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Chandigarh, the city that’s not elsewhere

Is Chandigarh not the land of opportunity? The place that has jobs, wide eyes and roads; money, and big cars and houses, and all that jazz! At some point, that’s not enough.

columns Updated: Jul 14, 2018 23:58 IST
Aarish Chhabra
Aarish Chhabra
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Chandigarh,City Beautiful,Land of Opportunity
‘La Main Ouverte’, 1954: The Open Hand monument in Chandigarh defined as ‘Open to Give, Open to Receive’. Not all of the city’s architecture carries that spirit, or maybe the fault is in its interpretation. (Image: FLC/ADAGP)

It’s comforting, sometimes creepy, how everything around you seems to work according to your emotions. For instance, I am sitting at a café in Sector 35 as I write this — for a change I am the stereotype who writes with smoke slowly exiting a cup of coffee kept next to the laptop on the table — and the instrumental music in the background sounds like a farewell song, a seminal moment in the history of time or something. It’s rising to a crescendo, over and over, but then leaving itself unfinished, choosing to calm down and churn slowly instead.

Ideally, there should be a sense of finality to the song, at least today, as I write the last article for a column that has lasted exactly five years. It was a Sunday in the middle of July when the first one appeared back in 2013. That one was a love letter to the city of Chandigarh, an overly romantic ode, like all love letters are at the beginning of an affair. My girlfriend at the time taunted me for days, saying I should go for walks and coffee and movies with the city, not her. She didn’t know that I was doing it already — driving alone on roads shimmering in the dirty yellow glow of streetlights; having coffee in a takeaway cup as I walked aimlessly on the cycle tracks; and watching movies too, for real, collecting and weaving stories.

It’s strange how many meanings one can ascribe to this city; or to any city.

For many, its clean air, thanks to the mountains an arm’s length away, is like inhaling freedom unadulterated by the stifling notions that populate other small and big towns. The mere sight of women moving around freely, their body language speaking of no fear, no awkwardness, can be unsettling at first, liberating eventually. I don’t know about the architecture, but this freedom makes up half of this city’s charm.

The other half will have to cover a lot of things, a lot of meanings, some sad and stark, others good and complete.

It’s sad how you have to leave all the false romance of small towns to get here and be something. But it’s good how it’s not the big bad city yet. It’s neither here nor there, yet its standstill nature never feels like it’s utterly stagnant. The pace, or the lack of it, can lull you to a dull, dreamless sleep; or can help you wake up gradually, aaraam se (comfortably), just as you would like. It never jolts you, never lets any conversation be hurried, and never makes you want to run. Nor do you run away.

Why would anyone run away from here anyway? Is Chandigarh not the land of opportunity for people like me? The place that has jobs, wide eyes and roads; money, and big cars and houses, and all that jazz!

At some point, that’s not enough. Still is not the nature of things after all. Not everything is forever still like the parental Shivaliks that take care of Chandigarh. I like to believe they send rain to it every time it’s too hot or too cold.

You may not run away, sure, but you can walk away, to bigger things, fancier things, with wider eyes and taller aspirations. No, the city’s neither-here-nor-there nature does not compel you to leave it eventually. That’s an easy theory to cover up your own, selfish reasons to move away. You can walk away only because the city’s stillness lends you a certainty that it will always be there, whenever you return.

I know it’s not utopia. It also shows you how elitism works. Class consciousness is ingrained in a city that has a built-in system to keep the haves and have-nots, and the almost-haves, within neat straight lines. The fact that Chandigarh did not come up organically but is artificial in a sense can reflect in the behaviour of many here. Many who move around in the thinking circles come across as dissatisfied deep within. Even those who say they made a conscious choice to stay here, not elsewhere, betray a sense of unfulfillment.

And it’s a brilliant case study to know who’s an outsider, and that no one is. The joy of the invisible people — those who hawk their wares on the roadside, those who wait for work at Labour Chowk, those who spend rainy nights in corridors in the company of petrichor — lends the city a vitality that is often shunned by its classists as chaos.

We cannot let Chandigarh be defined only by those who claim ownership of it. The satellites and suburbs will not stop growing, and the city will not be limited by its borders, yet ever remaining at the centre of it all. It is the first love affair of most people who fall for it, and the last for many who truly know what that feels like. You can take Chandigarh for granted. That’s how true love works, doesn’t it?

Let’s go elsewhere, for now.

Writer’s email: aarishc@gmail.com || On Twitter @aarishc

(Past articles in this column are available as a book, ‘The Big Small Town: How Life Looks from Chandigarh’, on Amazon and at bookstores)

First Published: Jul 14, 2018 23:50 IST