Jammu 2021

Suman K Sharma
It’s only when your town acquires newness that you realise how old you have grown. Jammu showed off its novelty at the airport itself. It looked sprucer and more business-like than ever before. The arrivals too didn’t seem to mind that nose-tickling RTPCR and what have you – necessary add-ons to the Corona pandemic. The road ahead was smoother after the pre-paid facility had done with the necessity of haggling with the taxi-driver over the fare. The broad, white-on-blue signages affirmed identity of every locality. Inside the city, the shiny tile-work and glittering glass of the buildings engaged the eye with a simulation of prosperity and modernity. Banners of Jammu Smart City Limited hanging strategically at prominent places proudly proclaimed the intent of making our beloved land ‘smart’ in all shades of the appellation.
The days that followed reinforced the impression that the things are changing in the city. In mornings, the anthem of the garbage collecting trucks added to the flavour of the wake-up cup of tea. Along came the carts delivering milk at the doorstep. Street vendors serving gol-gappas, nutri-kulcha and the like displayed posters on the nearest wall declaring them to be the knights of Dame Swachchhata, aka Ms Hygiene. Bike riders as well their pillion-riders wore helmets and belts were religiously clicked in both by the car driver and the front-seaters. This may seem trite to the people who move around in cities like Chandigarh and Delhi, but for a pucca Jammu-ite coming to his home town after a couple of years (curse Corona!), it was a surprise. A helmet for a pillion-rider on way to Chhanni Himmat! Are you in your right mind? Another surprise awaited me as I plodded through the city. Although the old bazars of Parani Mandi, Moti Bazar and Residency Road were teeming with people, Raghunath Bazar wore a deserted and desolate look. It was a season of bi-annual exams. The schools were closed and the routine was being gone through online. In the relative quietude of a room, a seventh grader and her college-going sister sat huddled together with their mobile phones ready in their hands. Intermittently, the older girl gave short exhortations to the younger one. It turned out that the younger sister was taking a little help from her big sister in answering her questions.
Be that as it may, Jammu offered another aspect that was exhilarating. Nicely done sign boards declared siting of ‘Libraries’ at every vantage spot. No, not the public libraries such as the Ranbir Library located at the back of Shri Ranbir Higher Secondary School of the Parade Ground. I am talking of the well-equipped venues of competitive studies. Run commercially by enterprising people for the aspirants of professional education and civil services, these libraries promise, at an annual fee ranging from Rs fourteen hundred to five thousand, everything that a student may desire: be it solitude, comfort, connectivity, WIFI, or even an eating joint nearby.
How trends change! There was a time when every mohalla in Jammu worth its name boasted of at least one teashop where men could sit and chat over simmering cups of super-sweet cardamom flavoured tea and crunchy kulchas. Then liquor shops became the rage of the city. The tipplers didn’t have to walk even a hundred paces to satisfy their urge. Wine shops are very much there to serve the devotees of Bacchus. But now it is the time also for the bright-eyed youngsters to fulfil their dreams.
The spurt of commercial libraries across the city may well be a pointer to the better things to come. Have not the Jammu-ites already got their own IIT and AIIMS? With the stranglehold of Article 370 deservedly cast away and the hegemony of a particular region of the state becoming a forgettable memory, it is heartening to note how the youth of Jammu are striving to make good use of the opportunities that have come their way.
Shiny smooth roads, sparkling facades of buildings, and ‘libraries’ that can creditably match their likes anywhere in the country notwithstanding, Jammu has not been able to shed its pockmarks. In online exams, school children often cheat with the connivance of their elders. The shiny exteriors belie the dirt and darkness of the interiors. On the road, two-wheelers and cars care more about reaching their destination in a hurry than follow traffic rules. There is much song and dance about Swachchhta Abhiyaan – Cleanliness Drive – but the streets in the city continue to be littered and garbage dumped in the open. The grime-blackened fans in the office of Divisional Commissioner – the highest civil authority in Jammu Division – look like they have not been mopped ever since they were hung from the ceiling.
When will we measure up to ‘New Jammu’?