The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 17, 2002

Celebrating a unique city
Ashok Malik

THE city is best known for its unusually large, luscious oranges. It is also called the Zero Mile City as, spatially, it falls bang at the centre on the map of India. Furthermore, it also holds the distinction of being the second capital of a state.

But then, for the people of Nagpur, there is more to be proud of than oranges, geography and politics. For instance, they will tell you that in its entire 300-year history, the city has never countered a single instance for flood, earthquake, cyclone or drought. Providence has protected it from all possible calamities.

They would also say that this is one city that has not known a thief in ages and even today, many houses do not have latches to their doors. At any given time most of the bicycles parked outside the Nagpur railway station are unlocked.

"Obviously there are other concerns for the people here," says Ravindra Prasad, a station superintendent. "They are interested in the finer things of life — art, literature, poetry, music and drama. Even the poor and unlettered are expected to speak impeccable Marathi, if nothing else."


Small wonder, Nagpur has produced some of India’s biggest names in literature and the arts, including the Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, lyricist Suresh Bhat and the poet who wrote under the pseudonym "Grace". C.K. Naidu, its greatest cricketing son, never left the city, despite tempting offers in Mumbai.

Says Prasad: "The basic difference between a Maharashtrian in Nagpur and his counterpart in Mumbai is that while the former is preoccupied with social graces, the latter is a money-making machine, driven by business and commerce. In effect, a Mumbaikar always accuses a Nagpurian of being laid back."

Long before Mumbai (as we know it today) attained its contemporary importance, Nagpur was recognised as one of the biggest and most powerful centres of the Maratha empire, particularly in the 18th century. But it was only in 1702 that it became a capital city for a Gond king, Bakht Buland Shah.

During the reign of Raghuji Bhosale I (1730-1755), Nagpur became the nerve centre of military might and trade in a kingdom that extended from India’s western coastline to the Bay of Bengal. Till as recently as 1960, it was the capital of Central Province and Berar (or what is, at present, Madhya Pradesh).

The late P. L. Deshpande has been extremely lavish in praising Nagpur for its cosmopolitan character. According to the Marathi literary icon, the city has been a melting pot for diverse linguistic, cultural and community strains, which have contributed to its unique character.

"The secret behind this is the legendary Nagpurian hospitality," he said. "In Nagpur, you cannot return disappointed from anybody’s door. The city has accepted everybody with open arms and never allowed differences to break into communal riots. I would say, Nagpur is more metropolitan than most metros."

Nagpurians also take pride in being "most ecologically conscious" and maintaining one of the five greenest cities in India. They are now on their way to creating a new "industrial destination" with the country’s first five-star industrial estate and an air cargo hub coming up soon.

Politically, the city boasts of its RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) connection, as it happens to be the headquarters of the Hindu nationalist movement. Yet, it has not allowed the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to gain a foothold there. In fact, the Congress party considers Nagpur its bastion after Indira Gandhi launched her post-Emergency poll campaign from here.

Nagpur is also the birthplace of the neo-Buddhist movement. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism here along with thousands of his followers in 1956. A prominent landmark — the world’s biggest hollow stupa — is the Ambedkar Memorial, that bears testimony to the historic event.

With so much to be proud of, Nagpurians can be excused for the occasional display of eccentricity. They did not even spare Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for certain uncomplimentary remarks he had made on the Maratha chieftain, Chhatrapati Sivaji. A local leader, Baburao Dhanwatey forced the then prime minister to withdraw those remarks.

Melody Queen Lata Mangeshkar had sworn not to sing in Nagpur after she was booed and kept her word (till recently) for 40 years. Shakuntala Devi, however, did not return. Last year, a strongman beat a hasty retreat in embarrassment, when a small boy asked him to repeat his performance of pulling a truck!

Well, that’s Nagpur for you.


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