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A city of walls & malls
For many of Delhi's residents who move about its streets in chauffeur-driven Toyotas and Mercedes Benzes, the view out of the tinted rear windows is a daily documentary of people and places. Viewed on the move, familiar buildings appear and disappear;places get crowded, crowds thin, trees are felled, saplings planted;an old woman selling garlic on the sidewalk is replaced by a barber. The cityscape exists only as momentary passage. Real life is confined to home, office, hotel or the club. The space in between is just a minor inconvenience. Its most visible aspect is its invisibility. You see, but you don't. I grew up in the Delhi of the 1960s. We lived in a bungalow spread low across a lawn. Its peeling, yellowing walls were perennially monsoon-stained and covered by incandescent bougainvillaea. In the shadows, a green wooden jaffrey of rose creepers concealed an Ambassador, also peeling and stained. On a summer afternoon, you could hear the quiet hiss of yellow grass, and at night, mosquito nets were hung above beds tucked with white sheets scented with motia flowers. It was the same everywhere, in every house, down the length of the street, through the whole neighbourhood. There was a sameness to things, a kind of colourless homogeneity, a background of such utter neutrality that it made you aware of other sensations : the scents and volumes of the shrubbery, the red crunch of bajri on driveways, the smell of khas, the blackness of a monsoon sky. When old men rubbed their soles on the dewy grass in the park, you knew it was winter.
But things changed. Delhi's transformation from a pastoral colonial community to a suburban American town has seen many physical changes. Changes that have once and for all transformed a pleasant rural backwater into a pungent, hostile and petrified backwater. A decaying scented Mughal Garden is now a pretend American amusement park. But backwater it remains. People's attitude to the city remains largely unaffected by the physical changes. Delhi residents are, as Mumbaikars always complain, "backward peasants", and the city "an overgrown noisy village".
While much of this name-calling is merely a bit of good-natured banter between competing towns, the truth of the accusation often sticks. Delhi's provincial attitude and absence of community often strikes the visitor as cold-hearted and mongrel. As if in the urge to establish a foothold, the Delhi resident's only interest is self-perpetuation. With a view to demarcate his social status and territory, his first and foremost urban act is land acquisition and building. So uneasy is the owner in a situation of shared living that his first instinct is always protectionist: electrified fences, high boundary walls, German shepherds, Haryanvi guards and threatening signs like 'private parking and tyres will be deflated'. A shot gun lies in the study drawer, just in case. From the outside, the city has the look of warring tribes of disgruntled people in private encampments.
If you stand on the upper floor of the Taj Hotel in Delhi and look northward, you will see the rough woolly green of the Lutyens city. Hiding beneath it are ministers bungalows like tigers invisible in Corbett Park. Among the numerous commercial high-rises that stick out of the shrubbery like gray, monsoon-stained concrete stubs are the more recent additions to the cityscape: the glass malls, stadiums and office towers. They stand out like pesky, underclad teenagers in a sedate old-age home, flaunting their newness in an exhibitionist sort of way. With a glint of steel and shine on reflective glass, they throw out seductive glances at a public too long used to brown, mudspattered walls, and so induce a new sense of pride and ownership. We are, as politicians remind their subjects regularly, as good as them. They point to the new Commonwealth Games structures and conclude with a practiced smugness, Delhi is after all a global city.
Delhi's shamelessly brazen quest to be considered on par with London, New York and Shanghai is not just an immodest hallucination, but has been effectively thwarted by administrative bungling and the mistaken belief that a city's international stature is created by a few glittering sights. In the shift from rooted colonial bungalow set firmly in a garden landscape to steel-and-glass building set equally firmly in a black-top parking lot, the city's agrarian roots are convulsing and choking. As if in the absence of an urban story-line, the city has adopted the light-hearted theme of the amusement park - a magical world of glitter, with the make-believe vision of belonging nowhere and everywhere, to London, Rio or New York. The despair of street life turns the building inwards into air-conditioned atriums fortified with the belief that the wretched and despairing of the city have been shut out with a cold calculated eye. On a summer afternoon, whole families escape boredom, lingering through skylit corridors in Bermudas, window-gazing, licking softy ice-creams. Time pass has become the critical measure of people with no public life or private interests.
Designed by foreign architects, using foreign materials and foreign design ideas, any architecture is acceptable. The Delhi airport, the refurbished railway station, the new stadiums and an array of barrel-roofed metro stations have cut an improbable swathe through the old Lutyens shrubbery. The push towards greater levels of grandeur, more daring structural forms, and yet more devious combinations of material and colour, leave the visitor staring in disbelief and wonder. And with a newfound smugness: Yes, we are after all better than animals. And even though our buildings change quickly, they are still the true measure of our great civilisation. If once architecture was a logical pattern of space and organisation, it now manifests in a kind of contradictory chaos that relies solely on technique. In malls and airports and office towers, it can no longer provide answers to the millions of its differently evolving users but is merely a quick route to changing potential realities. Its permanence is the permanence of the Spring and Summer Fashion Collections.
The disjointed nature of Delhi's cityscape is built into its unfortunate development as a plotted town. Each site demonstrating its own frills and thrills, surrounded by boundary walls, and forming no links with its neighbour or the street. In such a scheme, the aspects of individual expressions when seen collectively in the cityscape, produce only a monotonous incoherence, a tiring, jaded ugliness. Its most palpable influence is in the changing behaviour of its residents. Delhi's reputation of 'a simple village' has now jumped the graph of moderation. Its notable connection with violent crime, assault on women, road rage and armed robbery is not just a coincidence of an increasingly diverse population, but a serious disorder of space inequity and urban despair.
Obviously, a planning model which promotes such serious imbalance can produce little else. Unless there is a radical rethink of numbers, lifestyles and expectations, the facile reproduction of glistening glass structures will rapidly eat into the grim underbelly of the city, and leave the kind of social scars that do not have architectural or planning solutions. The amusement park may then become a cremation ground.
(The writer is an architect and author of Punjabi Baroque and Comic Century)
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