In the 1960s, Delhi was a different sort of place. We lived in a government house, thick-walled, with yellow, peeling plaster. At the time, all houses were the same, thick-walled and peeling, perpetually staining with the monsoons, set within their own garden plots.
Old: a home like every other
The world has embarked on a new steel and plate glass future. Unconnected to earth or its surroundings, the house is now a technological device. Jayachandran / Mint
The house had spacious, airy rooms, stone floors, high ceiling vents, long verandas and a car porch. Behind the porch was a green painted jaffrey (perforated stone or concrete screens), fluffed white with jasmine creepers; you could hear the quiet hiss of summer grass on a hot day; at night, mosquito nets were hung above the beds lined up on the lawn, their sheets scented in motia (jasmine) petals; the grass was cooled every evening with a spray of water. It was the same on every lawn, in every house, down the full length of the street, the whole neighbourhood. The sameness of things—house, street, neighbourhood—was the great attraction of a time when sensory urban pleasures were reserved and private.
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The house is still there and on those days when the present city overwhelms with its sights and sounds and smells, a view of the old place, still as ramshackle and monsoon-stained as ever, is a return to a different time. When architecture was a background to life.
New: the home as a technological showcase
But that is now an altogether archaic view. The world has embarked on a new steel and plate glass future buttressed by the hope of a more consumptive life, a life as much about self-confidence as a show of it. Unconnected to earth or its surroundings, the house is now a technological device.
This house is one with greater inputs of wiring, more kilowatts, track and concealed lighting, generators, security systems, electronic barbecues, temperature-compliant jacuzzis and wall-mounted home entertainment systems. Sleeping on the lawn at night is today considered a form of insanity. Besides, there is little need to provide courtyards and verandas to cool the place when the sun’s heat on three storeys of laminated glass can be offset by a 12-tonne chilling plant. Who needs the city’s overburdened municipal services when water, electricity and security can be made available on the premises?
Inside, the idea is to project a style and interior that has little to do with family needs, but is an exhibit of objects so placed that it can rub shoulders with similar displays in Paris and New York, objects whose sole function is to enhance the identity of its owner: a stainless steel sculpture, a piano in the corner, a fruit bowl and a bottle of wine on the dining table. To keep up appearances, the house also adds fripperies of space: a closed, secluded kitchen for the servants, an open-plan kitchen for a barbecue. An informal family room, but also a formal living room. A traditional puja room, but also a radically designed back-lit bar. A house with central air conditioning, but also one with a decorative front garden. A satisfying life made with an excess of space and a pointless aesthetic that derides the old idea of the house as a place of comfort and familiarity. For architecture to be internationally relevant, it must be contaminated by shrill artistic perceptions.
New architecture, old neighbourhood
But the neighbourhood in which the new house is set is an altogether different story. Today, I live in a small colony in Delhi called Gulmohar Park. Like all south Delhi colonies, it is considered a reasonably elitist address. And again, like other colonies in the area, it is now equally renowned for its many shortcomings: uncollected garbage spilling out of municipal bins, plastic bags and paper on roads; private cars clogging public streets, daily battles over parking space; sand and bricks piled on roads for private construction; a rundown municipal market, unlit, unwelcoming, spat and urinated upon; four-storey flats on plots meant for single families; high colony gates shuttered against daylight robberies; the occasional murder of an elderly couple. An important address on paper but in reality, an altogether unwholesome place.
Down the road from where I live is Gautam Nagar, one of the city’s largest slums. Mud shacks, covered with tarpaulin and rubber tyres, clustered in densities so tight it is humanly impossible to negotiate the warren of alleys within. Part-drain, part-storage, part-residence, part-social club, the tenement has a purple rivulet of slime snaking through it. Children defecate in it, play on it. During the monsoons, it floods into surrounding rooms. But its presence is tolerated with the benign helplessness of people bound by karmic faith.
That the two colonies are neighbours is not unusual. With the parcelling of city land into plots, subdivisions and compounds, you are only reminded of the boundaries between Gulmohar Park and Gautam Nagar. That the two were designated for different strata and purposes is also only an administrative decision. Other than some urban and hygienic conditions, there are startling similarities in lifestyle.
The primary thrust of both places is an improvement in lifestyle. People in both attach an acquisitive purpose to that goal: microwaves, cellphones, cars and TVs in one; cellphones, TVs, motorbikes, gas connections in the other. Commercial facilities in both are strikingly similar: vegetable vendors and small-scale groceries. The recreation is street cricket. In both, the elderly sit on benches to discuss flatulence. While utilities in one are constantly upgraded at election time, the other is in a perennial state of decline.
In a few years, the two places will be altogether indistinguishable. The “posh” colony will be a slum; the slum, an upgraded neighbourhood.
My city, like every melting pot
It is happening all over Delhi. All over Kanpur, Lucknow, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, in virtually any Indian city with a growing migratory population of the dispossessed and a proportionate increase in the number of greedy landed. Dazzled by the potential for opportunity, the city is at once a great liberator of human value, as well as a greedy guardian of personal wealth. Its final manifest is unfortunately a sad and squalid tale of the latter: people wallowing, either in filth or their own affluence. Committed to nothing but survival.
I urinate on the sidewalk, spit on the road, toss garbage in the park. I collide and rub and haggle and protest. On crowded buses, I push my way past young women. I relish the details of chain-snatching and rape and dowry deaths, the small column in the paper on people crushed by a bus. I draw away at the touch of a beggar, rush away from the scene of a road accident. I don’t know who lives around me. There are strangers everywhere: on the road, in the park, in the neighbouring building, in the next house, in the very next room. But that doesn’t matter.
I must protect my mean little patch. Divided by extremes, fearful of encroachment, I remain forever vulnerable to the psychotic nightmare of the city, the home that I have created for myself.
For ‘Crosshatched’, a slideshow and essay on an innovative, cross-cultural collaboration by traditional Indian and contemporary Australian artists, visit www.livemint.com/crosshatched.htm
A GPS for cell phones
Finding your way around shopping plazas or airports may soon get easier, thanks to an indoor positioning system for cellphones. The Global Positioning System, or GPS, doesn’t work in buildings, as the satellite signals it uses can’t get through walls. But in this system, a cellphone can use nearby Wi-Fi transmitters to identify positions. The system, developed by Nokia, is being tested in Helsinki, Finland. It should work with existing handsets and infrastructure, but must have access to maps of building interiors. Many public sites, such as big shopping or sports centres and universities, already make maps available.
All about staircases
Climbing stairs is a known way to keep fit. But many staircases don’t lend themselves to climbing. They are tucked away in hard-to-reach places, unappealing in design, badly lit. Now researchers are urging a fresh approach to stairs, perhaps to even include music, to encourage people to use them. Writing in ‘The Southern Medical Journal’, they say stairs are often viewed as a fire exit. So they tend to have heavy spring doors, no carpeting or air conditioning. Instead, the authors say stairs should be the central feature of new buildings. Improvements can be made even in existing buildings.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
An exhibition under the World Trade Center
This artist rendering by Thinc Design with Local Projects and provided by The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York, shows one of the museum’s planned exhibitions. The exhibition will allow visitors to the underground museum within the footprint of the World Trade Center’s south tower to learn more about each individual who was killed in the 11 September 2001 and 26 February 1993 attacks. The museum plans to let visitors enter the exhibition along a corridor in which nearly 3,000 victims’ photographs form a ‘Wall of Faces’.
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