I'm irritated about the fact that I'm such a sucker for trolls. I'm one of those persons stupid enough to bite flame war baits every single time, which is why I try to avoid internet troll hotspots. But this time, the irritation is both personal and academic. And it is this Outlook cover story
that triggered it all. The cover headline screams "Rude City". The lead article is titled "Mean Streets...All HQ, No IQ"
. The accompanying collection of sound bites is titled "Why Delhi Sucks"
Ok, I get it, sort of. Trashing a city allows you to be daringly politically incorrect while avoiding charges of being a bigot. "Why Delhi Sucks" just does not have the same ring or the same provocative potential of say, "Why Bengalis Suck". But strangely, despite the fact that I'm a nostalgic, parochial fool when it comes to Delhi, it is the shoddiness of the cover story per se that really gets to me. I'm a scholar of urban studies, and at earlier stage of my life as a PhD student, I had even considered writing a dissertation on 19th century Delhi. I still research urban development and urban spaces, and hence from that academic position, most of the writing on cities in the Indian media appalls me.
Despite the fact that the Indian media is overwhelmingly based in urban areas, and concentrates on news that occurs in urban areas, there is a severe lack of understanding of how cities grow and evolve, what impacts urban space, how urban political consensus is formed, how urban logisitics works, what is our vision for our cities, etc., etc. Instead, what we get are a few well-worn cliches - Delhi is rude, Bombay has traffic jams, Calcutta has terrible work culture and Bangalore's infrastructure is in shambles. And these cliches get repeated ad nauseaum in article after article till they lose whatever information value they might have originally possessed.
Ok, not to be a pessimistic whiner, there are exceptions. I thought the stories done by CNN-IBN
and earlier by Outlook on religious and ethnic discrimination of tenants in Bombay were very competent. Last Sunday a Hindustan Times
story on fast food restaurants in Indian metros mentioned that because Bombay and Delhi have different zoning laws, restaurants are allowed in residential areas in Bombay but not in Delhi. A-ha! Now that's something I didn't know of, so very nice indeed. But merely for the purposes of illustration, not to compare, something along the lines of stories in LA Times
and LA Weekly
in Los Angeles, and NY Times
and Village Voice
in New York would do wonders for awareness about our cities.
Addendum: Here's one more interesting journalist to be optimistic about. And ironically she writes for Outlook! These are a set of some very competent pieces
written by Chitvan Gill, where she brings a finer, more complex understanding to what ails the modern Indian metropolis. She's obviously someone who is well aware of urban debates, though this probably makes her writing a little less accessible to a lay reader. But she's definitely worth a read.
But back to the Outlook piece, because I'm itching to do a hatchet job. So the lead story begins with a quote by the Delhi media's favourite dial-a-quote academic, JNU sociologist Dipankar Gupta
. Now Dipankar Gupta is a fairly fine scholar, but not exceptionally so. One of the prime reasons why he pops up all over the place is because he's a bit of a hottie, and having a TV friendly face does help. So anyway, here's what he has to say:
Delhi’s grown from sleepy town to metropolis, incorporating a rural population of independent and aggressive small landholders over whom the urban influence is still very shallow.... Delhi is also the seat of power; everything here is a power play...negotiable and up for grabs. Even among the educated, who’ve been to the right schools, the first instinct is to break the law.
That does not make any sense whatsoever. Almost every Indian metropolis made a very recent transition from sleepy town to metropolis. Even Bombay, which made the transition earlier than most others. And Delhi has had an unbroken history of an indigenous urban culture for nearly 500 years now, ever since Shahjahan decided to abandon Agra for good and shift base to Shahjahanabad.
And do not miss the condescension to small landholders "over whom the urban influence is still very shallow". Without even defining what it means to be urban in the Indian context, we've already decided whom to exclude. Very fine academic insight indeed!
And here's Mukul Kesavan
Contemporary life in great cities is documented in close, loving, obsessive detail by writers and by filmmakers, its neighbourhoods are invested with magic, not just for those who live in them, but a wider world beyond. That has happened to London, to New York, to Mumbai, to Calcutta, but not to Delhi. We need to ask ourselves why
Thank you Dr. Kesavan, for letting me know that all the works of Bhisham Sahni
, Nirmal Verma
, Rajendra Yadav
and Krishna Sobti
amount to nothing. Poets like Gulzar
whose Delhi nostalgia oozes forth in songs like "Logon ke Ghar Mein Rehta Hoon" and "Kajra Re" amount to nothing. Filmmakers like Romesh Sharma
(New Delhi Times) and Pankaj Butalia
amount to nothing. The creative outpourings of Jamia Millia's MCRC
amounts to nothing. Oh right, you're not aware of any of them, because their medium of expression is Hindi/Hindustani, a language that sort of flies under the radar of Delhi's resident intelligentsia. And then over chais and samosas they can have their whinefest over why there is no creative documentation of the city, splendid!
The reason why I concentrate on the quotes by the academics is because the main article is just so poorly written that it cannot even be dignified with comment. Fudged facts, hyperbole, lack of even a shred of nuance, it is a pathetic reflection of what passes for cultural commentary in contemporary India. I look in vain for some insight, some causality, some background to what is being described, how did things come to such a pass, how to fix responsibility, etc. But the article flits from one shock value fragment highlighting Delhi's rudeness to another without pause, breathless with delight at finding yet another piece to fit into the convenient narrative.
Ultimately though, what strikes me is how pointless this sort of article is for any sort of constructive thought to emerge. So now that we've established that Delhi is indeed a nightmarish, impossibly rude, post-apocalyptic city, what do we do about this? Depopulate the place, raze it to the ground and start anew? There's historical precedent for that, the British did something similar after 1857, angered by the city's resistance to British forces. Or do we do require residents to take etiquette lessons and anger management courses? How do you encourage civic pride and responsibility, when the city's intelligentsia happily pours scorn over the rest of the unwashed masses, while presumably being above it all and very suave and urbane themselves?
How do we fix the city's apathy to high culture performances (never mind that an organization like SPICMACAY
began in Delhi, and Delhi has its own well established gharana
of Hindustani classical music). Indeed, try squeezing in to the Nizamuddin Dargah
during the Urs celebrations
, when qawwali performances mesmerise audiences for hours on end. One of the biggest and most consistent patrons of Indian classical arts are the Shri Ram family
, the most well-established business entities to emerge from Delhi. The yearly performance of the Ramayana at Ramlila Grounds in Delhi plays to packed audiences, who stay up all night to watch a story they've known all their lives. That's living, breathing, dynamic cultural expression, but perhaps it does not fit into what our chattering classes would like to think of as "culture".
What we are left with then, are a bunch of silly soundbites
, some by established intellectuals like Gerson da Cunha
, whose statement, though hyperbolic, is something I can still sort of nod in agreement with. Girish Kasaravalli
's statement is a personal impression I can certainly understand. Lutyen's Delhi can be a bit visually confounding, because there are rows and rows of white bungalows without any landmarks between them. The other commentators though, are not so cerebrally gifted. There's Shobhaa De
, flogging whatever's left of her 15 minutes of fame when she wrote bad sex in her books in pre-cyber savvy India. And Jogen Choudhury
, whatever his artistic merits, makes disgusting, rude comments about people from Punjab, UP and Haryana, which just goes to show how "cultured" he really is.
And now after reading this entire piece, it seems almost as if I was consumed by the cover story for days, which is not true. I wrote out the post in two sittings, and between them, I attended two amazing Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations. The first was in the church as usual, and after the boys bungled our post-midnight dinner reservation, we randomly got invited to someone's house party. This person turned out to be a fellow student from our university, a very warm and hospitable host who kept plying us with food and wine. We stayed on till nearly 4:00 a.m. talking and laughing, oblivious of the time.
And today we had a grand Easter picnic, with lots of friends and acquaintances, and the cutest old couple ever. When the weather got a little chilly the old man, ever attentive walked off to get a jacket, which he proceeded to lovingly wrap around the woman's shoulders. There it was, all my desires for the perfect relationship summed up in one gesture: companionship and regard in old age.
So as you can tell, I've already started losing interest in what I wrote, because ultimately the Outlook article is more comical than anything else and my attempts to seriously analyze it make me look like a Don Quixote charging at the windmills. But I typed all that nonsense up and my fingers hurt dammit, so read it if you must.