Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua
When we found a slice of our Friday free in Jakarta, we seized the chance to walk around Kota Tua, the old city. Located in the northern part of the city, generally considered the poorer part, Kota Tua had a run down but distinctly historic feel to it.
Most predominant here is the old town of Batavia built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early 17th century around what is called the Fatahillah Square. Over the next decades, the Dutch expanded the city to swallow the old Hindu settlement of Jayakarta (the origin of the modern city’s name). From what I could see, they followed the planning style of the cities back home in The Netherlands and built a town square, public buildings, canals and tree-lined streets.
Standing in that town square, I was instantly transported to the many historic city centers I have visited in The Netherlands – Haarlem in particular, because I am more familiar with it. The clean rectangular geometry and scale of the town square and the arrangement of buildings around it were very similar, but while inner city areas in Holland have been carefully preserved even as modern activities fill them, erstwhile Batavia felt neglected and even desolate, with a smattering of touristy activities.
Disappointed, we moved on quickly, briefly glimpsing the interiors of Cafe Batavia that offered a peek into what colonial life might have been and then moving out from the square to explore a bit more of the neighborhood. The Kota Tua area has had its ups and downs through history, especially because of posher developments in the southern areas of the city even within the colonial period. Independent Indonesia was not quick to recognize the historic value of this neighborhood, giving it an official heritage status only in 1972. Revitalization plans did start up in 2004 and have received particular momentum in 2014 under Jokowi’s governorship of Jakarta, when a public-private partnership called ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR- Indonesian’s LOVE abbreviations) was set up. A section of Kota Tua was cordoned off for restoration work under this project, but to my eyes the scope of the intervention seemed very small.
Greg and I walked along the neglected and dirty canal (Kali Besar), ruing the deterioration of the buildings on either side of it, structures that must have been rather magnificent at one time. Even a building like Toko Merah that have been through successive iterations of renovation and has a rich history stood locked and empty.
In the lanes behind the mainstreet, we found small factories and godowns, many hawkers and warungs, a quietly bustling working class neighborhood. Walking further westward, we crossed underneath the railway tracks, sensing we were closer to the sea while we were surrounded by dense kampungs on either side. My radar for colonial architecture led me to a set of relatively well maintained structures that had once been part of the VOC shipyard. The shipyard had been shut in 1809, but recently this small group of buildings seem to have been revitalized, housing a cafe, restaurant and a music school (which had intelligently played with the historic acronym to name itself ‘Voice of Indonesia’!). Stepping inside, I felt a distinct vibe. The building felt like a grand old dame, with polished woodwork and manicured landscaping combined with a sleepy old world charm. We sat down and grabbed a beer, taking it all in and gathering our breath before the stressful dash to the airport in Jakarta’s legendary messed up traffic!
We did make it to our plane in time and we’re in Jogjakarta now. Look out for upcoming posts on Borubudur and the special hipster vibe of Jogja!
Ajjee, family rockstar: Nearly 100 and indomitable still!
We’ve never seen her sit still. We grew up eating home made sheviyo (fine noodles cooked in multiple ways) and paapad (typical to Indian food, hard to explain but is spicy, made of pulses and eaten as an accompaniment with meals) made by her. We helped her make vaatiyo (baatis or wicker sticks for lamps) from raw cotton. And we swaddled babies and ourselves in godadiyo (quilts) hand stitched by her. Ajjee, my father’s mother, my beautiful grandmother, has been a constant in the lives of all her children and grandchildren and many many more of us.
Made usually of leftover pieces of cloth, Ajjee builds intricate patterns and designs, often a peacock or a cat for kids or a pattern of geometric flowers for older people or even a simple quilt made out of an old sari put together by a complex and even running stitch. Her talent and industry has been the stuff of legends. It wasn’t just family, she would make these precious quilts for anyone who came in to appreciate, ask for help and even those who made a simple, honest request (it’s getting tough for her now to be equally productive, but not for want of trying!).
This morning, the family proudly read her name mentioned in an interview in The Hindu with Patrick J Finn, who has just finished a book on quilt-making in India and I simply had to write this tribute to the most inspirational person in our family. Our very own rockstar- Hirabai Naik! Ajjee for some, Maee Ajjee for others, Ayee for many, a symbol of grit and determination, a beacon of kindness and love and hope. A person who rises above us despite all her human failings.
Always built small, Ajjee has become frailer with time but her spirit is indomitable. Today, even as she complains of feeling fatigue, her mind is still working on the latest designs. Beyond quilting, she is a master of re-use, making hundred of cloth shopping bags and gifting them to everyone. She doesn’t actively advocate their use, simply because she belongs to the generation that never made the switch to the plastic shopping bag! She just assumes everyone still carries their own cloth bags with them and I think it is remarkable that within her lifetime we have moved so far away from cloth bags and are now firmly marching back towards them, aided by supermarkets that charge us extra for carry bags in a bid to encourage some environmental sensitivity.
In small but fantastic examples like this, I increasingly see reasons for Indians to look back at the small things we are losing- skills, recipes, habits and ideas that make for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle that puts community and family first, but is also is eager to learn from others. To me, that (not religion, not ritual, not caste or creed, nor regional identity) is the essence of an Indian culture and I always look at Ajjee with amazement for all these values she taught me, without ever preaching but entirely by example!
Father’s Day creations from my enthusiastic children
There is nothing more than an early morning creative outburst. To create this surprise for Rahul papa, behind his back while he was at the gym, we slit apart old used A4 size envelopes, glued them together to create this long strip and then the kids just unleashed their creative juices on them. Dadi (their grandmum) offered them discarded kajal (kohl sticks), lipsticks etc and we used acrylic paints, crayons, toothbrushes, etc.
Aadyaa chose to recreate the mountains we recently holidayed in, while Udai drew a fleet of spacecrafts! Mummy and mausi chipped in here and there. We cut out the words from old discarded brochures. The entire process took us a couple of hours.
When Rahul walked in sometime later, the kids were shouting out ‘Happy Fathers Day’ atop their voices. The house rang with yells and laughter, smiles aplenty and lots of cheer. We breakfasted on a dish of yesterday’s chapati reinvented with garlic, onion and tomato seasoning and another experimental smoothie made with curd, milk, watermelon, beet root, red bell pepper,carrot, apricot and cucumber. A morning of creative reuse and family fun, with good old Furby joining in! Feeling really satisfied!
Of Form, Texture, Scale: Exploring Nekchand’s Rock Garden, Chandigarh
I last visited the Rock Garden in Chandigarh in December 1991 or thereabouts. I was born in the city and I was revisiting Chandigarh after my early years there for the very first time. I vaguely remember wandering around the sculptures and there are a few really nice pictures of Daddy, Mummy and me posing in front of the exhibits.
I was, therefore, quite excited to revisit the Rock Garden with my children and see how they react. Nekchand is a legend in the city and beyond. Even as the city was being planned and built by an over-enthusiastic newly-Independent nation along the lines suggested by the world famous architect Le Corbusier, Nekchand was piecing together works of art from bits and pieces he collected from the ruins of the villages that were relocated to create the city. Nekchand was of humble origins and a government servant. He worked secretly at night to create this garden and when it was discovered, illegally built on government land, it took a miracle and considerable civil society action to conserve this wonderland and create it into a public park. It is now a valuable resource for the city, attracting hundred of tourists every day.
Saturday 30th March, the day we visited, was no different and we joined the teeming crowds that ambled through its serpentine pathways, admired its fountains and streams, and were intrigued by the strange shapes and forms crafted from waste material. The park is now a model for environmental conservation, recycling all the water on its premises and even running the waterfalls from recycles water alone.
A new area has been added now and here, the scale changed dramatically. Everything is huge, larger than life. As an architect, I found the effect interesting in some parts but quite ineffective in others. Scale is not always a good thing! Another thing that irked me was the diesel-operated toy train in the park, going against its very philosophy of closeness with nature.
Udai and Aadyaa both enjoyed the Rock Garden, climbing all over the place, touching things. The water bodies attract many colourful insects and Udai was most fascinated with the red and blue dragonflies, and complained repeatedly about the fact that I was not carrying my zoom lens! Aadyaa loves climbing. This place was a dream come true for her and we had to keep stopping her from trying to scale the walls….All in all, a highly recommended outing for families. I only wish they had a better way of presenting the garden’s history and significance, a more interactive exhibit that could involve kids could drive home an important message about the importance of re-use and creativity.
Burst of creativity, a gift full of love for Ramukaka- Aug 1, 2012
Last night, the celebrations continued back in Goa even as I settled back into the office-school routine with the kids in Gurgaon. There was a big party in honor of Ramukaka, who turns 75 next month. He shares a birthday with my dad, August 31st, and that makes him more special than he already is! The party was held a month in advance thanks to all the VIPs from all over the worlds being in town for Arnav’s big day.
Anyway, a few weeks before leaving for Goa, I was racking my brains for a gift idea. What could I possibly give someone who had no great fascination for things material and who pretty much has what he really needs and uses? I decided I would do something with an emotional twist. A gift of love, playing on nostalgia is what would be suitable, I thought.
This is what I came up with.
1- I found an old box that once held Makaibari green tea
2- I painted it in bright acrylic colors and here, Udai was my willing assistant
3- I culled through photo albums for pics that would bring a smile, a tear…tug at the heart
4- I enhanced these and got them printed
5- Then I created, using waste material from old wedding cards, square coaster-style cardboard squares, using the pictures and also painting on messages, phrases…strung together in a sort of poetic style
It read something like this:
You have given us so much
happy times together
strength in times of need
a home in your heart
you are wonderful
we are blessed
6- I got the squares laminated
7- With a needle and nylon thread, I stitched them all together and used a beautiful string of pearls from someone’s super fancy wedding invite to tie it in together, as a finishing touch!
Here’s what it looks like. Needless to say, Ramukaka loved it. It now sits on his computer table. I hope they look at it again and again and are reminded of our love and respect.
Street vendors add to the landscape of urban memories, identity- July 16, 2012
Street vendors, or hawkers as we also call them, are such an integral part of our lives in Indian cities. I just finished reading a book by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, a delicious little novella named ‘Between Clay and Dust’. The story revolves around a pahalwan and a tawaif who share a beautiful platonic relationship that eventually surpasses all others in their lives, even blood ties. Set immediately post Partition, I found it fascinating that Gohar Jan’s source of news about the city was mostly through peddlars of wares and services like the bangle seller, the trinket lady, etc.
I remember the iconic Farooq Sheikh, Deepti Naval starrer ‘Chashme Baddoor’ from my childhood. Naval sold Chamko detergent powder door-to-door. I associated the film with a few visits to Delhi during my childhood when residential areas in South Delhi had a certain quiet buzz about them and vendors of many daily necessities, including fruits and vegetables, peddled their wares from door to door on a rudimentary wooden pushcart (redi). Coming from Mumbai, which had already become a big city where you went to the commodity and it rarely came to you, all this seemed fascinating.
From the two years I spent as an infant, I have very vague memories of the guys who walked through the streets with the bear (bhaloo) and the monkeys (madari with his bandars) to entertain us kids. We discussed this at lunch on Sunday and between mum, Rahul and me, we added more variety to that list- the knife sharpening guy, the utensil repairing guy, in an earlier time there were people who would come and coat brass vessels with aluminum so they could be used for cooking purposes.
It pains me to see this breed disappear. Not just because they imbued a certain flavor to our cities, but because it signals the arrival of a use-and-throw culture in which we have no place for repair re-use. I feel this is criminal. While the world is waking up to the benefits if re-use, we Indians who had a natural talent for this are giving away the advantage by blindly adopting a consumerist culture that exhibits no conscience at all. Also, the trend signifies our paranoia of letting unknown persons enter our homes. With gated living becoming popular, the breed will disappear entirely.
And yet, street vendors continue to thrive in certain situations because of their flexibility in adapting to demand and the meager resources they need. And nowhere is this more evident than in the omnipresence of street food! What would our public places be without the bhuttawala (guy selling corn cobs roasted right in front of you on hot coals), the chaat wala, the aloo bonda wala, the lassi stalls, the chana kulcha and chowmein stalls, the burger wala, the momo-guy (a relatively new addition)..the list is endless! Outside the posh Galleria market in Gurgaon, where the well heeled shop and splurge, the anda bread guy does brisk business. Outside Gurgaon’s call centers, the paratha stalls mint money and provide excellent service even in the middle of the night, with piping hot tea or cold drinks, whichever you prefer! Outside every glass and steel office building, there are clusters of food vendors, selling hot and freshly cooked meals. This is the real India, never mind the people inside the glass boxes pecking on their grilled sandwiches and pasta, or alternatively gingerly opening a home cooked tiffin while yearning for takeaway Chinese!
It alarms me that municipalities like Delhi and Mumbai have taken a hostile stance towards street vendors. There are plenty of ways they can ensure hygiene without taking these people off the streets. A couple of evocative articles by Prof. Sharit Bhowmik from Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, tell a compelling tale of the relationship hawkers have to the city’s economy and make a case for nurturing street vending and providing it a conducive ecosystem.
Evictions and cleansing the streets reek of narrow-mindedness, complete apathy for the urban poor who make a living out of as well as subsist on buying from street vendors as well as a lack of sense of place, to which street vendors contribute in an immeasurable but significant manner. To me, it is critical that professionals and citizens alike talk about the kind of urbanism we aspire to. Without this sort of debate, we will continue to lose our identity to idiotic regulations, till we are left with a bland existence and even the memories of a fuller, finer life are erased.