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City limits

Is Kolkata lost in the past? Is the age of Mumbai over? Has Delhi’s time finally come?

india Updated: May 15, 2010 18:07 IST

On the cover of this edition of Brunch, you read what writer Rana Dasgupta had to say about three of our most powerful cities. First Kolkata, then Delhi was (is) India’s capital. First Kolkata, then Mumbai, was (is) India’s financial capital. First Kolkata, then Mumbai, now Delhi, was (is and is becoming) India’s most vibrant city. Do you notice the progression? We did. So we asked three writers to chronicle their thoughts about their cities and each city’s place in time.

On Delhi, we have Sam Miller, author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. On Mumbai, we have Jerry Pinto, author and co-editor of several books, including Bombay, Meri Jaan. And on Kolkata, we have Ruchir Joshi, author of The Last Jet-Engine Laugh. Read on – and write back, to tell us what you think.

Sam Miller on Delhi

People used to joke that Delhi was a collection of villages. Actually it’s a collection of cities.

I think I find the Mumbai part of the story as interesting as the Delhi one. I feel that I’m a partial Mumbaikar because my wife comes from there, and I’ve spent so much time exploring the city. But I feel that recently Mumbaikars have become quite prickly about their city. I have great affection for Mumbai, but it seems as if it’s got stuck at the end of the last century, when it took a couple of very damaging blows – the ’92 riots that spilled onto the next year, followed by the bomb blasts. I think there was a shattering of something there.

Cities need to have things they feel good about. I see a modest hope in Mumbai. It’s very important for cities to have that. People are proud of the new Sea Link, for instance. On the other hand, a terrible mess has been made of redeveloping the area of the mills.

Since the ’80s, so many of the city’s 19th century buildings have gone. I don’t want to sound apocalyptic about Mumbai, but it’s a city that hasn’t moved on into the 21st century as it should have. The debate has been hijacked by Maharashtra- and Marathi-related issues rather than city development issues. City development hasn’t happened with the pace and responsiveness it should have.

What marks Delhi is the fact that it’s not hostage to the interests of a state – like both Mumbai and Kolkata are. If something goes wrong in Delhi, the city has no one to blame but itself. In other cities, politicians see the cities as cash cows which can be used to feed rural constituencies. When the old Bombay state was split, a lot of people in Bombay felt the city should have had special status to reflect its role, and not just been the capital of another state.

Today, political parties in Mumbai outdo each other in being more Marathi than the other. Many people in the city agree with them, but a lot of people also feel too intimidated to speak out against them. To put it bluntly, today, as Mumbai becomes more parochial, Delhi becomes less so.

At one time in Delhi, the Punjabi and Haryanvi population dominated the city. That was till the mid-’90s. Then a more plural Delhi emerged, including migrants who came to the city from other parts of India and abroad. Business people, fashion people, art people, a huge number of Purvanchalis who now form the second biggest bloc in Delhi, people from the South, from Bengal... it became a city of aspirations and an ethnic and linguistic melting pot.

However, there are people who have lived in Delhi for 10, 20 years and they still say that the city is too hot, the people are too rude, etc. But in Mumbai and Kolkata, the loyalty is intact, there is a kind of romanticism and nostalgia about those two cities. That exists among the real old Dilliwalas, but there aren’t very many of them.

Loyalty to a city is a good thing. But when loyalty becomes a sort of ethnic marker, as is happening in Mumbai, it becomes a problem.

Delhi is still a rough city when it comes to women, particularly travelling in buses, but public spaces such as the Metro have emerged as a unifier. It’s hard to find things on which everyone agrees but everyone in the city is agreed that the Metro is a good thing.
I’d be interested to see if the IPL cricket teams have created loyalty. Do Delhiwallahs automatically support the Delhi team?

But as I said, there’s still a lot that is missing. There’s not enough pride in Delhi’s heritage. Its visible heritage is as impressive as Rome, Athens, Cairo and Istanbul. But most Delhiwallahs are just not interested in this side of their city.

People used to joke that Delhi was a collection of villages. Actually it’s a collection of cities. A lot of people who visit Delhi after a long gap of say, ten years, are surprised, often for the wrong reasons – such as the fact that the city has so many new shopping malls now (the malls in Saket and Vasant Kunj are less than five years old). The domestic airport has improved dramatically though it’s still not as good as Hyderabad.

When I first came to India in 1987-88, Mumbai was buzzing. Delhi was full of bureaucrats. It was a bit dull. But today, Delhi is full of activity, things are going on all the time. Music, books, theatre… so much is happening. It is a serious, big, international city.

But there’s so much that hasn’t changed – the filthy nalas, the filthy river (the reason the city is here in the first place). There are now groups of citizens who do go out and clean the mess – sort of action squads. These are things that can make a change. If enough of that happens, politicians prick up their ears and want to be part of it. So it’s a good thing. But individuals have to feel responsible for more than just their own plots.

Staying on in a city – it’s very different for the middle class and the poor. For the poor – do they even have a legal title to the land? If they don’t, they will have no sense of belonging to the city. One of the first things people want is the right to the land they occupy. Delhi has a huge number of unauthorised settlements. To call them unauthorised after so many years is plain silly. This unauthorised tag hangs over them, creating perpetual uncertainty.

Off and on, these areas are razed to the ground and the people are sent off many, many miles away. The attitude towards the poor here is worse than in other cities. If this city has to become a great city, all these problems have to be addressed.

For the middle class, today more and more people are getting up and saying, ‘I like Delhi, it’s my home, I may not like X or Y about it, but I would like to change that.’

In geographical terms, Mumbai is one of the most spectacular cities in the world – the way the sea appears at different places. Unfortunately Delhi’s key geographical feature – the river – has become a sewer.

Kolkata... it’s a city I know well. It’s a very interesting place. It’s crept along slowly. It got the first Metro. In Salt Lake, it’s got one of the most modern developments in the country. The power problem has been sorted out (in Delhi, despite all the promises of politicians, we’re back in the worst of times). It’s actually improved in terms of infrastructure.

Kolkata has always been a Bengali city whereas Delhi has become less monolithic – and Bombay is becoming more monolithic.
Incredible damage was done to Kolkata by Partition. It lost its natural hinterland. Some damage was done to Delhi also by Partition, but it’s not the same. Calcutta is almost on the border.

(As told to Poonam Saxena)

Jerry Pinto on Mumbai

My city now believes that we should define who is a Mumbaikar. This is suicide.

There’s this city in which I live. It’s ugly. It stinks. Its traffic is atherosclerotic. Its noise is legendary. Its self-image is based on hype and hope in equal measure. But there is no doubting one thing: it is a city.

Can any urban conurbation be a city without a public transport system? Calcutta may well have been the city of the 19th century when the tram was the coming machine and it seemed as if the rickshaw puller was going to be done out of a living by the internal combustion engine. Delhi has a metro which runs in two or three directions and gets you to about 20 per cent of the city. For the rest, you have to have a car or you have to know someone who has a car, preferably both.

Can any representation of the modern be complete without women? Every year, at the Social Communications Media department of the Sophia Polytechnic, where I act as guest faculty, we get our fair share of what we call ‘outstation candidates’. Every year, I watch as they begin their negotiation with a new city. Every year, I see them respond with surprise and delight to their freedom. Here, middle-class girls think nothing of taking a taxi home at midnight. Here, the buses are crowded and there is almost always a hand that begins to grope but the bus conductor will respond to a plea for help.

Can any city be a city without its own publicity machine? In the last century, tourists didn’t come to Bombay (businessmen did). In the last century, the average stay in Bombay was half a day, much of that spent in the airport, resting against a backpack, waiting for the flight to Goa to take off.

Now, tourists come to Bombay and Bollywood is to blame, a Hindi film industry in a city that speaks very little Hindi. They come for the buzz, for the glamour. They come because adventure tourism has come of age and there is no city which confers so much street cred so fast as this one does. The act of taking a local train is an exercise in hubris. With this, I test my alien body against the Gods.

Delhi has history. Everything has a Mughal ya di ya or was part of a Sultanate or a dynasty or at least, a power structure. But its centrality and its pre-eminence means that you have to insulate yourself against humanity. Your streets must be cleansed of the debris of one-sixth of the world’s human beings. Your pavements must be free of hawkers and lepers and beggars and squatters. Thus may the diplomat and the carpetbagger one generation removed walk under leafy trees and pretend that the great divide does not exist.

No wonder Delhi doesn’t get the Naxalite problem. No wonder the poverty alleviation schemes never work. Sitting in Sujan Singh Park, how can you compose a scheme that will help a tribal girl who thinks chappatis made out of wormy atta a good thing? On Raisina Hill, everything must seem far away and anyway, history had showed us that the poor die young and in another country.
Nothing, no city, no favela, no housing project, brings poverty so up-close and personal as Mumbai does.

So yes, Delhi will probably inherit the twenty-first century and it will be a blood-soaked twenty-first century because centralised power has a way of making it seem as if complexity is just a matter of a little more money. James Surowicki has demonstrated in The Wisdom of Crowds, a bunch of diverse, heterogenous people making a decision beats the experts every time. Atul Gawande shows in The Checklist Manifesto that you can only handle complex issues if you distribute decision making and spread power outwards from the centre.

Please give me a moment while I wet my pants laughing. Delhi giving away power? A home minister saying, “I can’t possibly imagine how to deal with poverty in your state because it is very different from poverty in any other state so why don’t we all go back and ask everyone we know to craft local solutions and then see how we can create organic homegrown responses”? No, Delhi’s responses, in this age of decentralisation, is to say, “We have a new scheme. Fill out these forms. Attach those papers. Attest those certificates,” while it knows that each of these steps attracts a host of greedy limpet middle-men who will drain the scheme of its effectiveness.

But it isn’t Bombay that I am arguing for as the city of the twenty-first century. No city can survive unless it is a talent magnet. No city can ever rely on the original residents because there are never enough to create a city in the first place. Cities are artificial constructs. They are built only when people who are tired of the hardscrabble of clawing crops out of the ground, decide that they will find a better life in the city.

Bunty and Bubbly must want to come here, away from those boring afternoons where nothing happens in the small towns of India. Their energy revitalises the city. Their ideas add to its ability to create wealth. This means there are no original claimants, no one with priority because there is no city without people in flight from it and to it. Once a city stops growing, it starts to die.

My city now believes in local talent. It believes that we should define who is a Mumbaikar and who isn’t. We should then hand out the good stuff to the Mumbaikars and keep everyone else at bay. This is suicide. This is death foretold. This is capital in flight from the city. This is a city that is playing an end game for immediate victories.

Then someone else can come and build a mall over us and the denizens of the city of the twenty-first century can come and play while we, the former residents, can press our noses against the glass and watch our breath frost up and fade away.

Not Mumbai then. Not Delhi. Some small town is taking a deep breath at this point, some B city is beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. Bunty and Bubbly are turning their backs on us. They’re staying home. There’s a nice familiarity to where they are but there’s also opportunity in the way you can do business from anywhere, in the way you can connect with anyone over Skype and email. Tomorrow has already abandoned the old centres of power.

Or maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift. This century may bring about the death of the city as snaking lines of cable decentralise power and decision-making becomes independent of location. Goodbye city. It wasn’t nice knowing you.


Ruchir Joshi on Kolkata

In the fifties, suddenly, from a ‘can do’ city Calcutta became a ‘hobey na’ town.

An idea someone mooted goes like this: the 19th century belonged to Calcutta, the 20th to Bombay and the 21st will belong to New Delhi. If only things were so neat and tidy. Looking at the larger dances of urban history one might glimpse a different story.

The fact is, Calcutta not only owned the 19th century but it was pretty much the top-dog for a large part of the 20th as well. Even while Bombay was developing its own industries, money market and stupendous work ethic, Calcutta more than held its own until the 1950s: it was home to a lot of Indian manufacturing, its huge port was a base for tea, jute and other exports; politics (or many of the great social movements) still had Calcutta as their fulcrum; the city was, indisputably, the capital of culture – the capital not just of India but, indeed, all of Asia.

However, all that changed within a decade of Independence. What crippled Calcutta was a potent cluster bomb thrown by history: the British left en masse and Partition created a truncated economy and twilight industries. Simultaneously, successive tsunamis of refugees began to hit in massive waves between 1942 and 1952. Parallelly, an amputated version of Communism took hold, one missing a crucial limb – a belief in productivity.

Suddenly, from a ‘can do’ city Calcutta became a hobey na town. By the late ’60s, Calcutta was widely regarded as one of the worst urban blots on the planet – roughly three decades of upheaval – from just before World War II to the beginning of the Naxalite movement in ’67 – had undone the pomp and power that prevailed nearly three hundred years.

Growing up in those times we watched with envy as Bombay unfurled its golden wings and reached for the sky. The skyscrapers shot up, the agile Fiat taxis speeded in straight lines, the cops actually arrested you if you tried to bribe them, the women were daring and beautiful, the men arrogant yet efficient. Even as the waves smacked the boulders on Marine Drive, the Ocean of Wealth seemed to be surging in an equally powerful current, overflowing from Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade into the rest of the city.

Up close, Bombay actually held all the cultural cards too: not only Hindi Cinema, which could then be dismissed as ‘bourgeois entertainment’, but also some of the best serious theatre in the country. It had ground-breaking radical literature in the Dalit poets; it had happenings and events and was far more clued-in about international art movements than provincial Calcutta. It had, by then, the best painters in India; it had the best baithaks of classical music. And to top it all, it had always had the best cricket. To paraphrase one of Hindi cinema’s greatest lines: you could list the best features of your own city and throw them at a Bombayite and all he or she would have to say was ‘Lekin mere paas Bambai hai.’

What Bombay did not have were the great academics – who oscillated between Calcutta and the dusty village-town of New Delhi – and it did not have great scientific research – based mainly in upstart Bangalore – but in the ’60s, ’70s and most of the ’80s, Bombay was, indeed, the Mother of all Cities.

So, what happened? Somewhere around the early ’80s a faint whiff of toxic gas began to leak out in the golden city. Datta Samant, union leader, caught the textile industry by its collar and shook it till everything dropped out of its pockets – money, production, bones, small change. And then, a few years later, Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena took centre stage.

In between, gangsters like Haji Mastan and Varadarajan Mudaliar took over important chunks of the city’s ‘business’: smuggling, extortion, hawala, supari killings etc. By the time the Shiv Sena came to power, it had learned important lessons about how money and muscle worked in Bombay; once in charge of the huge powder-keg, they added the detonator of ‘religion’ and the whole thing blew up. In a few short years, ‘Bombay’ was dynamited down into ‘Mumbai’, a semi-provincial urban sprawl over-crowded with fearful people caught in the cross-fire between the Hindutva gang and the Jihadi toli.

While Bombay was sliding into the sea, the Rajdhani was steaming into the station. Across the ’80s and ’90s, Delhi became the first landing strip for everyone and everything. It was as if four or five parallel cities were sliding and scraping against each other: the political spider-town spinning wider webs of power; the wheeling-dealing Partition refugee encampment coming into its entrepreneurial own; the ramshackle mosaic of poorman’s bastis drawing workers from the Indo-Gangetic hinterland and wider afield; the sarkari babu colonies; the expat enclaves – first mainly diplomats and development NGOs, and later, with the advent of
India Signing, the corporate-boxwallahs.
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Around and between these tectonic plates slid thin films of intellectuals and ‘creative’ people, actors and musicians, photographers and film-makers, choreographers and kalakar-charlatans and collectors. Between 1990 and 2010 it’s as if Delhi has sucked up the energy of all the other Indian metros: te pizazz, te chutzpah, te razzmatazz, te raunaq, te ji all of it.

But appearances can be deceptive. In 1938, there was no indication of what would befall Calcutta in the next decade. In 1980, Bombay seemed poised to rule the world. In 2010, Delhi, roiling in its pompous orgy of construction, seems well nigh unassailable. But watch out, water finds its own level and so does disaster.

To many people, both insiders and visitors, it’s now clear that greater New Delhi is sitting on two connected time-bombs, each of which is ticking louder than ever. Watching the stadiums, flyovers and metro lines spring up with animation-film speed for the Commonwealth Games you could fool yourself into thinking this is an explosion of efficiency and progress, or you could realise that this city is being strangled, the last of its charm squeezed out, the city of Mad Max drivers and big business and government power-players terminally transplanted onto spaces that sheltered working-class people.

When that social tension reaches a critical point, all the concrete in the world won’t hold the city together. The second time-bomb is the environmental one, which predates the whirlwind of construction and will tick on well after the last CW Games athlete visitor has left. Air. Water. Walking space. Living space. Loving space. If all these disappear or are hoarded behind high walls then those walls will, one day, be breached. If social and ecological injustice builds up unabated, its explosive power will smash through the apartheid enclaves of the elite.

As Delhi eats away its brain and soul to achieve its facelift, as Bombay struggles for its water supply and social harmony, Calcutta becomes a curiously apt vantage point from which to contemplate the other Indian metros. It’s not that we don’t have our own problems, our own powder-kegs, our own plausible Kolpocalypse scenarios. It’s just that we are the oldest modern city of the three. We have therefore survived the most assaults by history, and it’s not fantasy to think that we may yet survive the 21st century better than the other two.