As part of my preparation for my travels in Gujarat, I decided to treat it like I would a reporting assignment, researching as much as I could about the state’s history, politics, economics and sociology. I bought five books, including one novel, written by economists, academics and social workers in order to get a deeper understanding of Gujarat.
The first I read is a travel guide, modeled on the Lonely Planet series, edited by Anjali Desai, who it turns out went to UT with my Dubai friend, V.P., and is also from Houston. (How’s that for a coincidence?!) Anjali went back to Ahmedabad after graduating from UT, and has been involved in a number of voluntary organizations there, including Indicorps, an India-wide Peace Corps-type organization that is based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city.
Gujarat is located on the northwest of India; it’s not one of the places that most non-Indians know about. It’s an amazingly diverse place, both industrial – once known as the “Birmingham of the East” – and agricultural, the home of both Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammed Jinnah (the father of Pakistan,) and has India’s longest coastline – 1,600 kilometers (994 miles).
Its communities range from tribal groups who live in Kutchh’s salt flats, to Catholic communities tied back to Portuguese missionaries from the 17th century, to descendants of royal families whose patronage is related to the Muslim khans who ruled India for centuries. It is also the home of some of the worst Hindu-Muslim communal violence to ever strike India. With the controversial Narendra Modi – who some believe was responsible, at least passively, for the deaths following the devastating riots in 2002 – as chief minister, Gujarat has aggressively developed an industrial and technology-driven economy. Yet agriculture remains a powerful driver, just as it did in the 1960s when India’s green revolution brought millions of Indians out of a starvation existence, a model for many developing countries still.
I fly out to Ahmedabad tomorrow night. My three, obscenely overweight suitcases are packed. My father’s cousin’s sons are meeting me at the airport at 3 a.m. Sunday. The journey is about to start …