After Basti the train was supposed to stop only at Gorakhpur but after a long halt at Jagatbela it had run aground at the Dharmshala Bridge. It isn’t unusual in these parts but friends waiting at the station kept calling to find out the platform on which it would pull in. The thing is, there’s never any information on the display board about special trains (I was on one), not even the platform number for its arrival. Railway enquiries told them that there is no designated platform for special trains. They are allowed on to the first empty platform. In the event, the Delhi-Barauni Special arrived on Platform Four of the station with the world’s longest railway platform.

I stepped off the train into another, unfamiliar world, with elevators and escalators that actually worked. It was the first experience of a Gorakhpur in the process of radical transformation from a dusty east UP plains town into something more exotic. It provides a glimpse of the possible future for a place that used to make the news mainly for gang wars, disease and death in the monsoon months.

There are plenty of reasons to remember the soil where Guru Gorakhnath dwelled—it is the home of Gita Press. Chaura Chauri, in the pages of history of freedom movement is known for the incident after which Gandhi halted the non-violence movement across the nation, is also here. The freedom fighter and poet Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’ was hanged in the local jail for his radical activities against the Raj. Nearby Saraiya is where the artist Amrita Shergill lived and worked for a while. Prem Chand, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the actors Asit Sen and Saurabh Shukla, film maker Anurag Kashyap and badminton champion Syed Modi all sprang from this soil. Then there is Raghupati Sahai “Firaq” (Gorakhpuri), one of the greatest Urdu poets of his time, Paramhamsa Yogananda, and Billy Arjan Singh. There are connections also with the Buddha, Kabir and Hazrat Roshan Ali Shah.

This place on the banks of the Rapti, with its fertile soil and dense jungle (once), was called Muazzamabad for a century (1700-1801) after the elder son of the last mighty Mughal, Aurangzeb. Muazzam Shah camped here with his soldiers and camp followers to catch the rebels who had fled Jaunpur principality. Living memorials of his stay here are the Jama Masjid, Urdu Bazaar and Turkmanpur, all shoulder to shoulder.

Names like Jangal Kaudia, Jangal Dhusar, Jangal Hakim, Jangal Shalikram are testimony to the forests that abounded in and around today’s Gorakhpur. And in Betiahata, the residence of the Commissioner used to be a hunting lodge of Raja Betia. Asuran Mohalla was once the habitation of the Asur tribe population in the surrounding jungle.

Nearby Khunipur, from where many people volunteered for the 1857 rebellion against the Raj, is also where the British carried out a mass slaughter after the rebellion. Close to the Jama Masjid was an ancient tree that served for an age as a gallows for the final journey of countless rebels against the Raj.

So much for history, which is important if anyone wants to arouse passions but this is also New Gorakhpur, epicentre and stronghold of the Hindutva project, home to Yogi Adityanath, mahant of the Gorakhnath Math and Uttar Pradesh chief minister. It is a city notorious for the oxygen deprivation deaths of hundreds of children in 2017 at the state-run BRD Medical College hospital. It is one of the “encephalitis capitals”, where hundreds of children have died since 2014.

The Yogi’s ascension to chief minister after the 2017 state election left the Lok Sabha seat vacant. In the by-election that followed, in March 2018, the BJP candidate Upendra Dutt Shukla was roundly defeated by Praveen Kumar Nishad of the Samajwadi Party, prompting an excited discourse about BJP’s allegedly waning influence. The Yogi had held this seat through five previous general elections.

A gathering of senior citizens in Gorakhpur. Photo: Prabhat Singh

This time, well before elections were announced, Prime Minister Modi took a hand himself, launching the Kisan Samman Yojana from the suburb of Maanbela. It’s no longer a one-small-plane-flight-to-Delhi town anymore. The airport has been reconfigured for larger aircraft, with regular flights to Mumbai and Hyderabad, in addition to Delhi. Near the airport a medical centre on the lines of AIIMS is coming up, but right now you can’t talk about treatments, specialists or facilities.

The road hugging Ramgarh Taal is being converted to four lanes from Paidleganj to the Circuit House. In the evenings it’s a hangout for people, with the roadside lined with carts selling corn, chaat, noodles, momo and ice cream. A little further ahead, within the Buddha Museum campus, a new park is being laid out. This was a wooded area where people had been waiting for a zoo more than 30 years, visible signs of a great change in the making.

If you’re a stranger in a town that’s seeing such activity in the election season you expect everyone to be talking about the prospects of various parties and candidates. Gorakhpur is an exception; no one seems particularly interested in the campaign. B. Chaudhri, a businessman with an interest in politics, says one reason could be that BJP leaders want to avoid talking about the promises they failed to keep, though they are pinning their hopes on Ujjawala (the LPG redistribution programme), Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana and the Kisan Samman Yojana.

Chaudhri says the leaders shouldn’t expect much as these schemes have not brought any great benefit to ordinary people. According to him, “Unlike the last time there is no feeling of a wave favouring BJP. As far as the BJP is concerned the loss in 2018 was no great surprise, and this time its opponents are in alliance.”

Ajay Gupta. Sugarcane centre, Padrauna. “In 2014 Narednra Modi said in a meeting here that if he comes to power, the sugar mill with reopen in 100 days. Neither the mill started nor did the lives of farmers change for the better.”  Photo: Prabhat Singh

Indeed, the choice of candidate is evidence of the turmoil in the ruling party. This time, the winner of the 2018 by-election, Praveen Nishad, has defected to BJP but he is not the candidate for Gorakhpur. Instead they have named him to stand from Sant Kabir Nagar. Bhojpuri film star Ravi Kishan is their choice for Gorakhpur.

Praveen Nishad’s defection had led to strong rumours that he would be standing for the BJP from Gorakhpur this time, so Samajwadi Party named Ram Bhual Nishad as their man for the seat. The backward Nishad community has about 3 lakh voters in this constituency so they are in the position of kingmakers here. Moreover, Ram Bhual has won two state elections from Kaudiram to the Assembly. Following the Bahujan Samaj Party victory in 2007 he was a state minister as well. Like a lot of caste leaders in UP he is refreshingly free of ideology, having travelled from BSP to BJP on his way to SP this time. A pragmatist by nature, he obviously fancies his chances.

Most voters don’t seem to be particularly impressed or even upset by these shows of naked opportunism. In any case, none of these leaders articulate or, for that matter, are even aware of the voter’s concerns.

Going towards Jangal Ayodhya Prasad village from the Siktaur crossroads I come across a group of senior citizens sitting outside a sweets shop on chairs laid out in the shade of a large tree. They are in deep conversation but as soon as I near them they fall silent. After a pause, they resume in low tones. Some are retired railway employees from the engineering department, now full-time farmers, some have always been farmers, and then there are a couple of younger men as well.

They’ve just finished reading the newspapers and are now voicing their opinions. One of the younger men, Mahendra, addresses me, “Sir, are Haryana and Punjab in India? Farmers there get free power, so why can’t UP do the same?”

Before anyone can think of a reply, Jairam breaks in to say, “I’m an old time retiree and safe, but now the government has stopped paying pensions altogether, how is this fair? If your bank account is short of the statutory minimum, the bank levies a fine. Does anyone ever listen to the poor? It seems like these people become leaders simply to talk a good game. They seem to think that’s the limit of their duty.”

Ram Lakhan interjects with, “Our children are educated, but to what end? They’re just sitting around with no chance of a job. Can we believe even one of these people and the promises they make when they want our votes? It’s hard to trust anyone.”  

As I step into Jangal Ayodhya Prasad I’m greeted by Parshuram Pande, broom in hand, sweeping out an animal shelter. As he sees me he puts the broom aside, asks who I am and in a single breath declaims, “The fertilizer plant had been shut for 30 years, now it’s due to open soon. Everyone in the village has got cooking gas, new toilets. This government really has done a great deal of work.”

Turning down his invitation for a cup of tea, I move on to where a group of women who have come out of their homes. This part of the village is called Malhala Tola. Meera, one of the women, says, “Only three houses in the section have a gas connection. It cost them ₹5,000. But like the other houses they too have wood-fired stoves. A refill is expensive and one doesn’t have the money every time. You can check with the people in those houses if you want to be certain.”

Standing next to a tall stack of dung cakes, Ram Lakhan says, “Not one person here got a house or a toilet under any government scheme. I can’t understand why Panditji is misleading you on this matter.”

Lachi Devi, an elderly woman, added to that with: “You can see for yourself, the houses in which we live. Forget houses and toilets, if someone had just given us a packet of sweets we would remember that there was at least one person who cared to hear us out.” At this point Meera’s son came up and stood beside us. He has never been able to speak and despite the family’s energetic search for treatments nothing has worked so far. A boy with him tells me that the government ration shop never gives them full measure and all their complaints have made no difference at all.

The road in Ramgarh Taal Mohalla is made of concrete slabs. Virtually every house is flying the Emerging Lotus on saffron. There are exceptions, though, with Samajwadi and Nishad Party flags fluttering here and there. One house has all three flags, plus that of the Congress, making four in all. Arvind Nishad is corporator Ramlavat Nishad’s representative here. The name plaque is the blue of the BSP but on the boundary wall the BJP flag flies. Arvind comes out in a few minutes. As far as his clan brother Praveen Nishad is concerned, Arvind says that after he won the 2018 by-election he took no notice of the people who voted for him.

“There were a lot of people with a lot of problems but he didn’t even look their way. We don’t care what party he joins, we will stand up against him.” Some of the houses in the neighbourhood have terracotta images of elephants. But these elephants are the vehicle of Samaya Maai, family deity of the occupants.

NH 28 is the way to Kushinagar, an hour’s drive on condition that you negotiate both Gurang Chowraha and the railway crossing without getting stuck. In any case, the frustrations of the crawl are usually felt by newcomers. Regular townies have got used to the stop-start style imposed by the traffic congestion of a rapidly expanding city.

Once past the toll plaza on NH 28 you start seeing signs that Kushinagar is just ahead. Kushinagar aka Kushavati aka Kushnara, is the land of the Buddha. In Ramabhar is an image of the Hiranyavati (because at this point it doesn’t look a river at all), the same Hiranyavati on whose banks the Buddha’s last rites were performed. The Parinirvana stupa, at the beginning of the road leading to Ramabhar, has a 21.6 ft statue of the reclining Buddha and attracts pilgrims from all over the world. When Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, first uncovered the statue in 1876 it was severely damaged. The ASI repaired both the stupa and the statue. During the excavation, a copper scroll with Pali script was also found. It records that the sculptor Haribala of Mathura carved the image from a block of sandstone that came from Chunar. What is unique to this statue is that from different angles the Buddha’s visage seems to express different emotions.

Munna, pakoda shop owner, Ramgarhtaal, Gorakhpur.  His shop opens in the evenings for a couple of hours, beyond which he doesn’t have any other job. On being asked if he opened the shop on the prime minister’s advice, he smiles, "No, my shop is older. The PM may have said it as a joke. If everyone opens a pakoda shops, who will buy it then?" Photo: Prabhat Singh

Between here and the Ramabhar stupa are a motley collection of temples that follow the principles of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Sri Lankan and Burmese architectures. All house icons of the Buddha. Other than hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and a few shops there is nothing else. To the right of the main road is an area of silence if you happen to stop and switch off your engine. It is almost possible to imagine that the Buddha once walked here.

Turn left, though, and you’re bombarded by a world of sound. The district is Kushinagar but the administrative office is about 20 kilometres away—Ravindra Nagar, about five km from Padrauna. Named after Rabindra Nath Tagore, this is a new settlement that came into being after the homes and workplaces of the officers came up. The road from Kushinagar to Padrauna is full of speed breakers that reduce vehicles to a crawl. There are so many types that it might be worth someone’s time for a bit of research into the subject of speed breakers. In a sense, they are also a metaphor for the development of the area.

On May 13, 1994, the new district of Kushinagar came into being. Before that, Padrauna was a part of Deoria district. People jokingly referred to its major features as goondas, Gandak (the river) and ganna (sugarcane). The badlands of the district rub shoulders with Bihar’s West Champaran district and at one time it was notorious for the presence of the “Jangal Party”, a bunch of roughnecks who enjoyed the protection of the local politicos and recognised no other authority. They did pretty much as they pleased.

The Gandak rises in the Dhaulagiri range of Nepal and flows into India through West Champaran. Its many wanderings across the plains and the frequent floods are part of the region’s folklore. This country was known for its sugarcane and called the state’s sugar bowl. At one time there were ten sugar mills scattered around Padrauna to process the cane that was produced. But government policy resulted in the closure over the years of five. Now, only the mills at Haata, Kaptanganj, Ramkola, Khadda and Seorahi are still operational.

The majority of the closed mills are state-owned. At a 2014 election rally in the area, Narendra Modi had jibed at former Kushinagar MP and Congress leader R.P.N. Singh for saying that if had even a smidgeon of concern for cane farmers he would surely reopen the mill at Padrauna. He had also promised that if his party formed the government the mill at Padrauna would be up and running 100 days from the start of his term. The mill first opened in 1921 and finally closed in 2012. It’s still closed and waiting for someone to remember. The cane farmers are owed ₹46.75 crore by the management. It also has to fill a hole of ₹1.08 crore in the Employees’ Provident Fund. It owes ₹2.93 crore in back taxes and the labour department ₹93.91 lakh.

Twenty-five separate attempts have been made to auction the mill to repay its debt of ₹51.31 crore but something or other has always stalled it. Meanwhile, both growers and mill workers feel the government should be trying to reopen the plant. That looks less likely by the day but election season is the time for all kinds of promises. The mills at Ramkola, Chitauna, Lakshmiganj, Kathkuiyan were sold long ago.

Now, in their place a whole host of “crushers” that convert the sugar syrup to jaggery have opened to take advantage of the massive over-production of cane. Smaller farmers queue up to sell their produce at just two-thirds of the government-mandated rate as they are paid on the spot. Sukrauli Bazar is the largest jaggery market in the sugar bowl of UP.

The politicians keep talking about reviving the mills but not one of them refers to the region’s deadliest menace to public health, encephalitis, which takes thousands of children’s lives every year. Kushinagar’s 641 villages are officially classified as encephalitis-prone. The records state that in 2016 1,029 people in the district were diagnosed with encephalitis and 161 died of it. In 2017 the number was 126 and in 2018 it was 38. It should be remembered that there are countless cases that are never treated and those deaths don’t make the records. Another thing to remember is that the August 2017 deaths of children at the government medical college pushed the state administration into strict rationing of news about encephalitis.

How reliable any figures it provides against this backdrop can be is anyone’s guess. Most of the victims are poor and the poor have neither voice nor power. Politicians are never going to take notice of the voiceless unless they are shamed into doing so. There’s no advantage in it for them.

Rajman Yadan, former pradhan, Gayeghat. “Who care about the welfare of the public? Look at the zoo at Gorakhpur. Everywhere else zoos are struggling and closing. Here they are building a new one. Instead these 123 acres could have been used for setting up a factory and creating jobs.” 

On the way back from Kushinagar passed through Kushmi Jungle, where some corn sellers, from a nearby village, were parked with their hand carts. This is their livelihood. One of the customers at a cart was notable for the number plate, saffron with the letters and numerals in Hindi. The rider was a member of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the chief minister’s personal vehicle for promoting Hindutva.

It revived some memories from my days working in Gorakhpur. The transport beat reporter of our newspaper had a story on how the district collector’s official car carried a registration number that was to be released by the RTO only a few months later. Similarly, the Senior Superintendent of Police’s official plate had a number that was registered to the riot control vehicle.

Our crime reporter had a story about a chain snatcher who had a number of mobile phones on his person, including one extremely expensive that he never activated because he believed that the moment he inserted a SIM the phone would be traced to him. So he used it only to play games.

There was also a story about a newly opened pizza outlet where an elderly customer got into an argument with the salesperson because his order came without the raw onion and chili that he considered essential to his enjoyment of the ₹400 pizza. Convinced that the parlour was trying to rip him off, he threw the order at the salesperson’s face and walked off with his money that he had snatched back.

On another note, you could, anytime, anywhere in the city, be confronted by a row of men standing against a wall and pissing, oblivious to the disapproving glances of passersby. It is possible that they see the Father of the Nation who now doubles as the face of Clean India. The countless encounters and experiences of this kind have me convinced that Gorakhpur is a republic apart in this Aryavarta of ours.

Meanwhile, the motorcyclist collected his roast corn and drove away. I asked the girl handling the cart when she would go to cast her vote. She said she wouldn’t because she couldn’t. She had no vote right, nor anyone else in her family. And that was because the village pradhan had deliberately prevented them from registering. That was true of a lot of villagers. They wanted to vote but had been prevented from registering.

As she was talking she gathered the corn stalks and leaves and dumped them at the back. A bull who had been patiently waiting for some time tiptoed to the pile. I idly asked one of the other men where the bull had come from. He turned out to be something of a wit. “Oh, that Vikas, where else can it go?”

Before I could say anything he went on, “Look at the pace on him, exactly like the nation’s progress. And he can only be Vikas because even if he injures someone with his horns no one will complain. Read it in the newspapers if you don’t believe me. The brother of this one attacked three people in Sahibganj bazar. If there’s a public outcry there, people bring the bulls here and leave us to deal with them.”

It struck me as being exactly true. Incidents like the one just described find their way into the Gorakhpur newspapers from time to time. Some 1,800 bulls and other stray animals have been caught and sent to Maharajganj College cattle impound, but the public’s woes continue.

The return special train was supposed to leave Gorakhpur at 5.15 a.m. At the station it was first declared to be two hours late, then four, then nine and then finally 13 hours. I managed to catch it at 6.45 p.m.         

Translated from Hindi by G. K. Rao