India elections: In Narendra Modi's home town, supporters tell heroic tales of the man who could be the country's next Prime Minister
The stories are intended to show Mr Modi's finer qualities, but some are more believable than others
In the ancient town of Vadnagar, one hears a lot about crocodiles. Some of the stories relate to the final reptile found in the town's Sharmishtha lake which was stuffed and hung on the wall of the library 50 years ago.
Yet most are about a baby crocodile, captured in the same lake a few years earlier, by the town's most famous son, Narendra Damodardas Modi.
The story tells how as a young boy, Mr Modi, a keen swimmer who swam every day, found the young crocodile which he took home with the intention of keeping as a pet. Yet when his mother explained to him how sad the crocodile would be without its own mother, young Narendra returned it. “At the time there were 35-40 crocodiles in the lake,” claimed Ramesh Thakur, a diamond polisher.
The tale, presumably told to highlight the young Mr Modi's adventurousness, compassion and obedience to his mother, is one of a number of stories told about the man many believe could be India's next prime minister in the town where he grew up. Some are more believable than others.
Mr Modi was born in Vadnagar in 1950, the third of six children. His father ran a tea stall at the railway station. Locals said the the long-shuttered stall, covered in cobwebs, stopped being profitable after the number of trains passing through Vadnagar on the single-gauge line was reduced 20 years ago.
The school attended by Mr Modi, Bhagavatacharya Narayanacharya High School, originally built in 1893 and updated in 1949, is close to the station. According to a comic book recently produced by Mr Modi's supporters, he was a model pupil, confronting bullies, clambering into a tree to rescue a trapped bird and studying relentlessly. He was also good at sports.
“I gathered the stories from an existing Narendra Modi book. They are all genuine stories,” said Ahmedabad-based entrepreneur Jignesh Gandhi, producer of the comic book Young Narendra.
As a boy Mr Modi, it is said, also had a heart of gold. “One time there were floods in Assam. Modi had no money but he set up a tea stall at the fair and gave away the proceeds,” said Rathibhai Bhasuan, a retired history professor, who said he had been told this by one of Mr Mod's brothers. He is even said to have served tea to Indian soldiers on their way to the battlefront.
Mr Modi was born on a narrow, two-storey house located on a street named after his clan inside the walled quarter of the city. A cousin, Arvind Modi, one of numerous people in Vadnagar who claimed to have been present when Mr Modi captured the crocodile, said that while he was at school he displayed natural leadership qualities.
BJP leader Narendra Modi waves on his way to filing his nomination papers (Getty Images)
In everything he did, Mr Modi apparently took the lead - games, drama and other school activities. Once he produced a play about Jogidas Khuman, a Robin-Hood-style king who helped the poor. “He was very good at drama” claimed his cousin. “He acted in it and produced it. He played the part of the king.”
Sunil Mehta, a former head of the local unit of Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and now Vadnagar's mayor, claimed everyone in the town was happy “that Narendra Modi is going to be prime minister of India”. He claimed Vadnagar had a very “pure heritage” with many ancient temples. He had also heard about Modi and the crocodile, though the admitted he was not present when it had happened.
Asked how Mr Modi may have been inspired by Vadnagar, Mr Mehta told the story of two young women, Tara and Riri, celebrated for their devotional singing. One day their singing was heard by Tansen, the court musician of the 16th Century Moghul emperor Akbar.
According to legend, Tansen was touring India to seek a cure for the heat and fire supposedly produced whenever he performed a specific melody, or raga. On hearing the two women sing, Tansen felt instantly cooler and he tried to arrange for the women to accompany him back to the court in Delhi. Yet the women said they could only perform for God and instead drowned themselves in the well.
Today a quiet park, built with money provided by the state government, marks the spot where the women refused to accede to the demands of the Muslim invaders.
Vadnagar was also where Mr Modi's marriage was arranged with Jashodaben Modi, who came from the extended clan. Both were said to be aged 17 and Mr Modi left within a matter of months, preferring - so another well-told story goes - to devote himself to a Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and to serving India.
For many years Mr Modi refused to talk about this aspect of his life. But last month when he filed his nomination papers Vadodara, Mr Modi wrote the name Jashodaben under the column marked “family”.
His wife lives with her family in the village of Brahmanwada, about 20 miles from Vadnagar. Reports in the Indian media said her family claimed she was one a month-long pilgrimage with other women and would return after the election.
Trikamlal Makwna, president of the town’s library, which looks out over the now green waters of Sharmishtha lake
Yet when The Independent visited there were more stories. Apparently Mr Modi's wife was attending a family wedding, though her relatives could not agree on where it was taking place. Her younger brother, Kamlesh Modi, said she was happy her husband had finally acknowledged their marriage.
“100 per cent Narendra Modi will become prime minister. Jashodaben will be voting,” he said.
Not everyone in Vadnagar appeared to support Mr Modi. Popat Patel, 84, a retired farmer who was walking through the town in traditional white shirt and trousers, said he had always supported the Congress party but that he did not plan to vote on the 30th, when Gujarat goes to the polls. The current generation of politicians, he said, did not match the ones he knew when he was young.
There were even some who dared to admit uncertainty about the story of Mr Modi's pet crocodile. Trikamlal Makwna, president of the town's library, which looks out over the now green waters of Sharmishtha lake, said: “It's anybody's guess as to whether it's true or not.”
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