A Surat diary

Published: September 28, 2013

The writer is a columnist. He is also a former editor of the Mumbai-based English newspaper Mid Day and the Gujarati paper Divya Bhaskar aakar.patel@tribune.com.pk

I went home to Surat last weekend. I was not surprised to find that it hasn’t miraculously become Singapore. Nor has Ahmedabad transformed into Amsterdam. I grew up in Surat, studied in Baroda and worked in Ahmedabad, so, I know these places quite intimately.

None of these cities resemble the utopia that many people seem to believe Narendra Modi has produced in our state. The cities of Gujarat look very much like Indian cities elsewhere: dirty streets, chaotic and undisciplined traffic, corrupt police, lawbreaking citizenry. Surat has its charms, but being paradise is not among them. Ahmedabad, a city lacking in any sort of charm whatsoever, is more representative of the Modi era — segregated, sullen and oppressively vegetarian.

The reason I was in Surat was a function to felicitate Mrs Homai Savai, founding principal of Sir JJ English School, from which my batch was the first to pass out, 25 years ago, in 1988. In those years, parents who wanted to put their children through a proper English school, in Surat, had four options: Lourdes Convent run by Carmelites, St Xavier’s run by Franciscans, Seventh Day Adventist run by Presbyterians and Sir JJ. Three set up by Christian denominations and one by the Parsis.

At the function, I asked whether all of us needed to reflect on what the contribution of our community has been to our city. The Parsis are in decline across the country, but you could not have told that from my school, which had hundreds of them. The day after the event, Surat was in danger of being flooded from an overflowing Tapi river again. Such a flood occurred in August 2006, when the Ukai dam upstream collected water in its catchment area during heavy rains and then, when it was sloshing full, was forced to release much of it, flooding downriver Surat. It was managed by the government with such incompetence that my parents, living in the middle of Surat, were stranded on their terrace, without food or water, for five days. This was the case with tens of thousands of Surtis that year and so, stories of Modi going heroically to save Indians in natural disasters outside Gujarat always amuse me.

This time round, the dam has not released as much water, but the people have no faith in the government. The flyovers are clogged by 7am with cars parked to avoid flood damage. The local legislative assembly member tweets:

Why bring the chief minister into this? Does he have a tap in his office that will turn off the flow? Doesn’t Gujarat have a bureaucracy that functions without his attention? The problem, of course, is that when you set up a one-man rule, as Modi has, the work and effort of no other is valid or believed. Unless the big man is working on your problem, it won’t get solved. Alas, as we found out in the 2006 flood, even that may not sometimes work.

Surat is the only city in Gujarat with a robust presence of non-vegetarian street food. Some of this is because of the presence of mercantile Muslim communities — Dawoodi Bohras in particular. Another reason is that, unlike in Ahmedabad, the lower caste (and so non-vegetarian) Hindus are empowered, in Surat. There are communities like Khatris and Ghanchis whose eating and drinking habits make the city a lively and entertaining place. Modi is from the Ghanchi community (of oil pressers), but he is, of course, a non-drinking vegetarian.

Surat is Gujarat’s second largest city and is scheduled to be its largest in the next two decades. For a city that has 4.5 million people, Surat has the smallest, most modest airport in the world. People who bang on about Gujarat’s great infrastructure should explain why there are a total of only two flights that come to Surat daily, including one from state-run Air India, which probably comes because it is forced to. The wit will answer that this is so, because few people want to leave Surat. I do not disagree and it is a fine city, but for some reason I am always happy to leave.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • sh(india)
    Sep 29, 2013 - 12:26AM

    Better leave to pakistan. You seem to like pakistan more than India. Pakistan has best infrastucture, best universities etc.

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  • Fed Up Indian
    Sep 29, 2013 - 12:57AM

    Aakar Patel should compare the improvements of Ahmedabad and Surat on one hand, with the improvements of Rae Bareilly and Amethi on the other hand to check Modi’s performance vis a vis Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s and see who’s done a better job over the past 10 years.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 29, 2013 - 3:49AM

    why some indiano NRI gets so upset stomach when Aakar patil trys to show mirror to them,…..

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  • C. Nandkishore
    Sep 29, 2013 - 9:07AM

    So what if Surat is flooded? Modi can walk on water.
    Kolkatta, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore have metros. So what if Ahmedabad has no metro. Modi can walk in air.
    So what if there are problems. Every problem will be solved simultaneously by the Great Leader. After all isn’t His hologram present everywhere?

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  • Someone
    Sep 29, 2013 - 11:30AM

    @sh(india): Pakistan has best infrastucture, best universities etc.

    You should come and visit Islamabad, a modern example of a well developed and planned city in the 20th century. The slums that you call “cities” in India are nowhere as clean, green, well-planned and modern as the infrastructure in Islamabad. Islamabad is also a gamma world city. Ahmedabad or any other cities of Gujarat (ruled by Modi) are not even close to being on the bottom of that list yet.

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  • IndiaFirst V/s HinduRashtra
    Sep 29, 2013 - 11:33AM

    Modi might have projected himself as if he has done great wonders to the state of Gujarat, but reality is just opposite. Any one who has seen Surat , will agree it has most chaotic traffic , road network, haphazard real estate development and poor infrastructure, even though Surat is one of wealthiest cities in Gujarat. Modi is selling dreams to gullible Khaki Chaddis and other young minds. Latest Statistics also proves that there are many other states like Maharashtra , TAmil Nadu, Karnataka etc have out performed Gujarat in last decade. Time for supporters of Modi ( educated intolerant included) to have a reality check. Don’t forget Shining India under Vajpayee and Mahjan didn’t bring votes to BJP…same way Shining Modi can bring empty ballot boxes for BJP this time.Recommend

  • Surya
    Sep 29, 2013 - 12:14PM

    @Someone:
    When u want to cite something do it properly. Islamabad is a gamma- city where as Karachi is ahead of it. BTW, checkout how many indian cities are there in alpha, beta list which is ahead of gamma..so much of a DHA township that is called a national capital..lol..

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  • Parvez
    Sep 29, 2013 - 2:36PM

    I thought that was a nice ‘ snapshot ‘ of Surat and certainly not an altogether unpleasant one.

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  • amit sharma
    Sep 29, 2013 - 3:07PM

    The last para you said about airport is correct.but there are several reasons that the airport is not fully operated the aai is not seeing at such a valuable city.surat is the life line of india full air connectivity should be there at least metro. There are several city like pune and nanded they are not have the rights to get the fully fuction airport. No business is there in comparision of pune and surat surat wins because of surat have enough money than pune that it can stand acity too….welll let the bjp comes then there will be full connectivity

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  • IndiaFirst
    Sep 29, 2013 - 4:23PM

    @amit sharma:
    @amit sharma:
    Air traffic is not decided by AAI or any government body. UPA govt has provided Air India connection even at loss to serve Surat. Other private airlines have ignored Surat, because there is not enough air pax traffic from or to Surat. Pune airport is well connected not just to Indian cities , but also international cities like Frankfurt, Singapore etc.Lufthansa flies out of Pune on daily basis because huge traffic is available. BJP can surely give dole to Surat by adding Air India flights and make it sick. Pune has become IT hub , next to Bangalore and also Auto hub with Tatas, Benz etc in Pune. Nanded is well connected because of Sikh pilgrimage. BJP can keep on crying and blame Congress for its own failure, but no luck during general elections.

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  • Zubair
    Sep 29, 2013 - 5:37PM

    Nice article on Surat, my father’s hometown.

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  • Jatin
    Sep 29, 2013 - 11:34PM

    @aakar, i was born in Baroda, did my architecture from Surat and working in Ahmedabad for 5 years. The whole artical is full of lies and lies.

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  • Rahul
    Sep 30, 2013 - 12:46AM

    @amit sharma

    You may be right. Once Modi becomes PM, there will be so much development that India will become a development surplus country. When it can export the excess development to various other under developed countries to earn valuable forex.

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  • Californian Desi
    Sep 30, 2013 - 6:00AM

    My god, this guy again????…..Why ?????

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  • abhi
    Sep 30, 2013 - 10:20PM

    @IndiaFirst

    From the great city of Pune the news is, there is no metro for at least next 5 years. The mess is being created in the name of BRT and there is no public transport worth mentioning. Even in mumbai I am hearing the news about metro since last 5 yrs and I am sure I will be hearing the same for next 5 years. The city still runs on the khatara local which was started by britishers more than 100 years back. Fate of Pune is changed only because of expressway and you know who made it.

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  • IndiaFirst
    Oct 1, 2013 - 7:13AM

    @abhi:
    Pune I has become IT hub recently and has attracted investments from various sectors . Even being in close proximity of Mumbai, Pune is experiencing huge air traffic boom . Air traffic boom is one indicators of development. Surat has been traditionally trading hub for diamonds, textile etc. Surat is not a recent phenomenon like Pune. Better not compare Mumbai with any other city interms of efficiencies, work culture etc. hence, supporters of Modi can gloss over its so-called development of Gujarat vis a vis super growth of many other states. Modi can keep on spinning yarn, but silent majority cannot be fooled.

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  • Kumar
    Oct 7, 2013 - 5:55AM

    As per UNDP index 70% population of India is poor. The parameters are lack of access to emergency medical facilities like 911, lack of sanitation, lack of quality school education, malnutrition, lack of skills development, affordable 24 hrs electricity, lack of access to quality water, lack of government facilities. Modi has sincerely made an effort to tackle all these poverty parameters in Gujarat starting with 108 ambulance service. Modi vision is to make a generational change what deng Xiaoping did in china. In china 60 crore people were bought out of poverty. What Modi will do is make cost of living less in India.
    Provide oppurtunities to people, provide basic infrastructure to everyone
    Like electricity, 108 ambulance service, quality drinking water,
    Improvement in government primary education, skills development facilities

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