Understanding urban Delhi

Print edition : May 15, 2015


Delhi's skyline. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The book examines the city as a series of overlapping meanings rather than as an identifiable urban essence.

THE capital region of modern India, Delhi, hides more than it reveals. Beneath the city lie the ruins of seven different cities built during different periods of history. Every time Delhi was destroyed, it rose once again in the hands of a different regime. If a city is judged by the power it holds, then Delhi is the most powerful. The administrative capital of the British, the epicentre of the Indian national movement, the capital of several dynasties in the medieval period, and the heart of political influences today —Delhi is a city every Indian looks up to and wants to know more about but is scared to come too close to. The city is a heady cocktail of cultural influences.

As Delhi welcomed people from different regions with open arms and colonised many surrounding areas in its modernist pursuit to expand, it witnessed a spatial transformation that no other city has perhaps experienced. The contesting and coexistent cultures have led to the creation of a unique space, a city as hybrid as it can get. The historical cosmopolitanism that is so intrinsic to Delhi is often overshadowed by the grandeur of Lutyens’ Delhi. Traditions such as pigeon-feeding, kite-flying and community festivals are often overlooked by the glitzy club districts glowing in neon signs. The slums are made invisible by huge hoardings bearing corporate advertisements. The city’s importance is measured more in terms of the number of global games it hosts rather than its traditional festivals.

It is this cocktail of cultures and resultant imaginations that Sanjay Srivastava has tried to capture in his well-researched book Entangled Urbanism: Slum, Gated Community, and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon. The book is a scholarly addition to the way we look at city spaces. Although other writers have discussed Delhi and explored its history, culture and political formations, Srivastava has tried to look at Delhi in a much more organic way as a lived space constituting people’s imaginations, contesting outlooks and spatial transformations. Thus, his field is larger.

He has explored the National Capital Region (NCR), which encompasses urban areas such as Gurgaon of the neighbouring State of Haryana and Noida and Ghaziabad of Uttar Pradesh. These so-called wings of Delhi, which are slowly becoming middle-class neighbourhoods, are places to which the imagination of Delhi has expanded. Srivastava explores the development of the NCR and measures its cost.

As a faculty member in the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi, Srivastava has looked at the sociology and economics of Delhi as a lived experience. This is evident from the way he approaches the book. Entangled Urbanism could have been written only by a Delhiite because it is not just about an inorganic city but about Delhi’s life.

Srivastava questions the intellectual fantasies of city life, which often see the modernity-traditional confluence in binaries. While Orientalists saw a clear distinction between a Western city and a developing city in the East as a binary between “creative, dynamic, modern places” as opposed to “static” Oriental cities, critiques have often dismissed the binary by arguing that that Eastern cities have to be looked at from a postcolonial perspective and that cities that were colonies have to take into account their history in order to understand their evolution better. Srivastava sees both these assumptions as entrenching the binaries and leading to an either-or situation. He says postcoloniality of a city is a lived experience and the idea of the development of a city has to see the merit of both these assumptions instead of looking into the fallacies of these arguments.

The NCR presents ample opportunities to Srivastava to weigh his arguments in actual terms. He explores recent modern influences of a city and examines how these have attained legitimacy. For instance, he examines how residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) and gated communities have attained legitimacy and removed the erstwhile unorganised forms of collective living. He examines how class and caste differentials lead to ghettoes of different types in the process of “development”.

He writes: “What makes a city? Rather than a totality, a city is best understood through focussing upon different but interconnected spaces and processes that make for both dynamism and instability in human lives.” The book ranges across a number of sites in order to explore their connections and how two contesting interests in the city merge and come out.

“How do the pleasures of the gated residential enclave encompass the pain of the demolished slum locality? How do localised rituals of suburban life incorporate the symbolic procedures of the nation-state? What processes link contemporary manifestations of consumerism, the middle classes, and the urban poor? What kind of a city is produced by the relationship between ‘illegal’ settlements such as slums, the traffic in fake documents that seek to stave off slum-demolitions and representatives of the ‘legal’ city such as RWAs? What can the increasing visibility of RWAs in the quotidian politics of the city tell us about new notions of citizenship and the emergent relationships between middle classes, the state and the market? And, what is shared between new forms of urban religiosity, the desire for a ‘global’ city and new consumer cultures?” Through these key themes, the book examines the city as a series of overlapping meanings rather than as an identifiable urban essence.

In doing so, he shows how corporate-driven modernity and tradition coexist and determine city life and how unauthorised villages interact with the gated middle-class communities. Srivastava measures the impact of planned development on the lives of those people who had to sell their land and resources only to be excluded from such development.

It is for this reason that Srivastava says the book is an exploration of the ties that bind the city, even as they appear to produce self-contained realms such as gated communities which organise themselves as RWAs. Entangled Urbanism is a reminder of the fact that the pursuit of building world-class cities in a neoliberal world often deprives the marginalised of their primary rights and legitimises their persecuted reality by giving them a sense of citizenship. The book does not try to find a solution but focusses on objectively including all micro-tendencies of a city’s development into a holistic theory.

Srivastava has spent a considerable amount of time delving into archival records, government reports and proposals, and newspaper clippings. He tries to see the spatial transformation first-hand by visiting many places across the NCR and interviewing different sections of people. The book is the best repository of uncollected information on the NCR. It is a must read for its sheer analysis of micro-happenings in the city.

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