The British talent was building cities. They gave the Chinese Hong Kong and Singapore, they gave the Lankans Colombo, they gave the Burmese Rangoon, they gave the Kenyans Nairobi. To us they gifted Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore and New Delhi, the five greatest cities of the subcontinent.
The Indian talent is renaming things others built. We gave the world Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru.
This put on display our pettiness and our ingratitude, and it also exposed another thing. We squat aggressively on names but we have not been able to create a single city of this quality on our own. The British did not build Surat or Ahmedabad, it is true, and these cities rose whole cloth from the Indian mercantile tradition. But they are quite provincial. Even if commercially independent of English language and colonial architecture, they’re actually giant villages. They have nothing of the metropolis about them. The cities we inherited from the British, it must be admitted, we have run into the ground. No city in India is Hong Kong.
Travesty: (clockwise from above) Modern structures crowd J.R.D. Tata’s grand vision (Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishanan/www.selectiveamnesiaa.org), The Taj Mahal Palace, in Mumbai; the Victoria Public Hall in Chennai was tied up in litigation till recently (AppaiaAIAh/Wikimedia Commons) ; and New Delhi’s elegant Connaught Place, in the days before it was called Rajiv Chowk (Courtesy NDMC).
Delhi and Kolkata look as if populated by a race different from the one that built the city. Like Rome overrun by Vandals or—to reach for a more popular allusion—like Planet of the Apes. The symmetry, the order, the Classical lines of Lutyens’ Delhi are the product of another civilization. These neighbourhoods are not designed for the people who now occupy them. Armed with its vaastu shastra and servant quarters, a second-rate civilization is spreading its slum over the creation of a civilized one.
The Hindu reported in February that the occupants of some 60 Lutyens bungalows had mutilated the architecture of their official residence. Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar has erected a statue of her father on one Lutyens property (6, Krishna Menon Marg), before moving to another (20, Akbar Road). The statue is permanent, and has been left for the benefit of the next occupant. Minister for power Sushil Shinde has applied his design skills to undo the integrity of his house (2, Krishna Menon Marg), knocking down walls and making the hall bigger. Having risen to the post of police sub-inspector before turning to politics, he is doubtless qualified. On the Lutyens property allotted to him, Lok Sabha’s additional secretary N.K. Sapra has constructed a temple (this will be a tricky one).
The one time I have been on a Lutyens property was at the wedding reception of a Supreme Court judge’s niece. The party was spread out in front of the house, and refreshments were thoughtfully laid out at the other end of the enormous lawn. Walking across the expanse for refills, you were considerably more sober than when you had started out. There is no question of having such a home in Mumbai, where even the wealthiest must think vertically. Why someone would alter a property so elegant, so refined is difficult to comprehend—unless one is familiar with Indians.
Kolkata is the ugliest city in India.
It has the correct architecture, mind you, and even today, 64 years after those who built it left, the best civic infrastructure in South Asia. But Bengalis have no ability to manage the city. The quality of the past can be glimpsed at, and the possibility of the future imagined, looking at the order of the city’s design, the straight roads, the beautiful tram lines. All this is buried under the soot and grime and grease that coats all of Kolkata. What the city needs is first a bath, and then some disciplining.
One aspect of its ugliness is the filth and the anarchy. One cannot do everyday things, like drive or walk, without extreme discomfort, and it is Indian mindlessness and insensitivity operating at peak levels. The second aspect of Kolkata’s ugliness, and this is more depressing, comes from the condition of its humans. The migrants from Bihar and farther afield who live and work on its roads.
To those who see beauty in poverty, this vision may have a certain appeal. If however you are disturbed by the relentless sight of man living like an animal, regressing from civilization, existing only to survive (and reproduce), Kolkata is repulsive. If Dante visited the outskirts beyond Dum Dum, he would rewrite his descriptions of the island of purgatory, and quite possibly relocate it.
Much is said about the richness of Ganga-Jamuni culture, and perhaps much of that is valid. But it is a culture whose primary talent is producing more people than it can feed, house or employ. It is not in any other meaningful way productive, let us be honest. Ganga-Jamuni culture has no ability to raise cities, unless you think Kashi is a city, or Patna, for cities are built not on culture, but on commerce.
Ninety-nine per cent of Indians know nothing about India and never will. This is because they haven’t travelled abroad and have no experience of another culture and its cities. They think the world behaves like us.
We expect Europeans to be better, but those Indians who have sat in Bangkok’s silent jams know that not all Asians behave like animals in traffic. I read somewhere—I do not know if it is true—that Mercedes-Benz and BMW had to replace the horns in their cars because they weren’t loud enough for the Indian street. Noise can be exhausting, but not for us.
Last year a report was published concerning the great writer Ruskin Bond, who lives in Dehradun. He was going down to the Mall in the evenings and stopping drivers, pleading with them not to honk so much. Bond is 77. You have to be made of something special to be that age and yet optimistic about changing Indians. Or you have to be foreign, which Bond is, and believe in a universal culture.
But this isn’t true for Indians. There is something unique about us—only Indians will ever know this—and it is that we contain in each of us a duality. One side, our English-speaking side, switches itself on when we are in aircraft or in five-star hotels or when we are abroad. We behave differently, and speak differently, all “please” and “thank you”. But we revert to our tribal self soon enough. Our cities are also thus, containing little pools of culture in an ocean of anarchy.
This is true of every city in India, save one: South Mumbai, which is less Indian and more civilized.
It is different for this reason. South Mumbai was settled by the British with all the mercantile groups of Surat but only one community partnered the British in civilizing it. Not Gandhi’s Baniyas, not Jinnah’s Khojas, but the Parsis, our greatest community.
And though there are few of them, they still hold down the discipline of the British in their neighbourhoods. This is why South Mumbai is the only real city in India. It looks and feels the part. One can look around and not be embarrassed by either the architecture or, importantly, the people.
For those who are sensitive to such things, India is quite unlivable. Fortunately, most of us are trained to shut out the world around us and can exist quite comfortably with the chaos.
Change comes to a society only when things are unacceptable to it. We will wallow in our bestial state a long time, warmed by the knowledge that we have stamped our culture on the names of our cities.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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