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Great city, terrible place

Great city, terrible place
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First Published: Fri, Jul 23 2010. 08 28 PM IST

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link is the latest addition to the city’s infrastructure. Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times
The Bandra-Worli Sea Link is the latest addition to the city’s infrastructure. Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times
Updated: Fri, Jul 23 2010. 08 28 PM IST
Perhaps we are paying too much attention to the physical and economic aspects of a city—and not enough to its mythical and metaphysical attributes. For a city can be beautiful as a physical habitat—trees, uncrowded roads, open spaces—and yet fail to provide that particular, ineffable quality of urbanity which we call: CITY.
The Bandra-Worli Sea Link is the latest addition to the city’s infrastructure. Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times
We all know examples of this. Bombay, of course, illustrates the very opposite. Everyday it gets worse and worse as physical environment and yet better and better as city. That is to say, everyday it offers more in the way of skills, activities, opportunities at every level, from squatter to college student to entrepreneur to artist. The vitality of the theatre (and the evergrowing audiences), the range and talent of newspapers and magazines—there are a hundred indications emphasizing that impact (implosion!) of energy and people which really is a double-edged sword— destroying Bombay as environment, while intensifying its quality as city.
Teilhard de Chardin likened this increasing complexity (which we also experience as we move from village to town to city) with the successive folding of a handkerchief on itself—each fold doubling the layers of the material—i.e., the density of experience. As a biologist, he felt that it was analogous to the blind drive that made life develop all the way from single-cells to more and more complex forms—a movement as compulsive, and as irreversible. It is an intriguing insight, and perhaps explains not only why the migrant goes from village to town but, more importantly, why after having experienced the physical degradation of his new life, he still does not return to the village. He has no choice. He only goes back to Walden Pond when he can take his complexities with him. Only the madman—or the mystic—goes out into the desert. And the mystic is really taking his God, his complexity, with him. That leaves only the madman.
As planners, we advocate the City Beautiful—but most people live and work in a city which is quite the opposite: Tokyo, Los Angeles, Bombay and so forth—and love it! What they enjoy is not the beauty of their environment (there isn’t any), but the excitement, the interaction, the networking, the synergy. In short: the city as CITY.
An incisive explanation of this process was put forward by the Greek planner Doxiadis, the founder of Ekistics. I remember a slide-show he gave in Bombay, many years ago—huge sixty mm slides throwing clear, monumental images on the screen. The first slide was a diagram of a village: 250 red dots and one blue one.
Who is this blue person? Einstein? The village idiot? Anyway, he’s not red. The next slide presented a town of 1,000 people. Now there are four or five blue dots floating around. The next, a town of 25,000 people. Ah! A historic moment: two people are meeting for the first time. The final slideshowed a town of 100,000 inhabitants with several colonies where blue people reside. And on the fringes of these colonies, some of the red dots are turning purple!
That’s what cities are about. Blue people getting together. Communicating. Reinforcing each other. Challenging (and changing!) the red ones. Hence the Quit India movement announced by Mahatma Gandhi from a maidan in Bombay. And Calcutta, in its heyday in the 20s, a powerhouse of ideas and reforms: political, religious, artistic. Hence also the paradox: Bombay decaying as a physical plant, yet improving as a city—as a place where blue people meet, where things happen, where ideas incubate.
And also, of course, as a place where urban skills grow. For the developing world needs these skills. Today in the Gulf, a surprisingly large proportion of development is in the hands of Third World technocrats: engineers, doctors, nurses, construction firm workers, hoteliers. They are winning contracts in the face of worldwide competition and from clients who have a global choice. It is truly an extraordinary achievement—and primarily for our urban centres which produce these skills. Development necessitates management, and too often the Third World has to import this know-how (via the World Bank and the United Nations). Fortunately, India has a wide spectrum of urban centres, varying from small market towns to the great metropolises, all producing an incredible range and diversity of skills. Like the farmlands of Punjab or the coalfields of Bihar, they are a crucial part of our national wealth. To let them deteriorate is to squander priceless resources—a blunder of the highest order.
Our criminal indifference to cities like Calcutta or Bombay over the last decades has allowed conditions to deteriorate to sub-human levels. Yet somehow Bombay functions, and with an energy and enthusiasm that is really astonishing—far more impressive than a showpiece capital like Delhi, where the budget available per capita is several-fold that of Bombay. Furthermore, cities like Bombay and Calcutta represent a true cross-section of urban incomes, whereas New Delhi has no destitute people (they are all hidden away in Old Delhi), where the poorest you see are government clerks cycling to work—and in winter even they are dressed in woollens! The Third World has too many examples of such capital cities, cities whose apparent affluence is misleading—most of all to the politicians and bureaucrats who live there.
The miracle of Bombay is that despite political indifference and apathy, despite lack of resources, some water does get distributed (at least much of the time), buses and trains do provide public transport all day and most of the night, etc—all accomplished by the skill, energy and dedication of the people of this city. Yet, how long will this last? How long before the neglect, the piles of debris, the stinking garbage, take their toll—and the elan, the enthusiasm, of the citizens slowly disintegrates? Then, as in the case of Calcutta, a kind of apathy begins to set in, a stultifying indifference.
Cities have always been unique indicators of civilization—all the way from Mohenjodaro to Athens, to Persepolis, to Peking, to Isfahan, to Rome. You can have great music created during rotten times, even painting and poetry—but never great architecture and cities. Why is this? Primarily because they both require two essential preconditions: first, an economic system which concentrates power and decision-making in the hands of a few; and second, at the centre of that decisionmaking, leaders with the vision, sensibility and political will to deploy these resources intelligently.
The first set of conditions prevails only too often—the second hardly ever. The combination is almost unique. Thus Akbar will always be Akbar. Not because of his military exploits (those have been bettered a hundred times over, both before and after his time). He will always be Akbar because, at the centre of that vortex of power, he exercised those qualities.
Cities grow—and die—much faster than we think. Visiting Calcutta today, it is difficult to understand how turn-of-the-century travellers could have deemed it as one of the great metropolises of the world—the finest east of Suez, a jewel in the crown and so forth. Could they not see the grave (perhaps terminal) illness that was already tightening its grip on that marvellously humane city? No, obviously there is a time lag during which calamity is not overt. So that late into the 1940s and 1950s, we still couldn’t see the fatal symptoms—the writing on the wall.
Obviously this is true of Bombay. As it is getting better and better as a city, and disintegrating (very rapidly and quite unnecessarily) as environment. Perhaps what the people of Bombay are experiencing is the last burst of energy—the spastic twitches before the end. Living in this city one wouldn’t notice it oneself.
CODA: If you drop a frog into a saucepan of very hot water, it will desperately try to hop out. But if you place a frog in tepid water and then gradually, very very gradually, raise the temperature, the frog will swim around happily, adjusting to the increasingly dangerous conditions. In fact, just before the end, just before the frog cooks to death, when the water is exceedingly hot, the frog relaxes, and a state of euphoria sets in (like those hot-tub baths in California). Maybe that’s what is happening to us in Bombay, as everyday we find it getting to be more and more of a great city…and a terrible place.
Excerpted from A Place in the Shade, a new book of essays on the changing landscape of cities by Charles Correa. Penguin India, 246 pages, Rs1,199.
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First Published: Fri, Jul 23 2010. 08 28 PM IST