It is important to maintain the essence of our cities

The incessant honking and cacophony of vehicles that is a defining characteristic of Indian roads leaves many with a splitting headache by the end of the journey back home on a summer day.
Come summer and everything seems heightened — the noise seems louder, the traffic worse and people’s temper on a shorter fuse.(Yogesh Kumar/Hindustan Times)
Come summer and everything seems heightened — the noise seems louder, the traffic worse and people’s temper on a shorter fuse.(Yogesh Kumar/Hindustan Times)
Updated on May 23, 2019 09:44 AM IST
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ByKalpana Viswanath

Indian cities are an assault on our senses — not just sight, but also smell, noise and temperature. Come summer and everything seems heightened — the noise seems louder, the traffic worse and people’s temper on a shorter fuse. The incessant honking and cacophony of vehicles that is a defining characteristic of Indian roads leaves many with a splitting headache by the end of the journey back home on a summer day.

But this is balanced by the beauty of nature starting with the purple jacaranda trees leaving behind a purple carpet, followed by the red gulmohur lighting up the skyline. And finally, the cascade of stunning yellow gold amaltas is one of the most spectacular sights of the city and gives a sense of well-being in its resplendent beauty amid the scorching heat.

Cities have smells too. For example, the blooming of the night queen means that winter is not far away and the fragrant lilies herald spring. Then there is the smell of favourite foods that define a city — the local paratha wala who stays open all night or the vendor selling bread omelette or chole bhature on the streets. Street food is an integral part of all Indian cities and forms part of the landscape.

There is unfortunately also the smell of garbage and dirt, which most Indian cities have not managed well, not to mention the smell of urine from the streets as well as from badly maintained public toilets.

Cities by the coast sometimes have an unbearably strong smell of fish when the wind blows in. Residents of Gurugram will remember the terrible smell from the landfill nearby when the wind blew in.

Sounds also hold memories and nostalgia. I remember a time when security guards would go around the banging their lathis on the ground as a signal to other security guards as a system. I don’t know how and when that became a comforting sound and not something that would wake me up. I remember the vendor announcing melodiously from the street that phalsa season had arrived, in the heat of a summer day with a power cut. Gurugram, at least on this side of the highway, does not seem to have the sounds of these various vendors anymore. I suppose the gated societies are not welcoming to vendors. I remember the year that I lived in the US, I found the silence in the city most disturbing. As Indians, we are used to a certain level of background noise that we don’t notice till it has gone away.

The challenge for many of our cities today is how to design and plan them so that they are more well-organised and efficient. The smart cities mission was an attempt in that direction.

Certainly, the chaos of the traffic and the streets, as well as delivery of services, need to be addressed urgently as many of them are burdens on traffic, pollution, sanitation, waste management and congestion. It is important, though, to maintain the essence of our cities while addressing these challenges. For example, very often street vendors are removed in an effort to clean up the streets. But I would argue that they are integral to our streets as they provide much-needed goods for people as well as provide natural surveillance and keep streets safe. We need to find solutions to our urban problems that are sensitive to the cultural and aesthetic elements as cities are not merely utilitarian spaces, but spaces which carry sentiment and distinctiveness as well.

@SafetipinApp

Co-founder and CEO of Safetipin, the author works on issues of women’s safety and rights in cities

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Monday, December 06, 2021