Volume I: The City in its Plenitude
Volume II: Making and Unmaking the City Politics, Culture, and Life Forms
Banaras, bangalore, bombay, calcutta, delhi, lucknow ... Cities all, sharing certain characteristics, and yet so unlike each other. Cities are like the people they hold-loved and unloved, likely to attract some and repel others. Each has a character of its own: some are laidback, others more vibrant; a few have witnessed and endured a lot, others appear to have had a relatively mundane existence.
The city has a long history in India-from the urban civilization of the Indus Valley in 2500 BCE to the megalopolis found in contemporary India. Taking the reader through an alluring maze of streets, lanes, memories, and much more, the writings in this volume allow her to gaze at the mosaic and imaginary of the city, look back at the city in colonial India, and reflect on the city and its streets as a work of architecture. Together with its companion volume, Making and Unmaking the City: Politics, Culture, and Life Forms, this collection pays tribute to the modern Indian city.
A bouquet of writings from across the genres of poetry, short stories, essays, and social commentaries, The Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City will be an interesting addition to every booklover's shelf
The city of modern India is a web of identities, interests, and institutions. Perhaps the city everywhere gives the impression of being unfinished, as people come and go, talking of this and that, but in India the sense of a place on the make is overwhelming. Our colonial cities- Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras- helped redefine our very understanding of Indian culture; the villagers trooping into the city have further reshaped it in their image.
For all the beauty a city may hold, its character flows more from its street life and the intricate patterning of social networks. Some people claim the city as their own, and live as if they own it; some disown the city, and yet others are disowned by it. Violence appears to be present at every corner, and yet the city is the nexus of art, culture, and conviviality. The city is always full of surprises, having multiple selves, varying by day and by night. Together with its companion volume, The City in its Plenitude, this anthology- a collection of writings from across the genres of poetry, short stories, essays, and social commentaries drawn from English as well as the rich literature in Indian languages- is a tribute to the modern Indian city.
Vinay Lal teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He grew up In Delhi, Tokyo, Jakarta and Washington DC. His previous books from OUP Include Political Hinduism (edited 2009). Fingerprinting Popular Culture: The Mythic and the Iconic in Indian Cinema (co-edited with Ashis Nandy 2006), and The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (2002).
The idea for this anthology, initially conceived as a single volume work, was first broached to me by Oxford University Press some 7-8 years ago, just around the time when I was contemplating the possibility of designing a seminar at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where I have been teaching since 1993, on the city in India since about 1800. After several decades of work on urbanization and the changing demography of India, the scholarship on the Indian city was beginning to exhibit a new turn. My introduction to this two-volume anthology points to some of the questions that were beginning to emerge from a new-found intellectual interest in the city that now seemed informed by strands of scholarship ranging from postmodernism and postcolonial theory to psychoanalysis and what was termed self-reflexive ethnography. Disciplines such as film studies, which barely existed in India, and still have comparatively few scholarly practitioners, had just come to the fore and the nexus of cinema and the city, which for India seemed to be captured by Bombay, at once presented itself as a subject of inquiry to cinema studies scholars, sociologists, historians, and cultural critics at large. The city had always been a site of glaring inequality, but the immense wealth that began to be generated as a consequence of the neo- liberalization policies that had been so readily embraced by the elites sharpened the divide between the haves and have-riots even further. Today's Mumbai is simultaneously the home, as the cliche goes, of what is doubtless the most expensive private residence in the world and most likely the world's largest 'slum' population as well. To that question which seemingly insurrectionary historians have been asking, 'to whom does the nation belong', has been added another query, 'to whom does the city belong?'
Numerous factors thus conspired to bring about this anthology. It is around this time, too, that publishers in India began to express an interest in Indian cities, even if the route taken was predictable. Over the last decade, Penguin, by way of illustration, has collected together contemporary writings on Indian cities in nearly ten volumes. The accent in each volume is not only on memoirs, travellers' narratives, essays, and public commentary; it is also on Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow, or whatever city the volume revolves around, rather than on those conceptual ideas or themes which make the city in modern India available to us from comparatively different perspectives. To all of this, however, I would add a personal touch as well. My own interest in the city stems, in part, from my experiences wandering around the world since my early childhood, and prolonged stays in many of the largest cities in the world, including Delhi, Tokyo, Jakarta, London, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Size alone does not make for a city, and, yet, it matters-as became all too apparent to me in the late 1970s, when I commenced my undergraduate studies at Johns Hopkins. I had never lived in a city as small as Baltimore; my instinct remained throughout to flee it, and it was the first winter vacation of my freshman year that took me to New York; and I have since always moved between large cities, dividing my time in recent years between Los Angeles and Delhi.
Both of these monstrously large urban clusters are, some would argue, just that-not cities. Many of those who have strong attachments to city life say that it is difficult to be at home in either Delhi or Los Angeles. Though we know the numerous ways in which one might feel at home, my peripatetic existence has perhaps made me receptive to the insights of the twelfth-century monk, Hugh of St. Victor: The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.' Among some city enthusiasts, it is common to speak of 'loved' and 'unloved' cities: if in India Bombay and Calcutta have always been placed in the former category, each staunchly defended by its denizens and fondly remembered by those who have had the misfortune of being displaced to another habitation, Delhi is often roundly abused as a city of babus and Jats, ruffians and Punjabis, junglee in its disposition and mercilessly hostile to women, a den of uncouth politicians and civil servants who, in emulation of the political regimes that over a millennium have governed from Delhi, have continued the practice of feeding the centre by milking dry the provinces. Many have wondered how what was in effect a large town, before partition brought refugees streaming into Delhi, has mushroomed into one of the world's largest metropolises, and some question, as I have suggested, whether Delhi can ever exude the feelings that apparently real cities generate. For quite different reasons, my other home, Los Angeles, is not reckoned to be a city-certainly not in the manner of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Arriving here nearly twenty years ago, it struck me that the city was built for automobiles; humans strutted along in due course, almost accidentally. For many serious readers of a certain political disposition, Mike Davis's City of Quartz (1990) remains the indispensable reading on Los Angeles; but it was the British architect Reynar Banham who offered, in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), what still remains the most scintillating characterization of Los Angeles, about which Banham said that it 'makes nonsense of history and breaks all the rules'. Banham did not count himself among those who regarded it as an 'unspeakable sprawling mess'; rather, it was perhaps the only place where the ocean, the desert, and the mountains met (and collided) with each other-and with the freeways.
Living in Delhi and Los Angeles, then, has kept alive for me the question of what makes for a city, though I could not say that I might have been guided by different considerations in choosing the selections for this anthology had my experience in recent years been shaped by prolonged stays in other cities. The lay of the land is delineated in the introduction, and for the present I have the pleasant task of acknowledging the obligations that I have incurred in the execution of this enterprise. There are far too many friends, acquaintances, scholars, writers, and artists, among them some whose work appears in the pages of this anthology, who have helped in one manner or the other. Many authors were gracious in allowing me to publish or reprint their pieces, and others responded to my call to offer fresh pieces or translations; and yet others prevailed upon their publishers to waive or reduce copyright fees. There are some friends who sent tips about readings, others who shared their photography or artwork. Many people have been generous with their enthusiasm and support, and I thank each and every one-with apologies to those who have inadvertently been left out: A.R. Venkatachalpathy, Aditya Nigam, Akos Oster, Aloke Roy Chowdhury, Amar Farooqui, Amaresh Misra, Amitav Ghosh, Amitava Kumar, Ananthamurthy, Anju Relan, Antara Dev Sen, Anubhav Nath, Ashis Nandy, Chandrakanta, Christopher Pinney, Clinton Seely, Diana L. Eck, Esha De, Garga Chatterjee, Gautam Bhatia, Girish Karnad, Jai Sen, James Manor, Jeremy Seabrook, Kathryn Hansen, Lina Fruzzetti, M.J. Akbar, M.Y. Ramana, Mangalesh Dabral, Manisha Chaudhary, Manoj Mitta, Martha Ann Selby, Mary Fox, Meena Menon, N. Manu Chakravarthy, Naveen Kishore, Neera Adarkar, Pritish Nandy, Priyanka Nandy, Ram Rahman, Ranjit Lal, Ratnakar Tripathy, Ruchir Joshi, Rukun Advani, Scarlett R. Huffman, Shankar Ramaswami, Shiv Visvanathan, Shivaprakash, Suketu Mehta, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Swarup Roy, Tanya Luhrmann, Thomas Blom Hansen, Timeri N. Murari, Urvashi Butalia, V. Sriram, Vicky Roy, Vivek Shanbhag, William Radice, and Ziauddin Sardar. I recall, with gratitude, wonderful visits, in the company of my friend Ashwani Kumar, with Gieve Patel and Sudhir Patwardhan. And, finally, my thanks to Nitasha Devasar (who did not stay long enough at Oxford University Press to see the anthology through publication) and Mitadru Basu, whose patience must have been sorely tested.
The city in India is everywhere. It hogs the limelight, dominates our imagination, and occupies centrespace in the narrative of a nation that, some believe, is once again corning into its own after a long interlude of colonial rule and economic stagnation. If Bollywood is the index to our dreams, then the oft-encountered observation that the village has almost entirely disappeared from the narrative of the popular Hindi film might portend something truly significant. Rural India is of little interest to middle class Indians, and generally finds its way into the pages of the English dailies as the source of unwelcome news-as the supposed site of the country's worst superstitions, repressive social customs, and norms of lifestyle that seem unimaginably distant, even if many in the city still have memories of the village. The hinterland is where farmers consume pesticide and commit suicide, or where something called the khap panchayat seems intent on defaming India's image by unaccountably obstructing, to the point of violent death, the young from choosing their life partners. The city dwellers barely recognize, and would be loathe to admit, that many of the worst social ills that afflict the country-the abortion of female foetuses and the phenomenon that goes by the name of bride-burning- are predominantly of urban origin: these are much too easily passed off as problems encountered among illiterate villagers. When the driver, cook, sweeping lady, 'the domestic help' in short, suddenly insists on returning home to the village, often on a promised trip of a week that is bound to turn into a stay of a month or longer, the middle class Indian is once again brought to the painful awareness of the village's simultaneous proximity to and distance from the city. That is the village, a gross reminder of everything that urban India is leaving behind in its quest to leapfrog decades, if not centuries, and become modern.
For the first time since 1921, the growth in India's urban population has outpaced the increase in the numbers in the rural countryside: judging from the Census of 2011, 91 million Indians became part of the country's urban population over the course of a decade and 90.6 million people were added to the rural population in that same period of time. 'India's urban population: one journalist writes, 'grew from 290 million in 2001 to 340 million in 2008 and is expected to reach 590 million by 2030. The country's urbanisation is probably one of the biggest migration stories in the history of civilisation. The momentum of history at this juncture, an expert on urbanization has written, favours 'the Great Migration' and the rise of 'Homo urbanis'. The evidence before the eyes is enough for those who, watching the colossal land grabbing that is sweeping India as nothing else, are inclined to a more radical reading than could possibly be furnished by any census. It is not only the metropolis that has been transformed in India, whether by gated communities, large apartment complexes, shopping malls, growing signs of inequality, or (as is true of Delhi) a metro, but also the very idea of the 'urban'. Commentators point to the enormous urban corridors that are cropping up throughout India: the idea of an uninterrupted urban belt between Pune and Mumbai, or between Delhi and Manesar, seems dwarfed by the notion of an urban corridor stretching from Mumbai to Delhi. It has become nearly a cliche to argue that what empires were to the sixteenth century, or the nation-state to the 200 years preceding our time, the city will be to the history of the twenty-first century.
If the city in India is emerging as the site of great ferment, certainly agitating the minds of the country's novelists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, and policy planners, it is well to recall that the city in India is as old as Indian civilization. This comes as a surprise to those unacquainted with Indian history, or who have otherwise been fed on the idea, which has only diminished in recent years as the city of the Indian novel in English, of Bollywood films, and of high-tech aspirations-a-captured, for example, by the rise of companies such as Infosys and Wipro, or the designation of a considerable segment of the city of Hyderabad as Cyberabad, 'Cyber City'-has come to the fore, that India has from the outset been a predominantly agricultural civilization. Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras would shed their humble origins as little villages to become the great cities of colonial India, but ironically it is under British colonial rule that India would become marked as a pre-eminently rural country. Who would think, for example, that Agra and even Fatehpur Sikri might each have been, if the English merchant Ralph Fitch who visited these cities is to be believed, 'much greater than London and very populous' in 1585, or that only two decades later, in the early years of the reign of Jahangir, by which time the culture of Persian was well established in Indian administration and intellectual life, Agra with about half a million people had grown to twice the size of Isfahan.
The city developed in India before the advent of the Mughals, indeed well before the advent of all the migrants, including the Aryans whose arrival in India is often thought to have given India some of its most characteristic features, who have helped populate the Indian landscape. Great cities have flourished along the banks of rivers, and Istanbul, Cairo, London, Paris, Benares, Bangkok, Budapest, and Moscow swiftly stream to mind. It may be said of Benares that it fills the word 'antiquity' with meaning, and Mark Twain, who visited the city in 1897, appears to have captured the sentiments of many when he wrote that 'Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.’ The colonial writer E.B. Havell, whose name is inextricably linked with the study of Hindu art and architecture, found it not an unreasonable conjecture 'that even before the Aryan tribes established themselves in the Ganges valley, Benares may have been a great centre of primitive sun-worship'. The Brahmins who had invested the city with 'special sanctity' were only following a 'tradition of those primeval days, borrowed, with so many of their rites and symbols, from their Turanian predecessors.
It is likely that had Mark Twain travelled to India three decades later, after the commencement of the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro that would lead to a radical change in the understanding of the Indian past, he would still have found nothing to dispute the view of Benares as the oldest continuously inhabited city in India. And, yet, as is commonly known, however prevalent the preposterous conceit about India as an essentially Aryan civilization, the known history of India commences with the Indus Valley people and their indigenous evolution from around the seventh millennium BCE. The Mature Harappan civilization in 2500 BCE was essentially urban in character, and the cities that developed around the Indus show, as the work of archaeologists and historians of ancient India unambiguously suggests, remarkable signs of civic design, town planning, and some form of an administrative system. Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were 'rigorously planned in regular rectangular blocks, each measuring about 400 by 200 yards, divided from one another by broad main streets, and containing methodically drained lanes and buildings'.9 Anyone familiar with modern Indian cities and towns, with their ramshackle structures and open sewers, or with the ease with which they flood during the monsoon season, might marvel at the resourcefulness of the ancients and wonder why we seemingly have not been able to improve greatly upon the sewage technology of the Indus Valley people. Jawaharlal Nehru, writing in the 1930s. had perhaps an analogous thought in mind when he wondered if ancient Pataliputra, with its palaces and urbanity, could be the forerunner of Patna. Nehru had the advantage, at least, of writing at a time when Bihar had staked a claim as one of the epicentres of the nationalist movement, though he would have witnessed in his lifetime much to suggest how what was once the city of empire had gradually diminished to become a provincial capital for low-country politicians.
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