Here are some basic facts. Of course, the facts about a town like Rahimatpur can only be basic. They are also historical. Very little of the present that is not history is worth narrating. A semi-urban place of about 14,000 people, 124 kilometres south-southwest of Pune in the state of Maharashtra. Tradition lists seven rivers of India to be the most sacred: Ganga, Sindhu, Sarasvati (now non-existent), Yamuna, Godavari, Narmada, Kaveri and Krishna. Our town belongs to the Krishna Valley. The river is about fourkilometres from Rahimatpur. The first thing which strikes you about the township is that it is located as if it were at the bottom of a bowl. It is surrounded by hills. As you step out of the town in any direction you move up from the base towards the edge. As often happens in this part of Western India, you climb to the top of a hill, you find yourself not at the peak but rather on an enormous plateau, often most windy.
Rahimatpur (literally, the Town of His Mercy) was established sometime in the 16-17th century as a Revenue Post of the Adilshahi Sultanate (capital Bijapur, present-day Karnataka). It is located on a highway connecting Bijapur to Satara (another historic town of late medieval India). Once, Rahimatpur was a commercial centre known for its textile market. The Sultanate was not a big empire. And this was its tiny outpost in the far northwest.
You can even now see that the town was originally neat and well-planned. Two avenues, about half a kilometre long, cross each other in the middle of the town. The habitation is along this axis. Most small (and large) towns of historical interest are replete with narrow lanes (galls) that go hither and thither, giving character to the neighbourhood. The poet Zauq once said, Knun jayega Zauq, DiIli ki galiyan clihod kar? (Why would anyone want to leave the lanes of Delhi?) However, Rahimatpur is not a town of galis. It is a town of avenues; broad avenues at that. Its cross-streets are broad too. You get the feeling that when the town was new, it must have looked a bit like Lutyens’ Delhi does today, except that Rahimatpur is tiny and does not have imposing buildings. But the sense of space is the same, or at least comparable.
The town stands along a river, or rivulet. Three beautiful temples stand at two ends of the town along this watercourse. Once it was a river in its own right, a tiny tributary of the Krishna. It even had a name: Kamandalu, the water pot that sadhus carry. A metaphor had become a name. When I was a school-kid in the Town of His Mercy, there was a lot of water, clean, drinkable water in the Kamandalu. It was even possible to swim in the river. Now the water has become its pathetic Other: dirty, near-dry, totally undrinkable.
There have been other changes. There were huge, ancient tamarind trees along the stone wall on the far bank. Nobody seems to know what the stone wall, now broken and hardly in shape, was supposed to be. But it was there. We spent warm summer afternoons on the steps which went from the wall to the river. If asked to define nostalgia, I would say the tamarind trees and the swim in the village river. Both trees and wall are no more, leaving behind only some pathetic signs that modernity distinguishes itself with even here in Rahimatpur—water shortage, farming crisis, and near obscene greed of a populace which has lost its moorings with the past.
In the early decades of the 20″‘ century, Maharashtra was marked by considerable inter-taste tensions. Almost idyllically, Rahimatpur was free of them. Back in 1906, a civil judge, one Mr Kanitkar, noted that Rahimatpur was a quiet town remarkably free of inter-communal tensions. It was founded by Muslim rulers, and today Muslims constitute about 10 percent of its population. But my home town has no history of Hindu-Muslim tensions. There are two major pockets of Muslim population. One across the river and away from the town in the southeast. The other at the western end of the east-west axis. It is possible that these two population-pockets represent two different caste groups which converted to Islam at two different times.
The azaan, the call for prayer, used to be clear and sonorous in Rahimatpur. We now have loud speakers fitted to the minarets, and the muezzin’s call is loud and jarring. Theological lectures are held there in a hall, and the courtyard can hardly take a hundred people. And yet, a microphone is needed. That family in whose house the lectures take place has been there since as long as I can remember. But noisy theology is new. Indeed, all religions in these times tend to believe in volubility rather than reflection. This is true no less of the Hindus, and lately also of the Jains in Rahimatpur as well. The town has become noisier.
Noise pollution in the name of religion is not only ignored but seems to be rather welcome. I long for the soft, sonorous azaan or a Bhakti rendition early in the morning. Subtleties of voice and the beauty of the religious call are lost, perhaps forever. Rahimatpur is now more the Town of Godly Cacophony than that of His Mercy.
Rahimatpur used to be a town of professionals. A wada was a typical late-medieval Maharashtrian house. You entered a wada from a huge, usually decorative door and stepped into an open square courtyard with rooms and a covered walkway around the inside. Then another door, which led to another courtyard. In that secluded space, the fact that you stood in the centre of the town was forgotten. You were at the centre of personal wealth, in this case the wealth 13° of those who dealt in textiles and, of course, the wealth of the absentee-landlords or their managers. The various neighbourhoods had their caste status.
They also had a professional status. Indeed, there was a time when you went around Rahimatpur and understood the complexities of caste almost as a mode of production. Rahimatpur and its professional layout brought home to you the jati-vyavastha (caste system) as the principle of economic organisation.
Today, of course, the wadas are in a dilapidated state. They had started falling to disrepair already when I was in primary school (1944-47). Now, many have collapsed totally. What you now see are empty spaces giving some idea of their expanse and their one-time glory. You get to see a wall or two. The rest is an emptiness, proof of depressed agriculture in this region. The houses of small-time professionals who remain here are in a bad state. There used to be a number of ironsmiths in Rahimatpur. Now there is barely one. The oil-smith, and along with him, the delicious non-refined cooking oil are forgotten. What are they doing? And their children? Crowding the slums of Bombay, one imagines.
Rahimatpur is testimony to the decline and near collapse of the village economy of this part of India. The new industrial estates have not touched my town. When I left it in 1960, there was no electricity in the town. I studied not quite at the municipal light, but certainly in the meagre light of an oil-lamp. But I could read. I wanted to read. Young people in Rahimatpur still want to read and do read. The rest, however, is a story of destruction, almost a slow death. No industry, no employment, no rain, no productive agriculture.
Rahimatpur is a municipal town. Our municipality was established in 1853, the third one in the Marathi- speaking part of the then Bombay Presidency. Rahimatpur Municipality is in fact older than Pune Municipality. Pune is now a corporation, Rahimatpur a forgotten semi-urban bunch of houses. Time has come to a standstill. A native liquor-shop established sometime in the 1970s does its job of producing frustrated alcoholics. It is heartbreaking to encounter a class-fellow who begs me to buy him a drink. I know that I shouldn’t. Yet I do not know how not to. The alcoholic then symbolises Rahimatpur: a certain decline, self-destruction, that the town cannot avoid. Every time I go to Rahimatpur, the sadder I return.
In the midst of all this decline my father, who is 92, stoically looks at the futureless agrarian economy of Rahimatpur. He remembers his childhood and gets lost in it. The town was prosperous then, he tells us. A period of history comes alive as he recollects. For him and for us. The future then does not seem to matter. The still surviving and beautiful mosque of Rahimatpur and the shikharas (pagodas) of the temples stand above the decline around them. One looks at them.
Rahimatpur has very little of its present. It probably has no future. It is a town which only has a past. Just as well perhaps, because it would otherwise have wanted to repeat that history and almost certainly as a farce or perhaps even as a tragedy. Quiet submersion in the past is Rahimatpur’s destiny.