I met with a schoolfriend last night after a decade. Nothing much had changed, yet we had all grown up. The things in common remained and time seemed to have passed by as if water through a sieve.
What stood out in our conversations was the power of nostalgia. Memories of the past, especially fond memories of places and people, hugely influence our lives in the present. I have seen with many people that their memories of their growing years continue to be the yardstick for how they judge the rest of their lives. For those of us who had reasonably happy childhoods, childhood memories define our tastes for food, music, books and even friends!
Growing up in Parel, Mumbai in the ’80s has left deep impressions on me. It taught me to value freedom, of which I got plenty in a city that was big, yet safe, with excellent public transport. Life was simple and very middle class and the highlights were small, wonderful things like crates of alphonso mangoes in summer, mutton on Sunday, bi-annual picnics to places like Elephanta caves and the Goregaon national park; and Chowpatty visits full of the sounds of the sea intermingled with the smells emitted my a mass of people. This was the time of the mill strikes and I remember vaguely catching the mood in the chawls (via the relatives of Manda, who was my constant companion and caretaker back then), of livelihoods lost and futures in jeopardy; a sense of struggle, sweat and hope intertwined. The buoyancy of Mumbai has remained with me as my strongest memory of the city.
Lucknow, which plays the other major role in my formative years, is like a delicate, beautiful but slowly withering flower. I associate it with the gentleness of its people, the hot, sleepy afternoons spent curling up with a favorite book in cool nooks and crannies of our sprawling home on the SGPGI campus, innocent friendships, the discovery of love and longing, growing up, riksha rides with friends through the city’s winding alleys. If Mumbai taugt me about freedom, Lucknow taught me about bonds and being bound, by convention, by social expectations, by limits that I was expected to respect because I was a girl.
My fondest memories of Lucknow are numerous visits to its many memorable historic buildings, and the fact that old world charm was imbued in its every pore. Even Lucknow’s newer developments exude a languid, laid back air; people never look rushed. Whenever I feel like life is threatening to overtake me, I think of Lucknow and can feel my heartbeat slow down, my breathe come in easier.
Nostalgia is, to me, a great antidote when life goes through its unbearable moments. Mumbai and Lucknow, experienced at two distinct stages of my growing years, have created a checkerboard of contrasting and intermingling memories that have guided my opinions and tastes.
One in seven people in the world are migrants. Yet, the common view of migrants is negative. Governments perceive as migrants to be those who are at the bottom of the income pyramid, do not pay taxes because they work in the informal economy, cause crime, etc. This is not only true of the opinion governments in the US, UK and continental Europe have about immigrants from East Europe and the Middle East. It is equally true of what the Delhi government thinks of migrants from Bihar and UP, though not with as much clarity perhaps!
I did some of my masters level research work on immigration and have always been fascinated by the sociology of immigration. The entire process of families relocating, sometimes out of choice and many times under duress, to an alien land, assimilating new culture even as they struggle to retain vestiges of their identity is a complex process that tells quite a tale about human behavior. Doing the research as an Asian Indian in the United States back in 2000-2002 (at a time when the suspicion of brown-skinned South Asians and Arabs hit a new high thanks to 9/11), I was always partial to the migrant community.
I do not believe migrants are bad news. Instead, I wonder where societies hope to get cheap labor from if migrants were to stop coming into urban centers of relative prosperity. Moreover, the hatred of migrants reflects the kind of intolerance in society that I am beginning to abhor and that is putting inside me a terrible fear that grows everyday! Migrants bring diversity, so essential to sustaining cities.
My views were supported by a host of experts at a UN-HABITAT and UNESCO International Seminar on ‘How could we enhance inclusiveness for international migrants in our cities: Urban policies and creative practices?’ held in Mexico City in November 2010 and the group has continued its work since. Some of the views held by researchers are worth a look:
1- Migrants have a creative potential that cannot be utilized because of their poor status in the city
2- Cities are dynamic by definition; new residents change the urban landscape and therefore, in a sense, sustain the dynamism
3- Migration tests our democratic values; in accepting migration, we are forced to open our eyes to a variety in ethnicity, religion, spoken languages, cultural traits, customs, etc.
I am, therefore, interested in a new way of evaluating cities, by their openness. The OPENCities Monitor is a new city benchmark developed by BAK Basel Economics on behalf of the British Council. A unique collaboration and learning tool to measure city openness, it is defined as “the capacity of a city to attract international populations and to enable them to contribute to the future success of the city”. Strategies for management, inclusion and integration form the core of their work with cities across the world.
It would certainly be a great idea for some Indian cities to introspect along these lines. Alas, urban consciousness and identity in India is still low; add to that poor or indifferent governance and we still have a long way to go!