Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
From nagar to metropolis
If cities could be spoken of as personalities, most of the world's cities today are schizoid. In one aspect, they aspire to the comfort and sophistication of an international economy and culture; in the other, they conspire to maintain the oppressive local structures that keep the shantytown enslaved, the hinterland brutalised, the inner-city ghetto isolated. The focus of this edition of Folio is the metropolis in the age of globalisation: we look, here, at the various mutations and distortions that come to characterise the collective life of cities in an epoch of rapid, unassimilated, world-wide change.
Such a change sharpens economic asymmetries that already exist and produces new cultural discontinuities; it generates social conflicts and political uncertainties, all of which factors develop into a general crisis of stability. Elite and subaltern phrase their combat through ever-renewed idioms of physical demarcation and cultural signs; the recycling economy collides with the throwaway economy; the physical apparatus of the industrial economy, its mill-flues and assembly-lines, are substituted with the plasma touch-screens and consoles of the virtual economy; the sociable exchanges of workers changing shifts has been replaced by the unnerving silences of automation.
A trajectory such as the one just outlined is perhaps truest of post-colonial cities, although the great metropolitan centres of the former imperial powers are not immune to it either. Bombay, New York, Varanasi, New Delhi, Sofia, Pune and Junagadh feature among the cities that are visited in this edition of Folio: many of these are post-colonial cities, but those that are not have been acutely affected by the politics of post-colonialism, in the form of the diffusion of populations, and the cultural interfacing that is its inevitable result.
The contemporary city is held hostage by its multiple pasts; equally, it is mortgaged to its alternative futures. Bombay and Shanghai now serve as theatres where the sunrise industries of information technology, financial services and tourism seek to subject the urban landscape to a makeover while ignoring the harsh realities of a declining textile industry or a wrecked farming economy. At the same time, Paris and Vienna are learning to cope with the traffic in illegal immigrants from North Africa and South Asia, and to acknowledge the existence of these wage-slaves in their midst. London and New York have begun to accept the inevitability of the various Third-World diasporas and the scintillating cultural hybridity that they have created.
It has become fashionable, in certain circles, to speak of the city as the only possible future of human association. This future is situated, moreover, in the context of a globalisation that is seen as a joyous blurring of borders, an invitation to the individual to participate in an emancipatory hybridity of choice, in defiance of the imposed and hereditary values of specific cultures of birth. And there is no doubt that globalisation does offer the scope for such a liberation to those who are privileged to take their place in this unfolding drama of fulfilled potential. But what of those who cross borders and renounce cultures under compulsion or in desperation, in search of a better life, even if that should prove to be an illusion?
The frequent-flyer NGO activist and the cyberspace wizard embody one genre of globalisation, one aspect of the new city; the environmental refugee and the marginal peasant, forced to find employment in the city, embody another. The sweatshop labourer in Dharavi, the vast shantytown at the heart of Bombay which attracts thousands of tough survivors from Andhra Pradesh or Bangladesh to the megalopolis, is one face of the global city; the Punjabi boy selling roasted chestnuts outside a Metro station in Paris, smuggled into Europe by body-pirates and having survived possible shipwreck off Marseilles or boatwreck on the Danube, is another.
In traditional European culture, the city has been perceived both as a negative and a positive site. In negative mode, its sophistication and shrewdness are deplored as the opposite of the innocence of Arcadia, the pastoral and the sylvan life; in positive mode, it is seen to offer refuge from the terrors of the primaeval forest, an opportunity for the cultivation of the higher human possibilities. The word civilisation itself, at the heart of its elaborate connotations of refinement and sophistication, simply means "citification", from the Latin civitas, meaning settlement, city.
In Indic culture, at least since the advent of Gangetic civilisation, the city has been celebrated as pura, as prastha, as nagara: the fortified settlement, the design that gives shape to natural terrain, the location of civilised life. It is viewed as the place where normal human relationships are expressed and fulfilled; where all organised human life proceeds towards the attainment of its goals, those of kama or pleasure, artha or prosperity, dharma or the discipline of illumination.
The epitome of civilised Indic life was the nagarika, the man-about-town, a dweller in Takshashila, Shravasti, Kaushambi, Rajgriha or Kashi, whose entire life was an art-form, his every choice and gesture stylised and gracious. The traditional Indic city was the stage, also, where the encounter between humans and gods took place, with the temple and the palace as the twin foci of the urban formation, embodying the sacred and the secular sources of power. Those who wished to quest for moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death, had to leave this template of collective life, this golden world, behind and retreat to the green world of the forest.
The city is a social and architectural environment subject to constant change: it could be seen as a floating series of transactions between the society that occupies it, and the spaces which that society generates and transforms through its processes of interaction. Victor Hugo wrote of Paris, in Notre Dame de Paris as a twin city: the city of day, which was the venue of work, and the city of night, which was the site of play, when the rules of day are overturned. The contemporary city has sharpened this polarisation of labour and leisure, but given it a unique twist: in the city of today, this is really a polarisation between the classes that must labour for a living and the classes that can afford the amenities of leisure. Bombay's old mill lands offer a dramatic example of this tendency: many of the compounds of the defunct textile mills now house discotheques, entertainment arcades and chic restaurants; just beyond the wall, in Dickensian housing colonies that are going to seed, live the families of the workers who once staffed the mills.
Such leisure is ersatz: it is an outcome of lazy privilege, a cynical apotheosis of the pleasure principle. And yet, before we dismiss leisure as the preserve of the elite, obtained at the expense of subaltern suffering, let us recall that the greatest cities have always been distinguished by their cultivation of a genuine leisure: the quality that transfigured the adjective "urban" into the compliment "urbane". Such a cultivated leisure gave to the urbane individual a unique sensibility, an attitude towards the conduct and goals of life, a definition of the personality in which achievement was measured not by the quality of gain alone, but also by the quality of leisurely accomplishment not motivated by profit.
We find this ideal of leisure celebrated in the Varanasi ideal of masti, a bohemian ardour, a quirkiness and delightful eccentricity, a joy in living. It sustains the devotion of Madras to its season of music and dance concerts, the dedication of Pune to its theatre performances, the pride that Lucknow took in its literary culture. It animates those urban types, masters of self-refinement, variously celebrated by Vatsyayana, Baudelaire, Ghalib, Wilde, and Walter Benjamin: the rasika, the flaneur, the shaukeen, the dandy. These, too, are casualties of the contemporary city.
If one were looking for an appropriate metaphor by means of which to describe the contemporary city, that metaphor would be the fractal: the irregular linearity, every segment of itself breaking up on detailed examination into further, if mathematically proportional irregularity. Shifting centres and ragged peripheries define the life-cycle of the contemporary city: populations sag between the city's foci and its edges as the infrastructure of housing, transport, water and power supply cracks under pressure. And from this predicament of conflict over scarce or choked resources, there arise deeply divisive social and political conflicts, which extremist forces exploit, using the rhetoric of insiders versus outsiders, invoking the tropes of belonging and exclusion.
The story of the contemporary city can be told as a narrative of decline, with an intermittent resurgence of vibrancy. This is certainly the story of late 20th Century Bombay, with its declining mills and the flourishing informal sector economy anchored in its slums and shanties, its lively theatre scene, whose adherents refuse to let the imagination be defeated by the collapse of urban planning imperatives, or by the sort of cynicism that seeps into the soul as you negotiate rain-clogged streets, passing crowds of destitutes living on the streets or in railway-stations.
It is the story of Calcutta, also, whose vital and loquacious intellectual culture survives in the face of extraordinary pressures. But urban decline can seep like a slow poison into the veins of a city: Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, has become an arena for ambitious politicians and mafiosi in the aftermath of the demise of Communism; its Stalin-era architecture affords no play for the warmth and consolation of community.
As urbanisation becomes the defining paradigm of human settlement, para-urban forms like the satellite township and the small town begin to resemble scaled-down versions of the big city, with the distortions and fissures replicated. Set between the village and the city, these forms of settlement now incline towards the latter: even in the pilgrimage-centres of Dehu and Nathdvara, the unwary visitor is assailed by shrill Hindi-movie music emanating from barbers' shops, by garish posters of film and television stars; the STD/ISD kiosk and now, the cyber caf‚, are ubiquitous. The city is on the march, devouring more and more of the hinterland to keep its engines of growth roaring.
The contemporary city is also a play of desire and terror. Its romance finds expression in the idioms of literary and visual art, experimental theatre, cinema and installation that urban life has made possible; beyond these formal circuits, we find the informal, popular and even kitsch expressions that are an integral feature of urban culture. The Hindi and Tamil movies, in particular, are haunted by the city: its architecture surfaces repeatedly, in the chase sequence, the fight sequence, the romantic duet, in which the mise-en-scene of back-alleys and downed roller-shutters, and the sheer facades of skyscrapers, play as important a role as the hero, the heroine and the villain. In a more domestic vein, in metropolitan India, a contemporary folklore of ferocious monkey-men and nocturnal stone-killers, of movie stars and game-show winners has developed around the television set and the morning newspaper.
The nightmare folklore of the contemporary city may well be both prevision and safety valve for pent-up fears: the nocturnal stone-killer could be the dramatised Other, representative of the hordes of strangers who are brought in to change demographic patterns by the manipulators of the politics of the census. The ferocious monkey-man might signal the subliminal recognition of a situation in which animal species, corralled and driven to the wall in an environment dominated by human needs and imperatives, have begun to strike back through adaptive behaviour that we can only read as disruptive.
It cannot be denied that this nightmare folklore has some basis in the syndromes and pathologies of contemporary urban life: organised crime, sexual desperation, policy-driven dispossession and the almost programmatic reversal of justice and equity. The dominant idioms of urban space-use provoke their own special genre of apocalyptic cautionary tales, cast in the Blade Runner mould: if the average metropolis continues to develop along current projections, its future is not a life so much as it is an afterlife, a scenario fractured into ghettoes, developer estates, shanties and waste-dumps.
The city is also a space of unpredictable connections, where individuals and groups previously held apart in separate enclaves are brought into contact by mass transport, commensality and mass entertainment: this can make for damaging experiences of transgression and shock, but also for creative ones of risk and encounter. Sometimes, a city like New York can provide individuals with a sense of elsewhereness, which strips away ancestral feuds and nationalist suspicions like moulted skins, leaving them receptive to communication and communion.
If apocalypse is a recurrent note in these evocations of cities past, present and future, nostalgia is another. As the steam-roller global economy levels the conserved and slow-evolving forms of traditional society and culture at the local level, witnesses who cherish these for their grace, beauty and vitality record them in nostalgic accounts. We walk through the lanes of mediaeval cities that have survived into modern times, through these accounts, participate vicariously in the high rituals of the haveli of Junagadh, the everyday gestures in the precincts of the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi.
These reflections on evanescence mark the end of the nagara as a coherent symbolic reality, as a diagram of life, a community bound together by traditional ties of ritual, transaction and cosmology. The nagara was a physical and spiritual location where all beings could find their place in the seamless flow of intimate and public spaces, of courtyards, streets, walled gardens, platforms, terraces and stairways: it was renewed and revitalised by its periodicities, its festivals, pilgrimage schedules and neighbourhood celebrations.
The replacement of the traditional nagara by the city of modernity can be translated as the replacement of order by chaos: the city of modernity has no cosmology to sustain it, no social drama to be shared and enacted on the mass scale. What therefore prevails in the city of modernity is the quest for power, in its most subtle and its most raw manifestations: its individuals and classes are bound to one another, not by formal restraining codes of obligations as previously, but by barely disguised motives of competition; lacking common goals, such a city has no shared symbolic significance in the eyes of its citizens.
And so these meditations on the city point the way, also, to political critique. A city without a cosmology of its own, a city that does not present itself as an image of the universe, lacks coherence; and modernity appears to lack the energy to promote secular versions of public space and civic responsibility that can equal those promoted by the sacred urban images of tradition. In the absence of such an affirmative energy, we must turn to critical energy instead, and persist in interrogating the contemporary city on such essential issues as those of opportunity and entitlement, livelihood and dignity, which form the basis of citizenship, and therefore of true belonging, in a democracy. Can our cities guarantee such a true sense of belonging to all their citizens? In asking these questions, the citizens of the future may slowly begin to make their way from apocalypse to redemption.
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