Am super proud to be published (read my article here) in a magazine I have admired for the last couple of years. The Next City formerly focused on the US now carried in reportage from a number of cities across the world. A dedicated section called the Informal City Dialogues , supported by the Rockefeller Foundation specially focuses on urban issues in developing countries and holds a wealth of insights that I have often used in my work in low-income housing.
The editors at Next City worked off a piece I had originally written as a book chapter. The book idea was to develop caricature essays based on the various people I have interacted with during my fieldwork on rental housing in Gurgaon. The first one was about Billu, the landlord. Interviewing him was one of the most interesting experiences I have had. We had very different notion of body language and personal comfort zones, for instance. And yet, his passion for life and his work (he manages about 80 rental rooms for migrants) and his extremely practical approach to complex issues like identity, politics and change made me wonder about whether I am given to over-analyzing situations!
The Next City piece has been edited to give it adequate context. Would be curious to get your feedback. I still nurture the dream of writing that book, you see!
I can be a literary snob, turning up at my nose at people who read Sidney Sheldon or Danielle Steele. But I have my bestseller favorites as well. Jeffrey Archer certainly is one. A master story teller, he never fails to create stories that keep you hooked. I finished reading ‘Only Time Will Tell’, the first book of the Clifton Chronicles on Diwali day. Amid all the madness of Diwali, I found myself stealing time to take in a few pages. What is it that makes some books so addictive and engrossing?
Archer’s formula appears, to me, to play on our close identification with certain values that we consider admirable, that evoke warmth within us. Values and traits like moral uprightness, bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, humility and I could go on and on, conform to our sense of ‘right’ or ‘good’. Archer creates a central character who is disadvantaged in some way (in this case, Harry Clifton is a fatherless, poor child). Then he builds another set of characters who play key roles in helping the hero overcome his difficulties (in this book, he uses the character of Harry’s mother to deliver a strong commentary on motherhood, female strength and the ability for the poorest and weakest to dream big). The negative character in the story is also human, in the sense that his scheming and meanness are all born out of certain explainable circumstances and of course, that famous English concept of ‘weak character’.
Add to this compelling set of people who push all our right emotional buttons, Archer sets a strong historical and social context. The 2nd World War is about to begin while the English are still reeling from the people they lost in the first. The play off between the upper class and working class backgrounds of the people in the book adds layers to the story (friends, lovers, colleagues from the two opposite ends of the social spectrum) and people everywhere in the world can relate to the conflicts this sort of situation creates.
And finally, Archer absolutely excels in using simple English, sticking to short sentence constructions but never boring the reader. In fact, brevity is something I really admire in him for we know too many authors who ramble on and on! Cannot wait to get my hands on the 2nd book.
The world has changed immensely since we went through the motions of being ‘educated’. not just in terms of technology and the amount of information available, but in the perspective of educationists now viewing the student as an active participant, one influential in the process of education rather than as a mere recipient of knowledge.
Today’s youth, in my perception with the interactions that I have had through teaching in an architecture college (SPA) and through interactions with schoolchildren at various stages, are fitted with bright and super-agile minds. However, there is a wide variety in background which impacts their ability to perform in an academic environment.
One one hand, many students may come to the education system with handicaps. In architecture college, for instance, kids from rural or peri-urban backgrounds often have a hard time understanding references to lifestyles and expectations that teachers assume are obvious and simple to comprehend. Language of instruction is another common challenge for non-English speakers.
On the other hand, most kids love rising to a challenge and lose motivation when the system does not challenge them. So you have a split situation, in which some students are struggling to come to a reasonable level, while many others are barely making an effort, complacent that the minimum effort will be enough! The only way the conventional education system has to tackle this is to dumb stuff down. Keep expectations at an average, make things simple and obvious, make process overarchingly important so as to almost relegate content to the backburner.
I do see the benefits of giving kids a free hand though. Almost every one of my friends who has taught design studio has expressed that their students were motivated when they were allowed to be innovative and could take some decisions about their work for themselves. Even so-called average students produced exciting results when they were pressurized, encouraged and cajoled to better themselves. The trick appears in offering a framework for problem solving and allowing the solutions to evolve rather than a top-down approach of asking kids to pick from a menu of pre-made existing solutions.
For the field of architecture and urban design, this ability to weave in elements of research, design, planning and policy into a cohesive and workable solution is critical. By continuing to dumb down architectural education, we run the risk of creating yet another generation of incapable professionals who will end up becoming slaves of unworkable bureaucratic visions or worse, of the rampant profiteering schemes of vested interests. If we aren’t investing in the professionals of the future by offering them an academic environment fraught with challenges, where risk is possible and even welcome, we should numb ourselves and be prepared for the possibile demise of the increasingly urban economy that India is becoming.
It was a coincidence that I drove past Connaught Place today, after having read HT’s campaign in this morning’s paper to revive the city centre, which is lying in dug up shambles at this time. It’s a pity indeed, for CP really has the capability to be that one public space that the entire NCR relates to and makes its own. It has the open spaces, the scale, the period architecture, the central greens, a variety of retail and entertainment options, and food. And it also has the connectivity.
To me, CP is tinged with nostalgia and i will always love it. Today, it was washed in the special light of a sunny-cloudy day. The colours were brighter than usual and I was struck by the wonderful informality of street life in India, once again as I drove past. Here are some clicks from my iphone, taken from inside a moving car. Fun!