Cities that are easy on the eye / Swanky dreams and apartheid by other means

[ Daily News and Analysis, 30 Apr 2013 ]

Flights connecting the gulf-countries with Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Cochin and other cities form a large portion of the international air-traffic between them. I have been in these flights a few times. Many of the travelers are labourers coming back to their families for a vacation after being away for months, sometimes years. Because they form a large part of the air-traffic, they also provide a large part of the airport revenue. Very few of the labourers I have interacted with can read English fluently, if at all . That most if not all of the airport, its nook and crannies, only make complete sense only to an English literate person, makes one wonder which ‘public’ did the planners have in mind when designing this public utility space. The unwashed masses and their squat latrines have no place here. The architectural language of these places conform to a ‘global’ idiom, however alien that may be to most desis. Airports and sites such as these are so-called ‘gateways’ of a place that would ideally exude an up-market, ‘international’ look – never mind that non-English literates form a significant part of the market. Such places are the product of a certain imagination – that conceive places like air-ports not only as places where people catch air-planes but also where a certain kind of people should ideally be able to enter. It is also symptomatic of nationalist anxieties – of being ‘up to standard’ to the west, so that the occasional gora who steps in should not feel confused in the least. Some of us browns know English anyways and empathize deeply with that discomfort. For the rest of the brown, frankly, who cares? They walk about hesitantly in the mirror chamber of its alien interiors. There is an invisible wall and often thinly veiled disgust in the face of coconut (brown outside, white inside) desis. This invisible wall has an invisible sign hanging on it which says ‘Unwelcome’ or ‘Unfit to be the kind of Indian that South Bombay is proud of’. What am I talking about is not about airports, signage or English – the disease is deeper and more serious.

There is something deeply troubling about the nature of our imagination of the city, including the idea of urban citizenship, who is included in that imagination, who is not, who is the city for. And how ”we’ appear to the West captures an inordinately large part of those concerns. City elites are obsessed in proving that they are tropic-burnt brothers of goras – and they wish that the tropic-burnt others, whose land and labour pay for such obsessions, ideally should vanish. Given that this is not an ideal world, splendid use has been made of their control over the bureaucracy and policy circles, to make others vanish, if not from the city, but at least out of sight. It is a hard task to make a city of their wish – a city easy on their eyes – but they do try.

During the commonwealth games, that ill-fated coming-of-age ritual of a diseased and demented nation-state with ‘super-power’ fantasies, its capital city was ‘beautified’. Among other things, it involved ‘garib hatao’. Thus the urban poor were kicked out and judicial officers moved around in police vans to sentence beggars. The normally slow judiciary knows where its priorities lie. If that were not enough, large sheets have been put up in many areas of Delhi, especially near bridges, to block out ‘unsightly’ (read poor people’s) areas so that the upwardly mobile residents and visitors can enjoy a virtual-reality show on its roads. The soul of this wall is made out of the same material that the invisible wall of the airport is made up of. The T3 airport terminal does not allow legally licensed auto-rickshaws to come near it lest phoren visitors have a ‘good impression’. In Kolkata, bicycles have been banned from plying in most of its main streets. Hand-pulled rickshaws are being pushed out.They say it is ‘inhuman’ and heart-wrenching, as if loss of employment is heart-warming.  Beyond the Indian Union, residents of Baridhara, one of the elite areas of Dhaka, have banned cycle-rikshaw-wallas who were the lungi. Shame about one’s people and feeling alienated from one’s broader environ is a nasty disease that afflicts whole of the subcontinent.

The dream of being counted as a part of the global cosmopolitan class has led to the blatant exclusion of people from public spaces who do not ‘fit the bill’. This forcible homogeneity of being ‘cool’ and ‘international’ finds its twin in the Hindi-ization of various subcontinental identities – in the name of being ‘traditional’ and ‘swadeshi’. Thus emerges the new desi – Bollywood loving, English speaking, having wholesome family fun eating McAloo Tikki. In many ways, the gated community, that pinnacle of contemporary desi urban aspirations, is a concrete form of this dystopic vision. It is safe inside, we are surrounded by people like us, we talk in English and Hindi and cheer for European football leagues There is a word that sums of all this that may sound quite bitter and might hurt those with ‘liberal’ and ‘inclusive’ sensibilities. It is called apartheid.

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Filed under Class, Elite, India, Kolkata, Language, Our underbellies, The perfumed ones, Under the skin, Urbanity

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