Baroda (Vadodara for all official purposes) is only an hour away from Bharuch by train but many worlds apart. Back when we were really young (Say class 1, 2 and 3), the school picnic meant only one thing - the Kamati Bagh Zoo in Baroda. We would all troop into the matador or bus, all excited even though we had all been to the zoo multiple times before with our parents. Long lines of children marshalled by teachers at both ends and in between are still a very common sight in the zoo compound. The zoo set upon the royal property of the Gaekwads (the erstwhile royal family of Baroda) came to be the defining image of Baroda for me. There were palace like enclosures where tigers and lions roared, and green, moss covered pools which were studied with great interest for one fleeting glimpse of the resident crocodile. There was the Fatehsingh museum too with its dark, cool display corridors which I visited with great enthusiasm to be awestruck by the massive whale skeleton, Egyptian mummy and the stuffed animals on display every single time.
Baroda is a city with all amenities which can almost be called a large town and I think that is where its charm lies. The Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) with its sprawling campus and set up in palaces (with huge domes) donated by the royals is the first thing that catches the eye emerging from the station. My brother's engineering years at MSU and my sister's architecture degree offered me ample time to get familiar with the events and hang-outs of the University and offered me my first tantalizing glimpse of college life and the promise it held. In Kurukshetra, where I would eventually go to earn my engineering degree, a unique but nonetheless enjoyable variation of 'the college life' was in store for me but my brother's Tech campus, the MSU Fine Arts fair and all the extra-curricular programmes which seemed to take up more time than academics did fill me with anticipation and positive energy about leaving school and moving onto degree college.
Even beyond MSU, the city was very much like Calcutta in that, this was a city obsessed with the arts - be it the performing arts and the fine arts and everything in between. The Crossword book shop in Alkapuri which was within walking distance of the station was a favourite haunt. At one point of time, escorting my sister as she attended architecture entrance preparatory drawing classes in Baroda was an excuse, as me and Jha(attending school, so he had at least half a day of real official work) daily took the Gujarat Queen train to Baroda in the morning just to spend the entire day exploring the bookshop. The little shops right next to the station where second hand novels could be bought and 'rented' were a prime attraction of Baroda too. My brother's buddy, Dibyendu Da who has an excellent voice singing "We will rock you" in chorus with a packed MSU auditorium was quite so very inspiring as I witnessed in person the true power of a rock-star. All the knick-knacks bought from the Fine Arts fair and all the dramas, skits, choreographies and some downright zany things on display there served to make my bonding with this city even stronger, appealing to me because I found that there were people whose thoughts were even stranger than mine! And the crazy fun of living and surviving in a boy's hostel was brought to light when I ventured into my brother's hastily cleaned (probably a minute or two before my family marched in) MSU hostel room!
Then there were so many people, my own siblings, friends from school and from college who had grown up in or shifted to the city causing me to know the city a little bit better every time I visited them: the Bird Circle with the Gupta brothers when Utsav and me had a super-enjoyable overnight stay in Baroda with their parents away in Nashik; the Chandan Multiplex and the long drive to the outskirts of the city to catch a movie there with Srinath; the Inox cinema area and the Goodies eatery in Fatehgunj; the older parts of the city thanks to all the weird stuff that my sister needed to buy for her architecture projects; the buildings of the newly set-up Vidyani Vidyalaya where students who had shifted over from the more well-established Navrachna School (its sister CBSE board school) compared the two experiences; the Railway colony, its well endowed library and my brother's big apartment overlooking the lush green Railway cricket stadium; the games of 12th floor terrace cricket played on the roof of Roy Kaku's flat where hitting the ball outside the 'ground' meant taking a long ride on the lift down to go buy a new ball after a failed frustating search in the parking lot - the images of all these people and places do come rushing up when I think of Baroda.
But what comes to mind first is the memory of the endless boundary walls of the royal palace interspersed with a huge gate (which was not to be photographed, the gate guard said) here and there, with glimpses of the tree tops and the woods behind them so that no one could see the actual palace centred in between them from the road. People said that that there were deer which roamed inside the compound. In my imagination, there also roamed within those compounds, maybe a pet tiger or two. Baroda - the city of kings and zoos!