In my desire to be a citizen of a world-class city, I started wondering what constitutes a First World city. It turns out that the best, and indeed simplest, way of defining it is to see how the people of a city negotiate with the city they live in.
Right on top is how the city looks and smells. A First World has to look good. The roads can be a mix of broad avenues with charming lanes, but cleanliness, ‘broadliness’ and state and size of its footpaths can make a ‘world-class’ city. Next comes transportation. Cars and public transport need to ply moderately smoothly. Otherwise, a nominal city is little else but a village with cars and other vehicles. There should also be a healthy amount of pedestrians on the healthy streets and roads of a First World city. Without the bustle of people, many cities — like so many in Europe —are little else but urbanised countrysides.
Negotiating a city also means minute things like crossing a road, walking as a pedestrian, sticking to traffic rules, moving with moderate ease from Point A to Point B. Indian cities, whether it’s Mumbai or Delhi, may be mega-cities worthy of being compared to the sort depicted in fictional megalopolises like the one shown in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; dark, gritty, a desi Gotham City. But behind all that romanticisations, Indian cities remain unaesthetic physical habitations — great to have as backdrops in novels and movies, lousy to live in day in and day out.
Our definition of a good life inevitably turns indoors or semi-indoors — whether it’s one’s wonderful homes, or markets and places of entertainment. A First World city, on the other hand, constitutes a moderately seamless experience: the outdoors of Gurgaon should reflect, if not replicate, the indoors of Gurgaon. Which it doesn’t.
But there’s an easy way to make a First World city out of all the mess and disconnect: by shifting the goalposts of what constitutes a world-class city and celebrate the chaos and the dysfunction as a joyous form of non-Western urban life. It can work. Even if it’s a neat way of pulling the wool over a city-slicker’s eyes.