How We Think About Cities

Back when twitter was outraging over Dalhi boys and the Madrasan, Shefaly asked me how I, as a Dalhi boy living in Madras, felt about the whole thing. I told her that explaining my feelings would need a blogpost, not tweets, and that I was too busy to write a blogpost, but I’d write one as soon as I had free time. Shefaly said she’d hold me to that.

Unfortunately, this is not that blogpost. But it will hopefully make it easier to understand what I’m going on about when I do write the blogpost Shefaly did ask for.

The thing is, when we (and by ‘we’, I am generalising recklessly about people-like-us Indians) think about or talk about our cities, we do so in different ways. I’ve counted four such ways. I’m not suggesting that these four are the only ways to think about cities, or that a person thinks about a particular city in only one of these ways – just that anything any Indian person says about a city is likely to fall in one of these categories. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s go ahead.

The four ways we think about cities are:

  1. Cynical: in general, this involves a dismissal of a city, either by its own residents (whether recent or long-time), or people from other places. When Krish Ashok makes fun of amit_123s, he spoofs the cynical view of Chennai as being hot and muggy (admittedly this is true), possessing no food options other than curd rice (this is false), having practically no decent public spaces to booze (this is true), and lacking all redeeming features (this is false). Chennai is of course not the only city to attract a cynical view. I am frequently cynical about Calcutta, dismissing it as a vast slum. My father looks upon Mumbai as an overpopulated sewer. My brother hates Bangalore for reasons I am unable to fathom, and Delhi of course gets insane amounts of bad press from all corners for being full of road rage (which I cannot contest), people going ‘Tu jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai?’ (Um… yes, but it has been getting better in the past few years as more migrants come in and make Delhi a gentler place) and violence against women (which is true, but it is also possible that it’s not significantly different from other places in India in actual violence – the others don’t report it as much).
    Cynicism about cities doesn’t only have to be about people from one city slagging of another. It can be about all cities being worthless – see this Caravan article about how much disdain the Kannada movie article has for Bangalore, and perhaps urban life in general. I can’t find the links right now, but a few years ago I was reading about how in the United States there’s a distrust for big cities by small-towners and rural dwellers – those effete city-dwellers aren’t real Americans! And of course, the NREGA itself has a philosophical underpinning that it’s a bad idea for villagers to be in the city – they should be given employment in their home villages instead. That’s actually an idea going back to Mohandas Gandhi, and which has quite possibly screwed India over for sixty years.
  2. Romantic: this is right at the other end of the spectrum from the cynical. While the cynic looks at only the terrible parts of the city while ignoring all the good bits, the romantic sees only the good bits, and never mentions the bad. This is fairly prevalent.
    The most romantic view we’ve ever had of a city probably lay in the phrase ‘the Spirit of Mumbai,’ before it became impossible to say that without a sneer, as it got associated with passively accepting whatever shit got dealt out to Mumbai. But other Indian cities have had their romantic propaganda as well – look at the title song of Dilli-6, whose lyrics keep talking about the big hearts of people in Delhi, claim that all the profanity slung about the city is actually filled with love, and that there is nothing in Delhi but love. Chandru gets fairly romantic about Chennai at times. And of course there’s perpetual Delhi romantic Mayank Austen Soofi (who on occasion manages to be cynical about present-day Delhi while remaining romantic about past-Delhi).
  3. Sanctimonious: The evil twin of romanticism. The sanctimonious view doesn’t so much claim that a city is good and has no bad, as that the city is better than everywhere else (often in defiance of actual facts). This includes people from Metrass accusing every other place in India of having no morality or respect from tradition, people from Kolkata of claiming that only they have kalchar, and Mumbai people claiming that nowhere else in India is happening (seriously, Mumbai guys: fuck off). Oh, and about a month ago, Anantha expressing schadenfreude that while Chennai might have to suffer TASMAC-administered virtual prohibition, at least it didn’t have as stupid a name as Kolkatta/ Poschim Bongo (which is undeniable).  I’ve seen Delhi cynicism and Delhi romanticism, but never Delhi sanctimony. But this needn’t necessarily be because Delhi doesn’t possess that vice, just that it’s so self-absorbed that it can’t quite grok the point of comparing itself to other places.
  4. Realist: And finally, there’s the realist view, which is able to acknowledge both the good parts and the bad parts of a city. This, I fear, is tremendously unpopular.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that we as human beings respond far better to stories and narratives than to data, and it’s much easier to make a story out of a romantic or cynical view than out of actual data. Every year sees ‘Best Cities to Live in’ lists being released by somebody or the other, in which newspapers only cover the final rankings, not the break down of scores and parameters.
Another thing which probably makes it difficult for realist views of our cities to spread is that so few people have a stake in our cities, thanks to our wonky system of government which kicks most of city governance up to the state government (link via Supriya from ages ago). When there’s so little chance that demanding a specific change or improvement in a city will ever have a result, there’s even littler reason for a city resident to keep track of specific improvements that could be made. Easier and more convenient to stick to a grand narrative – whether romantic, cynical, or sanctimonious.
This is what makes it difficult to have a proper conversation about cities in India – the ones you were born in (or with), the ones you’ve adopted (or who adopt you), or the ones you like to visit. At some point, you’re going to challenge someone’s worldview – romantic or cynical or sanctimonious – and then the conversation is going to go off into arguing about that worldview, not about real life. This is of course a common problem when talking about many things, but it seems to be particularly bad when we talk about our cities.
That said, since Shefaly is holding me to it, I will try to have that conversation about cities soon. Portions of my cynicism and romanticism will creep into that as well, but I will aim to be as realistic as possible. Unfortunately, you will have to wait for the next time I have a relatively free working day.

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