Place your finger anywhere on this map,” Capital Project chief engineer PL Verma had said to the young engineers gathered around him for a meeting, “and it is yours.” Sounds like the stuff that dreams, which feature a very obliging genie, are made of. It was an exhortation to buy plots of land in Chandigarh and build houses. Except that no one wanted to buy into this dream.
The popular perception was that the city, if anyone at all wanted to call it that in 1950, would never really get inhabited, that the giant whirlwinds of dust strutting across the landscape would always have the better of the place, that the site had been chosen only to oblige the then defence minister, Baldev Singh, and that it would really have made much more economic sense to have built on the outskirts of Patiala or Ludhiana. The poetry of the place, which featured hills in the background and balmy breezes softly caressing the foothills, was quite obscured by the sheer presumptuousness of creating a city out of thin air. And the naysayers were many.
Those who did purchase land quickly saw this as an error of judgement and, as quickly, either surrendered their plots or sold them at par to others who had been similarly beguiled. An investment into the distant future is often an adventure that only the strong hearted and well-heeled can undertake. The rest are either left with the satisfaction of saying I-told-you-so or then nurse a hindsight laced with regret. And there are many now who wished they had bought or then not sold that two kanal plot in Sector 8 purchased for peanuts, which is today the equivalent of being the owner of an apartment in up-market New York.
The bounty offer was before 1952, when the city had not yet been inaugurated and when there was only a smattering of roads and clusters of tents, which housed the engineers who were working on the project.
Over the next few years, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would periodically visit, climb the nearly 20-foot tower erected in what is now Sector 9 (the stub of that tower is still in place), and survey the progress of construction. My father, too, was a young engineer in 1954 and climbed up to the top of the tower with his newly-wed wife. From up there, they saw what Pandit Nehru must have seen – a vast expanse of unexplored possibilities, a canvas waiting for the completed vision of the artist.
In the far distance, with the hills in the background, the secretariat, assembly and high court were in different stages of construction and, facing the other way, they could see the box-like housing in Sectors 22 and 23. The Janus face of the city was already in place, its North and South reflecting, in a microcosm, the polarities of the world in its North-South divide, between the privileged and underprivileged, the governing and governed.
A few years later, when my father did build a house, he made detailed calculations on wind speeds and its flow, the direction of sunlight and the variations of summer and winter peculiar to this area. Walls were rounded to design doors to open into the house at the correct angle to capture sunshine and to let in the breezes that blow from the mountains. However, those
were the perks of beginning on a clean slate, when the wide arms of roads seemed to welcome the luxurious sweep of imagination. The slate has since then been written, erased and rewritten many times over by the indifferent squiggle of time, but then that is the price we all pay for the double-edged sword of development.
(The writer is an English teacher based in Chandigarh)