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The design of exile: Cities, public, rape


The vast, dead spaces of Delhi’s new enclaves and neighbouring urban sprawls like Gurgaon have no logic of the neighbourhood. What else can they spawn but savagery of the kind the city witnessed last month?

Friends! You drank some darkness and became visible - TOMAS TRANSTR?MER (Elegy)

An hour is what it took for a band of six males to show a woman, a paramedic, 'her place' in contemporary Delhi. Often, in our pathological public places, it takes a mere moment. This case is different because it compels us to think through the limits of brutality of the living;it compels us to confront the limits of our capacity to inflict violence. This nameless woman, who has now died, has battled to compel us to confront all of this and more, for the pain of her body and the brutality of an experience that she had survived for two weeks, serves a specular role: through it, we bear witness to ourselves, or so one hopes. But the night of December 16, 2012 also confronts us with the kind of cities we are building and the kind of places we want to inhabit.

Plenty is being written and spoken about 'what now needs to be done', as well as about the very anatomy of rape. Undoubtedly, we need a discussion also about the place of desire in the lives of men and women, as well as the meaning of protests in public life. These are all very valid concerns, and I am glad that we are beginning to think about them. Here, I only wish to discuss the design of our public spaces, as I try and think through the miasma of brutality and impunity, as I confront the terrible transformation of a school-bus in Delhi into a mobile site where dark fantasises of phenomenal violence have been enacted. Today we all (re)confront societies where women's bodies for long have been made the objects of a certain kind of politics, a politics if not of death then certainly of dehumanisation. Let us see how that which we have built may have something to contribute.

What I have in mind is the predicament of our urban spaces like Delhi and Gurgaon, their urban architectonics, the way they are built and designed, as well as the vision(s) that imagine them - in a sense, their very materiality. Sites of sustained, planned, civic intervention, these are also places that enable certain kinds of behaviors, that allow for certain kinds of dispositions, while effacing other more inclusive forms of experiences. You only need to experience Gurgaon - this fantasyland of steel, glass and concrete towers, or a chaotic example of what James C Scott has called 'authoritarian high-modernist urbanism' - to know what I am trying to get at. For what may be defined as the 'Gurgaon-style' of urbanism now has a very fertile logic of its own as it travels far and wide, proliferating into moffussils as well as the national capital of Delhi.

Travel through Gurgaon, as I do sometimes (Warning! Danger expected), explore the rhythms of its nocturnal or even diurnal life, and you will know the disturbing element that forms a part of its DNA. You will find veritable miles of uninhabited spaces, with two points traversable only by the automobile (you will, however, find with alarming frequency liquour shops all along these stretches). Is it any surprise that one sees the emergence of the automobile as the pathological site of mobile violence in such places? Sidewalks, shops, hawkers, pedestrians, habitations (not merely gated-communities ) and the vast minutiae of urban experience dissolve into nothingness, for these spaces have been designed to become what Marc Augê has, in a slightly different sense, called 'nonplaces' - spaces that are only to be merely passed-by or moved through, not lived in, 'lingered' or experienced in the anthropological sense of place-making through investments of shared meaning.

For Augê, all anthropological places must have identity, relations, and history embedded within them. This occurs through 1) temporal itineraries, that is, the 'marking' of time and history in a space through specific events, like collective festivals, feasts, commemorations, etc. ;2) the presence of material monuments that 'sacralise' that past, but do not do so with an inauthentic sense of display as by bureaucratic fiat;3) intersections which have been historically traced by people interacting with each other or assembling together for a purpose;and 4) centres that index power and rule. All of these together define spaces as zones of meaning. In this sense, Gurgaon may qualify as a space with particular forms of identity, relations and history, but of a pathological sort, given its architectonics that emphasises alienation, segregation, and monochromatic use (as also, the bureaucratic removal of those historically inhabiting such places and their transplantation with new settlers).

However, for me Gurgaon and the places modelled on it are also non-places because the peculiar and forced inscriptions of identity, relations and history transform them into a space without shared meaning-making. Instead, in privileging pain over pleasure;alienation over investment;solitude over civic interaction;bureaucratic intervention and brutal forms of transformation in land-use over the historical character of spaces;transience of experience over rootedness and memories of the past, these spaces put into play certain forms of social relations antithetical to a sense of shared, mutual and multiply-invested meaning-making. As Augê sums up the character of non-places of 'supermodernity' : "( They) create neither singular identity nor relations;only solitude, and similitude. There is no room there for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle... Everything proceeds as if space had been trapped by time, as if there were no history other than the last forty-eight hours of news. " For Augê, then, most non-places are the 'traveller's archetype' : motorways, airports, cash-dispensers, supermarkets, high-speed trains, etc.

I'm trying to develop a more extreme sense of non-places than Augê's 'supermodern' non-places, suggesting instead that places - veritable cities, towns or localities - born out of the 'Gurgaon model' are zones that completely efface (rather than confuse) the sense of the local or the potential for meaningmaking. Instead, they work by implanting a curiously sanitized and cognitively disorientating placelessness that is also barely intimate, in part, due to the peculiar way in which they are built. The urban vocabulary of Gurgaon-exemplified by 'sectors', zones, 'cities/townships' within the city, or names of places born in, say, Hollywood only contributes to a sense of this placelessness.

Is it so surprising, then, that the only marks that inscribe such non-places are the pathological inscriptions -inscriptions that are, more or less, visited upon the bodies of women? The making of productive space is always a collective enterprise, an imaginative exercise in meaningmaking that must be buttressed materially. Places that emerge as effected by the templates of the 'Gurgaon-style', however, efface that imagination before it even begins, for they allow only very particular kinds of pathological meaning-making, and consequently, imaginations and behaviours. This is because they allow for no sense of shared meaning that is at once social-one infused with a sense 'of identity, of relations and of history'.

These spaces contribute to the emergence of a social and civic void, which must be filled in one way or another. In our public places, one sees the filling of that void with a pathological sensibility and an injurious desire of domination and subjugation - often of women. For these are spaces that find meaning through the deployment of certain forms of masculine identity and relations that are enabled by a pathological emergence of place, an emergence facilitated by peculiar architectonics. In one sense, the automobile and the city in 21st century India share an indubitable bond of pathological symbiosis, each enabling the realization of the terrible element - one that is also highly individualised - that forms a part of the other. What is needed for us to think about is the kind of meanings we invest in our urban spaces - meanings born of experience that already have a certain predisposition and orientation (in this case, pathological violence) because of the material construction of the spaces in which they find genesis. The band of six that sought to show the woman 'her place' on that dark December night were, then, enacting a deadly ritual of meaningmaking that was enabled by the spaces they all occupy. These are pathological places of design that also spawn particular kinds of violence even as they erase the much-needed civic-life of recognition, respect and mutual pleasure.

I am reminded of Jane Jacobs' classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a study of cities from the ground-up rather than from the planner's totalizing vision top down. It is a study of common people, their experiences of spaces and meaning-making in places, often through the potency of mundane, quotidian activities like walking on sidewalks or conversing with shopkeepers in markets or experiencing the multifarious rhythms of neighbourhoods. It is an important work because it recounts the follies of particular kinds of designs of cities. As we increasingly aspire to the 'world-class', it would be worthwhile to remember Jacobs' lessons from the experience of those 'world-class ' cities. In emphasising visual orders of simplicity over the complexities of experience, cities like Gurgaon and modern Delhi also erase the vitality of civic life that may emerge out of complexly-shared public spaces. One aspect of that civic life is the mutually pleasurable experience of places, both for men and for women. In doing away with hawkers, shopkeepers, fellow travellers, even pedestrians, these urban spaces not only destroy the 'eyesand-ears' of publics on the ground, they also give rise, instead, to vast, dead spaces that have no logic of the neighbourhood, where people are not on 'sidewalk' terms but remain, instead, strangers and bearers of threat, and where only impunity may prevail. This is a grave loss, because the cause of simplicity, order and what Scott has called 'mono-functional' single use of urban spaces also fosters not a complex engagement with bodies but a pathological exercise of power and simplistic, violent domination on them.

The horrors of the experience of this woman and countless others on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere should also alert us, then, to the horror of the spaces we have come to occupy in contemporary times. The unsettling horror of this urban logic entails endless roads, not a soul in sight, no contact with others, no complexity in the use of space, visual order but psychic anxiety, the uncanny presence of cars whose insides very few of us would want to explore. As Jacobs herself put it, "The sum of each casual, public contact at a local level-most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone-is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighbourhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized. "

Our failure to address the brutal experience of women in contemporary urban cities is, in a fundamental sense, also our inability to address the brutal architectonics of our public spaces. This is an architectonics of sprawl, solitariness, inaccessibility as well as a deracinated civic culture in our great outdoors. In calling for police-patrol on all our streets - a demand that cannot possibly be met, even in a police-state - let us, instead, think about the experiential vacuum of our public spaces and public practices, a vacuum that cannot but be filled inadequately by the state and its apparatus.

(This is an extract from a larger essay that appeared on kafila. org on December 30, 2012. Rijul Kochhar is a Junior Research Fellow in Sociology, Delhi School of Economics.)

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