Architect Vitasta Raina clearly spent a lot of time observing and worrying about life around her, the life of cities, the life that millions had chosen. Here’s an extract from her published fictional novel Writer’s Block that is woven around the imaginary city of Chalet that, with its class wars and segregated living, disconcertingly resembles the cities we live in today.
Vitasta’s writing reminds me that the city is often a metaphor for the society we live in. It’s a mirror, a visual representation of the chaos that we create and experience. All the imagination of urbanists and policymakers is channelised into imposing order on this temerous chaotic creature, The City. Yet it demands so much more than rules and regulations. Love? Belonging? Tolerance?
Ok, time to shut up and let you read….. And do send in that entry to #TheCityasMuse contest to firstname.lastname@example.org by 15th September 2015
Extract: From ‘Writer’s Block’
My name is Roma but in the Chalet City Census 2017 I am listed as C-PUE7/RI/WB6. I am a poet though they often say that I am a cynic. Well, if you spend your childhood questioning the universe and all things therein, by the time you are twenty-eight you are quite enlightened and then you cannot understand why people are pretend puppets. Then as you grow older still you see they only pretend to be puppets because they can exercise free will at any given time. I am only pretending to be a puppet because the multiple choices of Chalet’s free will scare me.
Chalet—the city of numbers. Massive and expansive, her sheer statistics can drive you to acute paranoia.
There are a billion beauty shops in the streets of Chalet and a billion billboards display beautiful people playing blind man’s bluff in a world perpetually riding on Prozac. Smiling, hedonistic and narcissistic, I see Chalet.
There are a billion blue tin roofs below badly built flyovers that connect Chalet to her sorry peri-urban sprawl, and a billion headlights tail each other like electric snakes on her highways. Always moving, north to south, south to north, disturbed, dislocated, with a violent entrance and a volatile exodus, I see Chalet.
I see her billion lights shine from makeshift footpath novelty stores and desperately silent watching windows of her penthouses night after night. Lonely, isolated and abandoned, I see Chalet.
Every second or every hour, I see Chalet as her billion sexless lovers lick the pus of her festering body, feeding on her lemonade-soaked sweat running down the gutters of her gothic churches and the sewers of her stale slums. Every day, as I make mad love to her cold corpse covered in the filth of her billions, I see Chalet.
Chalet’s urban culture is embracing and engulfing; it can consume you whole and then sometimes for no perceptible reason it can cast you aside. We are misguided into believing that the space we occupy on Chalet is defined by us. The truth is that we are distinguished by our place on Chalet. The only options Chalet gives are murder or migration, suicide or suburbia.
Chalet is governed by the Group Housing Builders’ Consortium and by RUMP, the Reformed Urban Manual for Planning. Chalet’s billions are efficiently classified according to their “ability to pay” and “willingness to conform” into three categories: Elegant, Indigent and Parasite. Needless to explain the pecking order, lesser the need to outline the characteristics of the categories.
The RUMP, by application of various anthropometric calculations and architectural standards, has made it possible to establish the degree of differentiation of basic amenities that each category should be provided. Chalet’s Elegants live in high-rise gated estates, while the Indigents are shifted into typecast social housing projects. The Parasites live everywhere in between, along every traffic corridor, in the gutters and the garbage dumps, below the flyovers and on the railway platforms.
I am part of a special category the RUMP has classified as “Refined Indigent.” We are the outcasts of Chalet, misfits because we are educated but not moneyed, scholars but strugglers, not rich enough to be put among the Elegants, and far too genteel to belong with the Indigents. We remain on the fringes of Chalet’s sociology. We have knowledge but we have no voice. We have observations but we must remain without opinions.
For the little things that form the parts and parcels of a huge whole, we are specs floating through the linear networks of this stratified city. I think of myself as a gutter rose. I exist superficially untainted on the surface of the filth but my roots are embedded deep in the many layers of human refuge, trembling when cars zoom past at high speeds, shying away from the men who govern this concentration camp.
I breathe the poison fumes of the traffic and my petals, dust-covered, no longer have any trace of their original color. I think I used to be pink or orange once, but my leaves were definitely green. In Chalet’s concrete jungle, I have spent the better part of my life undoing my original self. And I am not alone. I am not the only one watching her nightmare world unfold day by day gloriously and brazenly corrupt and calculated; nor am I a solitary witness of the games her billions play on her regional sprawl, and I will also not be the sole observer of the game that one day Chalet will play with her billions.
You can check the book out on Amazon
Each year on the 6th of December, newspaper editorials remind us of the Babri Masjid episode in Indian history. I can hardly believe two decades have gone by when I watched the TV screen in utter horror and heard the mixed opinions of the adults we knew and trusted. I grew up in Lucknow and my family was very much liberal and rather left of centre in their political leanings, though never directly involved with anything political. I was brought up in the post-independent ethos of secularism and socialism and held these two as non-negotiable values of life. For the most part, I still do.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement burst my ‘the world is a good place’ bubble. For the first time in my life, I realized that there very radically different belief systems at work even in my little world, that these were contradictory in nature and could create confrontational and tremendously uncomfortable situations.
I was aghast to find that ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ who I thought of as harmless and ‘nice’ were capable of unleashing a diatribe of hate against Muslims. That they had been silent so long and felt empowered to speak after the Babri Masjid incident perplexed me no end. I kept thinking whether I had simply not been exposed to that side of them, or had chosen not to see it, or had they developed these opinions overnight. I didn’t realize that this was the subtext of many conversations to come in the future, that this would test my own beliefs repeatedly, push me against the wall and take me far, far away from God as propagated by religion, any religion.
I remember watching that inflammatory CD that did the rounds at that time, the one that clearly shows BJP leaders egging on kar sevaks, and bodies being dumped in the Saryu. The inane jubilation and naked hatred, the meaninglessness of it all. The sense of jubilation around the room and the sadness in my parents’ eyes.
Life changed after Bari Masjid. No doubt about that.
So many visuals flash past me from those few weeks. No school. My attempt to visit a friend, only to find her street cordoned off by the police, curfew declared and spending many hours worrying if she was safe. The policeman ushered me away urgently and I could literally watch the tension on the other side of the barricade.
The confusion of other people my age, our hesitation in discussing any of this, not knowing what belief system the other follows. The silence. The subsequent breaking apart of a city that had lived in relative harmony for centuries. The segregation of religion, but also of class. The search for security. The changing definition of security. My people, my own, keep out the ‘other’. I wasn’t aware of all this before. I still live in acute awareness today, hoping against hope that people will rise above this and find a more meaningful way to view their lives, their world.
Planned developments are overrated and certainly alien to human nature. People at work were amused to hear that coming from an urban planner. Aren’t you the folks who want the straight lines, the zoning, the setbacks and height restrictions? Aren’t you the people who say planning creates better lives? Well, yes. But not the way it’s being done. In India, we are clearly happier having more of a say in the places where we live. I argue that is but natural and I support it by observing children at play.
I was clearing up Aadyaa’s toys today and I noticed she had a strange assortment of items placed together, no doubt essential components of an elaborate role play. There was one wooden circular piece from the carrom set, a few pieces from a set of interlinking blocks, a plastic horse, a teddy, pieces from a puzzle and so on and so forth. My mommy brains immediately noted that I need to set their toys in order someday, restore the various pieces to their own sets, etc. The fact that many fellow mums maintain impeccably well sorted playrooms for their children has always given me a complex! But then I stopped. Was I not, by doing do, imposing my adult sense of order on my child? She was not throwing away things or spoiling them. In fact, she was being creative by mixing sets up to create infinite new combinations and therefore new ways to play with the same bunch of toys. And instead of encouraging her, I was planning to (pun intended) simplify her wonderfully and effortlessly complex world.
And that’s what city plans do as well. Attempt to oversimplify urbanisation, which is an incredibly complex process. Sure planning needs to ensure adequate infrastructure and inclusion and perhaps offer broad guidelines, but beyond that there are surely ways to encourage people to create built form to suit their own lives?
Ever watched kids build Lego? Only the ones over instructed by adults build long straight towers. Usually, kids create complex forms that explore many dimensions, that are interesting and exciting. As an urban practitioner, this is something I think about a lot. How do we take the best of the two systems (planned and spontaneous) and marry them into something we can all live with and enjoy?
People, chaos, each group comprises of sellers, buyers, broker, tout, bank lawyer. Some fifty people squeezed in a room with four counters, shiny chairs and a lot of stress. In the midst of all this, a child wailed for chips. A mendicant boy shined shoes, a beggar girl went round the room. All inside the air conditioned (in name) space waiting for the people on duty to oblige them and register the property they were here to buy or sell.
Though the system was computerised and there were modern devices like digicams and thumbprint scanners, corruption was rampant. When will these things change? A chaotic three hours were spent watching the chaos unfold at Gurgaon’s mini secretariat today. And there were moments of hysterical giggling when we were exhausted out of our wits.
Sigh! I can only say I am glad it’s over!
Sarojini Nagar or SN market is one of those places that evokes tremendous nostalgia in people who have lived in Delhi and especially those who went to college in this city. It’s where the middle class people in central and south Delhi gravitate for the best deals and widest variety in clothes, footwear and accessories. It’s where I now shop for veggies and fruits, usually once a fortnight or so.
I moved to Gurgaon end of 2003 and forgot the pleasures of Sarojini Nagar for a few years, especially after I was robbed of my wallet on a particularly busy Sunday in 2004 trying to find woollies for Udai, who was then an infant. I started frequenting SN market again about 15 months ago, when I needed to visit the neighboring Chanakyapuri area regularly for client meetings.
What I love most about SN is the last two lanes of the market, where all the hotch potch, chaotic shopping happens. You get the best deals, see the most interesting people and its fine to be entertained and walk through without spending a single rupee! The color, the confusion and the energy here beats the malls hollow.
In my experience, there are two distinct categories of urban experience and each has its own fan following. There is the planned development, grid sort of city that creates an ordered experience. And then there is the topsy turvy random chaos. I truly enjoy the latter. Informality turns me on and I can write ad infinitum about the benefits it brings. Its inherent mixed-use, mixed-income nature brings residents (and shoppers) choices, reduces cost of living, promoted a more interactive lifestyle. Planned areas in the Indian city are usually a disaster, where informality (and all the good stuff that goes with it) gets wiped out but short-sighted planning means that residents are denied the benefits of planned infrastructure as well!
Yes, I am romanticizing the informal, kitschy Indian development pattern and yes, it has its drawbacks (stubbornly, I will not discuss those here). Standing there in Sarojini Nagar last week and trying to shakily wield the camera of my new iphone, I was struck by how good the informality feels. What a pity it would be to lose this all, as we inevitably will if we go down the planned development path in the same manner as we have been the past several decades? Take a look!