It is a strange feeling indeed when you spend the morning reading Murakami, alone in a hotel room in a country far far away. Fortunately for me, the sun was shining bright, revealing Stockholm’s warmer tone and texture. I tried to picture the same scenes in the steely barely-there Nordic winter light. And I knew what I was seeing wasn’t quite right, but guesswork about something I have yet to experience. A die-hard optimist and travel lover, I imbued a romanticism to that wintry scene that locals may find naive, going by the enthusiasm with which folks claimed gardens and public spaces across the city, soaking in the sun in a state of trance!
I have hardly ever felt the kind of loneliness the narrator talks of in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. When I have, it has sent me into a deep, dark place. I am always surrounded by people and with many I interact with I form real, and at times deep, connections. When I travel, I carry some people with me, inside. My family and select friends, I imagine sometimes, ‘see’ the world through me. In my head, I speak to them. So-and-so would have loved this, someone else would have found this funny, the kids would have never left this place, etc etc. Yet, I revel in being alone. I feel free to not have to make adjustments for anyone else, to be able to take off on a whim, or to simply not leave the hotel room to write! I see things differently when I travel alone, I think, I heal and rest. I re-calibrate. And when I return home, I hope, I connect even deeper.
Last Saturday, walking around Stockholm rejuvenated me after a long flight. I didn’t need food, or rest. The textures, the light and shadow, the colours and the architecture was fuel enough. I wandered aimlessly with camera in hand. I didn’t know where I was going and I found myself walking past the St Jacob’s Kyrka, the Royal Gardens, cross the water past the Palace. I walked until I ended up in Riddarholmen, a small island that houses a medieval church and many beautiful palaces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A veritable feast of architectural styles- Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque with hints of Baroque. The altitude here allows for many vistas that look onto the water, offering spectacular view of Stockholm. I sat for a while next to an old lady on a bench. She wrote in her diary and I stared out onto the water, shared moments without exchanging a glance or acknowledging of each other, but yet a hint of awareness of sharing the space with another.
Eventually I was sucked into the ‘tourist trap’ (I am borrowing a friend’s phrase here) of Gamla Stan. The crowds struck and the usual paraphernalia of inner city tourism in Europe: endless souvenir shops, quaint ‘historic’ eateries with international brands sneaked in to make folks comfy (go figure!), boutiques and art galleries and cafes spilling into the streets in an unabashed celebration of summer’s unique consumerism. Amidst the hyperactivity, I found solace in beautiful doors, unexpected silences in side streets and ‘secret’ courtyards.
One of the interesting contradictions in my life is how little I research my travel before I set off, despite being a researcher by profession. This trip to Indonesia, which Greg and I had planned as a recce visit to explore collaborations and case sites for a new project, was one of those in which I literally landed up at the airport with a lets-see-how-this-goes attitude. Part of this was related to how much we had riding on this trip work-wise, the nature of the visit was exploratory. We didn’t even have a fixed itinerary- except for the knowing when we arrived in and departed from Jakarta, we were literally making this up as we went along!
Far from being apprehensive, I was enormously excited about this trip. It felt like a true adventure, which would entail seeing a bunch of places I had never imagined going to and a couple that I didn’t even know the existence of! There were a few comforts though. One, Greg speaks Bahasa Indonesia and had spent enough time there to act as guide and interpreter (he did a fantastic job of that!). And I had been to Bali and Surabaya earlier this year (yes, this is my 3rd trip in a span of 3 months!), gained an initial understanding of Indonesian people and had a few reliable contacts there.
My expectations about how much I would be able to “see” on this trip were low from a touristic perspective and because I really enjoy the urban wandering as much, if not more than straight-jacketed tourism experiences, this wasn’t much of a concern.
And so I land up seeing four Indonesian cities and some of its countryside in eleven days. First: Jakarta, the sprawling capital and primary city, where the country’s economic and political power concentrates, where young people dream of living and working, where life is buzzing and traffic is painful. Second: Yogyakarya, fondly called Jogja, city of universities and students, a special region where the Sultan still rules, once laid back and pretty, now seeing new wealth. Third: Kupang, out there in eastern Indonesia, capital of the province of Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT), a sleepy city with hilly outcrops and stunning beaches. Surrounding by hinterland that is arid and poor. Fourth: Semarang, a large industrial port city in Central Java, a city that celebrates its colonial history even as the part-rural counties around it pulsate with the excitement of promised new industrial investments.
We do this by buying tickets hours before we fly out, sometimes even deciding on the go! We use Whatsapp shamelessly to contact NGOs, academics and government officials wherever we go. We end up working long stretched in cafes, using their free Wi-Fi connections to take Skype calls, write emails, consult collaborators and download data, all for the price of a few cups of coffee! We try budget hotels and budget-budget hotels and laugh at the Spartan decor and not-really-there breakfasts. We meet people who go out of the way to help us (some of them were meeting us for the first time!), giving us their time, inviting us into their homes on weekends, finding us contacts and even accompanying us to difficult meetings. Everything works out and we accomplish nearly everything we had hoped we would, with minimal pre-planning, mostly by being able to take reasonably quick decisions, by keeping our wits around us and by listening carefully to what our Indonesian contacts had to say to us. In my opinion, the Indonesian cultural traits of respect for outsiders, gentleness of manner and inordinate helpfulness were our biggest assets on our trip. And since we weren’t overthinking the trip before we started, I think we got a lot of the ‘pleasant surprise’ factor out of it than if we had had everything perfectly lined up!
Watch out for more posts about our experiences in beautiful Indonesia!
Already published: Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua
A World-Map folded into several layers: Travelogue of the Point I reached by Rikhia Pal #TheCityasMuse Runners-Up
Rikhia Pal is a Gurgaon-based homemaker who describes herself as “an ex tax consultant, part time traveller, freelance painter, occasional singer and future writer”
Comment: Rikhia’s construction of the city as a journey across the world is skillfully done and full of little details. A pleasurable read.
A World-Map folded into several layers- Travelogue of the Point I reached
The airport looked like a runway through the ocean when I peeped down the windows of my flight. It almost crashed over the voluptuous, chocolate skinned, bikini-clad women on the beach, as it prepared to land.
Near the airport exit, I could see several tourist information centers. Women, with small eyes, thin lips and orchids in their hair, greeted me with folding hands and warm smiles.
After gathering information, I headed towards the nearby Grand Bazar. Since I was hungry, I ate breakfast- a Vada Pao and a plate of Missal Pao. Full and happy, I loitered around some more in the market and bought a small replica of the Eiffel Tower as a souvenir for my folks back home. The mall was huge and soon I lost my way.
I came out of one of the gates and found myself on the side of the river Nile. Its blue waters dotted with numerous black gondolas rowed by handsome men. I got into one myself. The man started singing a song called “Amore Mio” as we passed by numerous monuments, palaces and ordinary homes. The streets, corners and houses were decorated by hanging paper-cut dragons, tigers and red ball shaped lanterns. I was amused to see a red telephone booth being guarded by red-coated black-hatted men standing like statues. As the river approached a bay, I got down just round the corner. The house in front had long glass windows lit with red lights. There were beautiful women standing in front of those windows waving at people.
As I came in front of the bay, I was awed by the stately opera house built on a piece of land protruding into the bay. It looked like a series of shells stacked together. It was backed by a red colored suspension bridge called the Golden Gate Harbor Bridge.
Soon after, I entered the state museum shaped like a pyramid. I learnt that the city was built when the mythical Lion-Mermaid drank the oceans and spilled the water over the lost city of Machhu Pichhu, which was earlier destroyed by Mount Vesuvius, a conical mountain sprinkled with snow on top. The present Tsar of the city, was of the lineage formed when the 5th Tsar married a local Geisha. They were married in the Royal Peculier, St. Basil’s Cathedral, a grand red structure with a cluster of decorated onion domes. 10,000 Cherry Blossom trees were planted to mark the occasion.
It was almost evening and I felt hungry. I went to a restaurant inside a park on the star shaped Liberty Island in the bay. A huge statue of a woman holding a book and a torch was at the center of the park. There were celebrations everywhere as the people were heralding the new year of the Tiger.
After finishing my dinner, I headed back to the airport. I bid adieu to the ember-red city of Brasilia. Rabindra Sangeet played on my ipod as I flew home to Calcutta.
To everyone who has followed #TheCityasMuse contest, to all who made the effort to send their work in, to all aspiring writers and artists and most of all, to all who care for cities, the moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally round the corner. But before we reveal the results, a little bit about how the contest unraveled…..
The judges met on Tuesday night to discuss the entries. Passion, clarity, writing style and expression were the chief criterion. All in all, we got 27 entries from a very diverse set of people, located in India and abroad. Our youngest competitor was 12 years old. We had people from all walks of life join in – students, architects, home-makers, artists, writers, IT professionals, business consultants, among others.
Most entries zeroed in on a specific city, either experienced as a traveler or as a resident. Many of the entries were deeply nostalgic and successful in capturing a flavour of the city they chose to be inspired by. A fair share of the entries built upon an imaginary city, either entirely utopian or built out of the fragments of several cities the author knows and admires. Every once in a while, a piece stood out that couldn’t be ignored. Many pieces had a seed of a fantastic idea in them, but were not able to execute it well enough.
All in all, I gather from our judges that they had a fun time reading entries, debating their value and finally picking out 10 that were the worthiest. My deepest gratitude to all of them for the time, effort and passion they put into the contest. Their own diverse backgrounds added considerable value, of course- Devapriya is a published author, Amritha an architect, Greg a policy researcher and Kiran an entrepreneur and writing coach (see bios here). I will get back to all participants with a few lines of feedback about their piece, information I gleaned from sitting into the final round of selections we did Tuesday night.
Hold your breath folks…. #TheCityasMuse results are out tomorrow- Friday, the 16th of October!
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
We’ve got in some interesting entries for #TheCityasMuse contest.
I’m excited that all sort of fun people are writing in…from teenage schoolchildren to professionals, from travel enthusiasts to foodies, from bloggers to those making their first attempts at writing. The entries are pouring out straight from their hearts and that’s exactly what the ethos of #TheCityasMuse is!
What? You haven’t sent in your entry yet? What’re you waiting for?
Just take half an hour out from your super busy schedule. Transport yourself to that place you love, admire, yearn for, detest, want desperately to improve….. And then write or draw your feelings and experiences! Mail it in to email@example.com
It’s really very simple!
Look forward to seeing your entry in my mailbox soon 🙂
This morning, a single woman friend put up a very witty post on her Facebook page that described her failed attempts to rent out a workspace. She used humour as her weapon to deal with the blatant patriarchy that she faced from landlords and even landladies, including constant requests to meet the husband, complete refusal to deal with her single status and even allegations on her character! Years ago, I remember fighting with a bunch of old men on behalf of a friend who was being asked to leave our housing society because her boyfriend misbehaved with her! Again, being single was conveniently associated with bad character and none of those chivalrous gentlemen (even within the limits of their self-conceived patriarchal roles) thought to come to the rescue of this damsel in distress who was being harassed by a man. Oh, the injustice of it!
This is one of many types of housing segregation that is commonly experienced in Indian cities. Caste and religion are routinely used to turn away renters. Many scholars have put a spotlight on the increase in housing segregation. Gazala Jamil’s work on the spatial segregation of Muslims in Delhi and Vithayathil and Singh’s research on caste-based segregation in India’s seven largest metros are part of a growing body of literature that show us that even as we look at the city as the panacea for the old social evils, these identities are viciously reconstructed the urban context.
In their piece in The Wire, Kumar and Sen argue that housing segregation is a direct result of poor housing policy combined with ingrained prejudices. “The reason why legislative intervention, as opposed to judicial, is necessary to resolve the matter of housing discrimination is because the problem should not be exclusively framed in the narrow context of individual acts of discrimination. Ghettos in cities do not rise spontaneously or accidentally. Ghettos are created by bad housing policy coupled with prejudice,” they write. They suggest legislation that makes it illegal for landlords or housing societies to be able to discriminate in such a way.
While legislation that comes out strongly against discrimination would be a good thing, I am not at all sure if it will end housing segregation in the short term. Something larger than the ability to discriminate without facing consequences is driving segregation in our cities. The expression of identity through the clustering of groups by language, caste, food preferences, religious practices and cultural norms is a way for people to find refuge and solace in the confusing and chaotic city, a context that is complex and disordered, where there is no tangible link between what you do and what you get. In this urban spider web where most citizens see themselves as a fly, the ‘other’ assumes a terrible importance. Hence, the single woman in a society that sees itself as bound by the values of family is a threat to the group’s collective identity. The Muslim family that may or may not attend the Diwali and Janmashtami celebrations or contribute to the Mata ka bhandara is viewed with suspicion. And so on and so forth.
How fragile is our sense of identity that we can see the people who are different from us as such potent threats? Clearly, we can find no easy way to unite and fight poor governance, or find concrete ways to improve our collective lives. It’s much easier to identify the ‘other’ and weed them out of our midst, to lull ourselves into the false complacency of uniformity and sameness. What is under threat is not simply access to housing, it is the very idea of pluralism that is essential to cities that is under question. If Indian cities are merely collections of villages (and do not let the shiny glass, Metro rail networks and CCTV cameras fool you), then the dream of urbanized development (smart cities included) is a false one. At the very least, we must all realize that.
Gentrification causes homelessness? Simplistically linking problems does not translate to good housing policy
by Mukta Naik
Scholars, bloggers and journalists in the Global North, especially in the UK and the US, have drawn clear links between the process of gentrification and the increase in homelessness since the early 2000s. With the problem of homelessness growing steadily—some 60,000 people in New York sleep in shelters each night as per the Coalition for the Homeless, about 6,500 slept on London’s streets in 2013-24, 70% more than the number in 2010 as per local agencies—quite a bit of passionate soul searching has taken place over its causes. It has seemed logical to pin the blame on the gentrification of erstwhile poor, debilitated areas of the city. Global capital and the greed of investors, sometimes from far overseas, and even the idea of the global city have been named the villains. In short, global capital (the rich) has pushed out local capital (the middle class and the…
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A friend wrote the post I’ve wanted to write forever. Cities never fail to amaze and surprise, and Delhi is special that way…
Twenty years ago when I lived in Delhi I drove past Meherchand Market without giving it a second look as it was never a destination. It was simply a row of small shops, tailors and mechanics which catered to Lodi Colony residents. Lodi Colony was a run down low-income neighbourhood which housed those working in the nearby posh central Delhi locales of Khan Market, Jorbagh and Golflinks. I was surprised to find Meherchand Market now being widely reported as Delhi’s upcoming retail spaces catering to the high fashion industry and elite. Delhi’s “developing” urban fabric, its ever expanding metro network, numerous flyovers (being built supposedly to ease the traffic), the revamped airport have transformed the city, but all these did not surprise me half as much as what I saw the other day while driving past Meherchand Market. The humble shopping street which had held out for so long has gentrified into a posh upmarket street. Being located close to Khan Market, which attract Asia’s highest…
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A week of exciting talks at CPR!
By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR
With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.
Inclusion in public sector housing
On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of…
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