Historian, academic, feminist and 2016 Fulbright-Nehru senior scholar, Veena Talwar Oldenburg is all set to “biograph a child"—Gurgaon city. Even in the shade of the foliage that surrounds her beautiful home, she sparkles like an explorer returning with news of a miraculous discovery—one that will fill the pages of The Chronicles Of Gurgaon: From Mythic Hamlet To Millennium City, scheduled to be published next year.

Having authored The Making Of Colonial Lucknow: 1856-1877; Lifestyle As Resistance: The Case Of The Courtesans Of Lucknow and Dowry Murder—The Imperial Origins Of A Cultural Crime, Oldenburg, 69, prides herself on her ability to tell a story. It’s not hard to understand why as she breaks into rich personal anecdotes and impassioned discussion on the significance of the city, the challenges of her project, the impact of the personal on the intellectual, and her motivations, with tell-all spirit. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Let’s start with the question you’ve been asking everyone in the city—“Why Gurgaon?" What captivates you about Gurgaon, and what inspired you to write about it?

When I got introduced to Gurgaon, it was just a wild place. (It was) barren, it had poultry farms, villagers walking around, and women with faces utterly covered...I never believed that a city would rise. It was so bleak and minimalist—one little village shop, one dhaba (roadside eatery), and one grocery store. Blankness. And then, it erupted. As if a tsunami had hit it, the blankness began to be filled up. I use words that are almost geologically too swift, but it was an eruption. I used to call it “the concrete hiccup". But slowly, I began to defend Gurgaon.

People would say, “Oh, that Gurgaon—Pani nahin hai, bijli nahin hai, infrastructure nahin hai…" (There’s no water, electricity, or infrastructure…) But hum toh hain! (But we are there!)

And I’m an urban historian. Sitting here, I said (to myself), here’s a city growing up, right in front of my eyes, and the urgent need that made me write about my home, Lucknow, began to stir within me. Defending Gurgaon mutated into a wish to describe it, to narrate it, to tell its history, to sort of balance out the picture.

The city has been written and talked about extensively in local, national and even international press. How is your take going to be different?

I have read them with interest, and tried to keep up. I think based on what I’ve read so far, my perspective is different because it is historic. I begin with Dronacharya, take you through the colonial period, and then bring you to today. What I’ve tried to do is not give you this astonishment that it suddenly hatched from an egg. I am trying to show that the germ was always in it.

Modern Gurgaon is transforming rapidly, and you say that it is fascinating to watch the subject of your history grow as you write it. Tell us more.

Well, that’s really my problem. Because I’ll say that the Jats went on a rampage and got this backward status, but then I read they’ve been denied that status. So what do you do with what you already wrote? Do you just say they were denied it? Or was that a historical event, and should I just say that this was overturned by the government?

 That was just one example. There was no golf course earlier at The Leela Ambience (formerly, The Leela Kempinski). Now there is. In these eight months—I began writing in October—I have made statements that I have now changed! For instance, I said it’s horrible that people can buy their liquor, but have nowhere to drink it, and because they can’t take it home, stand on the streets, get drunk and misbehave. Well, guess what? Now there are places where you can buy drinks and sit and drink them—like liquor lounges. There’s no municipal corporation? Ah, now there is.

I also have to add this bit (laughs) about it becoming Gurugram, which has these grand, modern things—that’ll be one hilarious paragraph, and I’m not afraid of writing it. But it has been a struggle to keep up with my subject. It’s like biographing a growing, fast-changing child. It’s very hard to take something so new and growing and bubbling and write its history—like trying to describe an earthquake that has many after-shocks.

You’ve written about Lucknow, which is steeped in history, whereas Gurgaon is a relatively recent “phenomenon". What are some of the other challenges of writing about a place this “new"?

Huge, huge. And especially for a historian, because Gurgaon’s early history—that’s millennia of history—takes, say, 50 pages of double-spaced writing. The rest is just about the last 30 years! But I’m glad that it’s a challenge; I would’ve been bored if I just had this simple view.

Nineteenth-century Lucknow was frozen in rich archives. Of that, nothing could change except what I discovered. Gurgaon? I wanted a revenue map. And they said, “Old maps? What do you want with those? We don’t keep those, they’re useless! Take a modern one." But even their modern maps are just printed and copied Google maps. So there’s a total lack of passion for history. People have a history if they remember their history. Here, whenever I’ve interviewed someone, they’ve said, “Yes, the old times? Oh, Dronacharya…" They only know that one thing. Nothing in between...

I really hope to inspire a zeal to understand the city’s history. I’m being a “historian" in its old-fashioned sense. I’m telling you a story. One that you need to hear if you’re living in Gurgaon.

Why is Gurgaon’s story important for people who don’t live there? What are some of the broader notions that your book will raise and explore?

Well, I’m challenging a few ideas and questions… Gurgaon’s roots were very rustic. How does the rustic become an urbanite? Does he become an urbanite or does he become a rich imitator of the urban?

Gurgaon isn’t just the offices or the gated communities, it’s a greater whole. That holds true for all cities, and the perspective is important. And Gurgaon, at this moment in our history, represents a kind of a microcosm of the larger picture. If you can parse the major parts of Gurgaon, you’ve really studied the rest of India too—foreign capital, big businesses, migrants, absorbed villages, IT—because most trends are replicated in the major centres. The astonishing thing is that the brash upstart wasn’t even a city, and now it’s competing with established ones like Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Why not Faridabad? That’s close to Delhi too. Karnal? Rohtak? Chandigarh? These are urgent and important questions.

You plan to devote a significant chunk of your book to the people of Gurgaon—migrants and original communities alike. Tell us more about your interest in people as sources of anecdotal evidence and as historic subjects.

Well, in the colonial times, Gurgaon was not populous—it had less than 4,000 people. And even for the status of a township, there needed to be 5,000 people. So it never even had a municipal committee. But by 2011, the population had just blown up, so the dynamics of civil governance and social security really changed. Social history is an old genre, and I believe that it is really people who make institutions and cities, not buildings. I want to capture the soul of Gurgaon—the Gujjar and Yadav communities, the migrant labour—that lurks beneath the steel and glass surface. Gender, in particular, becomes an important force in understanding a place like Gurgaon, what with the drinking, the issue of safety, infanticide and, really, the lack of women on the streets.

Is the book less academic so that it can be more accessible?

Oh, I am writing for a lay audience. It’s going to have lots of pictures by my brilliant photographer friend, Dinesh Khanna. Academics might read it, but I won’t care if they don’t read it.

What do you envision for the future of Gurgaon?

There are two possible outcomes. One, that it could become, in 10 years for sure, the Singapore of India—without the ocean, without being an island. But it’ll be an extremely attractive place to live in, with finished roads and public transport, and so on. The gloomier possibility is that it becomes a parched desert. The one major thing we haven’t calculated is the supply of water. The thing is, we cannot keep building more high-rises. They’re the doom.

A great hero of mine is Jane Jacobs, a historian of American cities, who wrote, “The way to kill a city is to build high-rises." It has killed many, many, many cities. Even New York flourishes because there is a high-rise section, but the rest of it—the five boroughs—has human-scale life. And we are ruining that. We are greedy, the builders are so greedy. They might become the richest people in India, and they still won’t stop building, building, building… So I’m really wondering what kind of city we will have in the end, because we can go completely crazy.

There’s nobody really in charge—there’s no mayor, there’s nobody to really run the city. They’ve named some places “Smart Cities", which have no money. So Gurgaon’s money is being sent to Faridabad. And if that is the way to make a smart city, then good luck—they will neither be smart, nor cities.

How important is it to have a personal connection with the subject of your writing?

I have never written anything that isn’t coming straight from my heart. All my best writing has happened when I’ve felt personally connected to the subject. My book on Lucknow began because I loved Lucknow. And so many Lucknavis say, “The colonials did this for us, they did that for us…." So I went in, and absolutely unravelled the colonial period.

The book on dowry…. I didn’t have a dowry problem, but I had a bad marriage problem, and I was so fed up of reading in the newspapers that dowry is the cause of all this killing. I was nearly killed by my then in-laws! But it had nothing to do with the money. So I was ready to say that the story of dowry is completely wrong.... I actually go as far as to say that it is the only feminist institution in a patriarchal world. Streedhan is the only thing that acknowledges that women can have property. Historically, dowry is something that your parents voluntarily give you. The abuse of dowry is the problem!

I write what moves me. And frankly, I’m moved by Gurgaon—its transformational story, its people.

Saumya Malhotra is a research assistant with Veena Talwar Oldenburg.

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