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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The character of Gurgaon is drawn from its rural roots
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The character of Gurgaon is drawn from its rural roots

One of the great civil wars of our times is the battle between the idea of the village and the idea of a city

According to several reporters, a procession of Hindus led by a Hindu outfit was attacked by local Muslims. (HT_PRINT)Premium
According to several reporters, a procession of Hindus led by a Hindu outfit was attacked by local Muslims. (HT_PRINT)

Six feet above the ground, when no Indian is in the frame, parts of Gurgaon look first world. There are these modern buildings made of glass and steel. Gurgaon has the reputation of being affluent. Some of its finest hotels are also called hospitals. There are apartments that cost 30 crore; those buildings have their own spas. As a result, many people were surprised, or maybe amazed, when mobs in Gurgaon burnt a mosque and several vehicles. They saw this as a contradiction—that shiny real estate for global companies and home to some of the highest paid Indians could also host religious riots. But then, in real life, contradictions do not exist. That is the very nature of contradictions—they cannot exist. Many things that people consider contradictions are not: Sari-clad women who work as space scientists, urchins gawking at a restaurant or riots in the shadow of a mall are not contradictions. Their co-existence is natural. Gurgaon is perfectly suitable for violence.

The true character of a new town is never in the ‘new’ part; it is in the nature of its original population. They are the base.

I live in Gurgaon, which is less than 50km from Nuh, Ground Zero for the spate of violence that spilled into Gurgaon. Schools shut and people did not venture out. Household helps who do not wear sindoor have fled, and those wearing vermillion have been filling in. A high proportion of helps, delivery boys, air-conditioner mechanics and drivers are Muslim migrants. Many of them have fled to Bihar, and it occurred to me that I now live in a place that some people would flee for Bihar. How did I get here?

Actual Gurgaon, which is mistakenly known as Old Gurgaon, emerges from a pastoral way of life and is even today rustic, and mindful of caste and religion. It has a history of communal tension, and is also one of the worst regions in India for women. Its mother ship, Haryana has a gender ratio of 879 females to every 1,000 males. (The national average is 940, and Kerala’s is 1,084.)

Gurgaon of the old is all around, even in the heart of its ‘new town’, not as adorable ruins but as omens. Dozens of free-range cows stand in the middle of the road, sensing a new mysterious privilege. The municipality is one of the worst managed in my experience. It is as though people who have been entrusted to bring the city to villages believe that they must bring villages to the city. Except for a stretch called Golf Course Road, and a national highway, every other road is in laughable shape. All this points to a political assurance that the votes come for reasons other than civic standards, and those reasons are economic and communal.

Gurgaon and the villages around it are strongholds of men who claim to worship cows, some of whom assault unlucky Muslims who get caught with them. Events in Nuh itself were partly caused by a cow vigilante called Monu Manesar, who is on the run from police for the alleged murder of two Muslims. He declared that he would attend an event at a temple in Muslim-majority Nuh. According to several reporters, a procession of Hindus led by a Hindu outfit was attacked by local Muslims. At the time of writing, Manesar remains a free man.

In 2007, when Gurgaon was under rapid transformation and builders had bought vast patches of farmland to develop, I met several farmers who had suddenly become wealthy by selling land. They used to grow millets and mustard making 15,000 an acre. But they saw a 500-fold increase in land prices over a decade. In the delirium of sudden affluence, farmers were buying cars on full down payment. They complained that women who used to wake up at four in the morning to finish household work had discovered bed tea. They even called it “bed tea". When two neighbours now crossed each other, they had a silent duel over who would say “Ram Ram" first. “The man who is poorer should greet first," a farmer said of the new etiquette. They also discovered diabetes and heart disease.

Around that time, a woman who lived in an upscale area recalled that one morning a visitor appeared at her doorstep. “I thought she wanted a job as a maid, but then I realized she was looking for a house to buy." The sudden wealth left many villagers desperate for measures to manage it. There was the story, which I hope is not apocryphal because it’s so interesting, of five men who walked into a school and asked the teachers if there was a smart girl of marriageable age among their students. The men said their family had earned three crore from a land sale but they were all illiterate. They had decided one of the brothers should marry an educated girl who would know how to handle the money.

Old Gurgaon’s landed grew rich, but they had also become a social underclass because of executive migrants who gave Gurgaon its reputation for ‘cosmopolitanism’, a word with no meaning. About a decade ago, the local men dealt with social confusion by routinely beating up sahibs after street altercations. Now, the sahibs have become wiser.

Gurgaon continues to boom. The rent of my home has doubled in the last two years. But the fundamental nature of the place is the nature of its original people, the people of rural Haryana. Even Mumbai could not pretend for long that it was anything more than a large Maharashtrian town.

One of the great civil wars of our times is the battle between the idea of the village and the idea of a city; the battle between roots and rootlessness. It is a battle that the village is winning everywhere.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’


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Published: 06 Aug 2023, 03:43 PM IST
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