hand, and its parvenu crassness on the other. A research trip presented the perfect opportunity: Last Monday, my friend Sudev and I got on the Lucknow Shatabdi (a super-express train) to visit the sleepy town of Aligarh, 120 km to the southeast of Delhi. Besides the famous Aligarh Muslim University, the only major employer in town is a lock factory.
We stepped down from the train—after two hours en route, because even super-express trains in India are not all that fast—to a bright blue sky, leafy streets and crisp, unpolluted air. There are no auto-rickshaws here so we hauled ourselves onto the back of a cycle-rickshaw, which would have comfortably seated only one and a half of us. (Auto-rickshaws are the green and yellow CNG-powered threewheelers, the unholy spawn of a motorcycle and a taxi, that most Delhiites take for medium-distance trips.) We bumped along the road, clinging to the edge of the rickshaw, occasionally groaning when the strip of wood at the side of the seat dug itself into our flesh. The traffic was almost completely cycle-rickshaws and motorcycles with just a few cars and the occasional horse-drawn cart zipping through the roundabouts. We passed by beautiful late-colonial period buildings, including the famous university gate, which could have been built by an Emperor centuries ago but was in fact put up by the university in the early 1900s.
Aligarh Muslim University is one of the top universities in India, and was founded with a uniquely secular vision of Islamic culture. The history is too rich to describe here but basically it was founded by Muslim reformers loyal to the British in the late nineteenth century. AMU draws Muslim (and many non-Muslim) students from across India, especially bright young women whose conservative families are content to let them study in a small-town Islamic institution but not in the secular hellholes of, say, Delhi University or Jawaharlal Nehru University. The history programme at AMU has routinely produced some of the best scholarship in India—if you're a historian of South Asia, whether you agree or disagree with the so-called Aligarh School's principles, you have to address its views on a particular point. Unfortunately, as the Chair of the Linguistics Department, who happens to be my friend, told us, many of the students are from a "vernacular background" (which is a euphemism for having poor English) and all the instruction is conducted in English, as it is at all central universities in India. Communication problems are a fundamental issue.
We arrived around half past eight in the morning so we had time to sit and watch the student body coming and going. Roughly half the students were dressed in Western clothes and the other half in traditional clothes. Even here boys wear Playboy shirts complete with the rabbit logo and usually some ungrammatical slogan. They seem blithely unaware of the connection with the American pornography empire. However, I did not see any of the alcohol-themed shirts that are popular among teenagers in Delhi. The young men dressed in Islamic clothes made me feel like an Orientalist. I looked at them and was overwhelmed by how elegantly simple most of their outfits were, and I really wanted to play dress up. The palette favoured green and blue pastels, tan and grey. There were rich floral borders and simple geometric patterns. A simple round cap and a beard completed the look. The various configurations of hats and beards was incredible. Of the women who covered their hair, once more about half in my estimation, the choices ran from full burqa to brightly-coloured headscarves. As I noted to Sudev, I find myself monitoring my words and behaviour very carefully in front of of girls in burqas. Issues of women's equality aside, somehow women in burqas make any situation more serious. Even the way people speak here is more formal than in Delhi. Instead of just saying, "come in" or "sit down", here they prefer the formal Urdu expression "tashriif laaie" (literally, "take your honour").
Aligarh is such a small town that when it was recommended that we have lunch downtown, in a district called Centre Point, we found ourselves at a T-junction lined with shops. Admittedly it was busy enough to be in a Delhi suburb but still it was clear that I could never live in a place like this. Surprisingly, we later discovered that the Kwality Snack Bar where we had eaten was in fact not the Quality Snack Bar where we were meant to have gone. Even a town such as this can support two restaurants with almost exactly the same name.
After lunch we took a rickshaw to the house of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the university's founder. When negotiating the price, the rickshaw-wallah asked, "What's five rupees to people like you?" His logic was sound, and it was refreshing to have someone be so open about the wealth disparity, which naturally led us to start chatting with him. When Sudev asked him if he had ever been to Delhi, he was incredulous. Finally, he stammered, "What's there in Delhi for us poor people?" He was right, of course. Sir Sayyid's house was a gleaming white bungalow set in an enormous garden—or rather what would have been garden had there been enough money to put plants there. After that we visited the university's publications division, which was a strange little building surrounded on all sides by construction. Dusty books from the sixties were produced for us and helpfully banged against the table to clean them up. The prices hadn't been adjusted for inflation so we bought some for pennies.
The last few hours we spent at the library, my friend's house and the train station. When the train came twenty minutes late--the conviction with which people say "the Shatabdi is never late" notwithstanding--we were both relieved to be headed back to our familiar, if annoying, big city lives.