Once upona a time: Chandigarh, too, was once young

  • Neel Kamal Puri
  • Updated: May 31, 2015 12:16 IST

Nostalgia dresses the past in swathes of gossamer. But then in the life of a city, the past cannot but be prettier than its present. Less cars, less concrete, less people. No turf wars between neighbours, no frayed tempers at traffic lights, no harried pedestrians scurrying across the road, no lego-like structures climbing up to the skies, pointing fingers at it. However, like the inevitability of graying hair and wrinkles, a city that is growing has to gradually bend under the burden of more and more of everything. It is the necessary yoke of time.

There is always the option of ageing well - of not fighting it, but settling into it with a comfortable acceptance. But ageing gracefully is usually a luxury of plenty. Human beings can do it if they are not labouring in the angry sun, if they can get teeth implants and an occasional massage, if they can sit back and indulgently watch their grandchildren at play or then contribute their energy to the creation of a healthier society. A city too needs plenty in the till and someone with a telescopic eye on the distant horizon. Chandigarh, with a bit of this and bit of that, has managed moderately well. But Chandigarh too was young once, when I first made its acquaintance in the late fifties, even though it was axiomatically referred to as the retired city (a city of grey beards and green hedges, the late Khushwant Singh had called it). And, paradoxically enough, it becomes younger as it grows older. And that, only a city can do, not human beings, who have so far been in step with this analogy, but can no longer keep up. The city today bristles with signs of youth, shopping malls, many spenders, speeding motorcars. Let this not be seen as a lament. However, I will have to admit that when Madhya Marg went from one car in 15 minutes to 15 cars a minute and the numbers ever growing, it felt like an intrusion, like an outrage. I can still remember driving into Chandigarh from Patiala with my parents, and breathing deeply to take in the wonderful sense of uncrowded space that opened out in front of us. There was only the Tribune building that rose into sight and then nothing for a long stretch, till the Government Press building in Sector 18. Quite unlike the battle with traffic that begins in Zirakpur and becomes an incessant cut and thrust of combat.

My tunneling into the past is not meant to be an indictment. One of the things that was often repeated in those days was that Chandigarh had no identity and was a colourless de vitro creation over a few years - in 1948, when the idea of a city was born, or in 1950 when the first road was laid out or then in 1953 when the ribbon was cut. But the city now has a distinct identity, even if it be that of a hesitant, exploratory modernity, somewhat at war with itself.

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