As soon as I landed in Guwahati, the city I had never set foot in before, the friend, whom I had never met before, told me, “Tell the driver to bring you to Pan Bazaar; I am waiting for you here.”
“Will he know where Pan Bazaar is?” I asked him.
“Everybody knows. It’s the heart of the city.”
If Pan Bazaar, or betel-leaf mart, is the centre of the city, then what’s the city going to be like? As it is, I had no previous visual information about Guwahati — it is generally off the radar for mainland India — and this piece of information, that Pan Bazaar lies at its heart, brought rather unflattering images to my mind.
Pan Bazaar, to my great surprise, turned out to be what Colaba is to Bombay, Connaught Place is to New Delhi, the Strand to Calcutta, and what Mount Road is (or was) to Madras. Situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra, it has its share of pan shops all right — kiosks that sell pan and cigarettes and soft drinks and stuff — but walking around it was like taking a stroll through the colonial era.
Lakshmi Cabin, where I had samosas and tea, dates back to 1942 (I walked into the sweetshop because I remembered someone posting on Facebook that Guwahati samosas are the best, though I must say the best samosas I’ve had so far was at a shop called Sherowali in Agartala). The Guwahati Baptist Church was built in 1845. The bakery Sheikh Brothers opened in 1885. The signboard of the Pan Bazaar police station proudly declared that it was established in 1894.
Mahamaya — ‘A Class Restaurant’ — opened in 1918. Indo Foreign Surgico, which sells medical products, opened in 1949. Then there is Cotton College, which in Assam is considered even more prestigious than the IITs, set up in 1901. But many years before that, in 1883, had come up the Pan Bazaar Girls’ Higher Secondary School.
These are just some of the many still-in-business institutions and establishments in Pan Bazaar that date back to an era, whose remnants are hardly found any longer in other cities. A small number of them now function out of newly-constructed buildings, but their unchanged addresses preserve the old character of Pan Bazaar. In some cases, new buildings were necessitated by circumstances beyond the control of the owners.
“You see this building?” my friend, whom I was meeting for the first time, said, pointing to a shop right next to the Baptist Church. “This was flattened in October 2008, when a series of blasts rocked Guwahati. I was in (Cotton) college at the time, and I myself escaped death by a whisker.”
“And where did this blast happen – the one that almost killed you?”
“Come, I will show you.”
Soon we were walking along the river. “So this is where it happened,” he pointed to a spot by the river, close to the High Court. “I was going to watch a movie, when I suddenly realised that I had left behind my ID card in the college. So I turned back, and that’s when I felt hot air on my back.”
We now sat on the riverbank, sipping tea, watching the Brahmaputra flow with a purposeful and powerful silence, even as its waters turned golden in the fading light. Eventually, its silence prevails, and Guwahati goes on.