There was a collective gasp when the first roads in the city began to snake across the landscape. ‘Why do roads need to to be so wide?’ It was seen as an indulgence of plenty, an extravagance in the extreme for that one odd official car or a few cycles or then a bullock cart.
There were no roads in the villages that were to be supplanted by a city. Villagers were aghast. And this sense of outrage perhaps never really faded away, living on as a subterranean sentiment in the hearts of the displaced — the inevitable ruins that ‘development’ leaves behind in its wake.
Even in the early eighties, when protesting farmers arrived in Chandigarh to battle for support prices for their crops, they saw the wide roads as an affront to their own diminished realities and made sure of treating them with the disdain that they thought they deserved, describing them as a waste of cultivable land, bathing in the decorative water bodies, looking at the parks as an extension of their fields back home.
By 1953, when the city was inaugurated, some portions of a few roads had already been laid out — Madhya Marg, Jan Marg, Udyan Path. But then, in those days they did not have these names. In fact, they did not have any names at all since Chandigarh was supposed to be a game of numbers.
The names only came later, in blue and white signposting that worked as a direction for the first time visitor who was usually stumped by the sameness of it all. Each roundabout was absolutely like the last one that just went by, and each road as straight as the other, with no quirky bends or uniquely different structures to act as friendly neighbourhood guides.
I remember encountering a huge, hulking, but bewildered ex-student of mine from Patiala, standing at one of the roundabouts and wanting to know just how people in this city find their way around.
But back in the late fifties, Vidya Path was there, making its way to, what was then, the Secretariat. This structure was a barrack, a temporary home for the many files that recorded the transition of the landscape from 22 villages to a modern city.
Once the Secretariat found its permanent home, this structure became the Military Hospital and has now been subsumed into the Punjab Engineering College. And also in place was the route that the first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad’s car took to reach the heart of Sector 9 where the birthing ceremony for Chandigarh was held, followed by a tea party for senior engineers and bureaucrats.
These roads were also meant to function as storm water drains during the rains. Water accumulated with a downpour, but then, within the hour, it gushed its way to the arterial nallahs that stretched all the way from the north to the south of the city.
The natural slopes of the foothills available to the city designers had been used for this magical draining of water.
I also remember using these same inclines to learn cycling, the slopes providing the gentle push that is needed for that delicate act of attaining an initial balance.
Today we may of course wonder why at all anyone ever wondered at the width of these roads, even as we chomp away at the edges to make them even wider. But then there was a time when these very roads were much more than anything that we needed.
And if I may take the liberty of quoting from my own forthcoming book as a closing to this rendezvous with roads: “The undulating landscape, with sashaying wheat fields, stretched all the way to the Himalayan foothills in the distance and was a clean slate for the architects to draw the contours of a city and its skyline. Corbusier, with crayon in hand, had sketched a grid of sectors based on some calculations done in Spain between 1929 and 1949 and a geometry based on the stride of a man, horse or ox and subsequently adapted to mechanical speeds. Of course, cars were not being chased by the devil in those days and, therefore, he never really factored that in.”