To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A tale of two cities (or many)...

Was reading a review today of a book, 'Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi' by Rakshanda Jalil, which brings out how urbanisation is slowly pushing the hitory of the city into the background.  Got me thinking.  Say someone (say, someone from out of India) lands up at Delhi Airport, and commutes to either one of the business hubs (Connaught Place, Nehru Place, South Extension, et al) or, if here for a longer stay, goes to check into one of the tony hotels.  All s/he gets to see during the commute is a 'modern' Delhi (especially in the post-Commonwealth Games era), with all traces of the 'old' face of Delhi neatly tucked away behind facades.  Except, maybe, for some 'World Heritage' monuments like Humayun Tomb which are duly showcased.  But how many casual or business travellers (not counting tourists who may come here specifically to see the real face of the city) pass through the areas where such monuments are situated?  Perhaps not many.

But monuments are just one aspect of history and heritage; the other may be the living communities.  If one is moving across much of South Delhi, all one gets to see is tony residential areas or concrete edifices.  Nothing wrong in that, but is it essential to obliterate all traces of the 'old' feel of Delhi in order to join the 'league of world cities'.  Ironically, if one were to go to any of the big European cities of note, one could see that the history there is meshed into the modernity, and not swepts under the carpet apologetically.  Be it London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Rome or Venice, the history seems to co-exist peacefully with the modernity, the cobbled streets branching off from the metalled roads, the lively 'squares' providing an alternative to the glitzy malls, and the 'gates' standing tall amidst the traffic of whizzing cars (even in a more 'recently habitated' city like Frankfurt, you may find the old town hall area being the hub of Christmas fair).  Closer home in Asia, while historical sites like Angkor Thom (in Cambodia) and Ayuthya (in Thailand) are of course preserved separately, even modern Bangkok also flows side-by-side with peaceful Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Coming back to India, some cities like Hyderabad seem to have been able to preserve a large part of their heritage by meshing it in with the growing metropolis (though the modern 'Cyberabad' is more of a concrete jungle).  Even, surprisingly, in Mumbai, the business capital of India, one can see the 'two eras' co-exist to a large extent.  Moving from the airport, say, to Nariman Point, the business hub (admittedly a long commute), the scene alternates between modernity and the traditional.  One moment you could be zipping across the gleaming Sea Link bridge, the other moment passing through a cozy 'mohalla' (residential locality) of low slung houses with peaceful Parsi gentlemen (and women!) taking a stroll.  Even in the Apollo Bunder area (leading on to the famour Gateway of India), so close to Nariman Point, the 'galis' (side streets) could be full of Old Delhi style shops. 

Of course, I'm sure many Mumbai residents would say that taking such a romanticised view may be easier for a casual visitor, and only those living there day-to-day would be aware of the actual difficulties, and probably they'd prefer more modernisation like in Delhi!!  But at some level, it may all come down to appreciating what we have (including a passing era) and being thankful for it, and sometimes an 'outsider' may be better placed to point out such things to an 'insider' whose senses may've got enured to such things due to daily exposure.

And talking of Old Delhi, I still fondly remember how, when we were staying in the Delhi Cantonmment area, when someone came asking after our father, instead of saying that he had gone to Karol Bagh or Chandni Chowk, we would go "Dilli gaye hain" (he's gone to Delhi), indicating that the 'real' Delhi was centred around some older localities and the area outside was 'not really Delhi'!  What a contrast with the present day, when the extension of Delhi Metro (the underground mass transit) to Gurgaon seems to provide an avenue, after a long time, to people to actually go and visit 'Old Delhi' after ages!  Because that 'feel' of Delhi is not visible any more in the places we live in day-to-day.  And to think that Delhi may be an older, more historical city than many of the above cities in Europe or Asia!

This is not a lament against modernisation of cities.  Of course we need to keep on modernising the cities, to provide living spaces and better civic facilities for the exisitng residents as also the people flocking in all the time in search of better economic opportunities.  But alongwith that, it'd probably be good to take care that the 'new' city does not obliterate all traces of the old one.  Maintaining a few defined sites as national or international monuments may be one way, and being done commendably by the relevant bodies.  But meshing in the new with the old may be a slightly better way for us to live our modern life while being aware of our heritage.

Think about it.

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