I travelled through three states in South India this past week, and had the opportunity of seeing city turn to town or village, not to mention the vague half-breeds in between, in which paddy fields neighbour stand-alone glass and concrete monstrosities (often painted the most embarrassing shades of lime green or fuchsia. I didn’t know they made wall paint in those colours, and I’m convinced they should stop). I’ve driven through these same areas scores of times over the years, and it pains me to see the haphazard mess that’s replacing what used to be little towns or beautiful countryside. In Cochin, I saw a multi-storey mall under construction, boasting floors the size of six football fields; in Bangalore, our quiet residential areas are now a mishmash of office buildings, stores and billboards, with an unfortunate house/ apartment wedged in between. It is well known that Paris takes deliberate measures to protect its famous skyline, and Bhutan safeguards indigenous architecture with building regulations, while we either herald gigantic neon McDonalds signs as indications of progress or pay no attention to such uglification at all. I know such supposedly unimportant considerations are often overlooked in the race to achieve economic maturity, but really, the slapdash expansion of our cityscapes seems a visual manifestation of our slapdash economic growth – evidence of the sacrifice of our society, our culture, the welfare of a large section of our people, our lifestyles and our health as an offering to some unseen capitalist god. As India ushers in modernity, are we willing to accept such unsightliness in our streets for some added comfort in our homes?
Ours is not the first country to forsake all for commerce, and the example of the Parisian skyline brings to mind issues that even this most aesthetically-conscious society encountered. I’m thinking of the hilarious 1958 film Mon Oncle (My Uncle) that ridicules the post-war obsession with gadgetry, mechanical efficiency and consumerism. The film’s hapless hero, Monsieur Hulot, eccentrically struggles against a social order based on material acquisition and conspicuous display that forsakes individuality and, let’s face it, taste (case in point: digital photo frames. Can we really consider these decorative??) I’m also thinking of Adam Thorpe’s No Telling, a novel about twelve-year-old Gilles Gobain growing up in the suburb of Bagneux in the 1960s (written of French-speaking people but related in English), which uses the revolt of 1968 against Western capitalism and Stalinist authoritarianism as its backdrop – Gilles’ older sister is a left-wing revolutionary, while his uncle and step-father, Alain, a dedicated bourgeoisie aspirant, is the primary distributor of industrial vacuum cleaners in the area.
[Musing on Alain’s plan to install a sliding glass window between the kitchen and sitting room so that the family may watch TV during mealtime, Gilles recognises an attempt to compensate for an unsatisfactory family situation with material ‘comforts’:
‘We would all be silent, chewing slowly and silently as we watched the evening’s entertainment or news.
I saw it as if I was the television: the three of us looking like aquarium fish, gawping silently behind the glass, bubbles coming out of our mouths as we slowly chewed and swallowed and chewed.’]
It is, alongside, a story of a confused boy growing up in an ideologically-split society, the context of creeping American hegemony supporting a delicate coming-of-age tale. Sounds to me like every Bangalorean childhood since the 1980s (at least).
This is not an issue of old versus new, traditional versus progressive. I’m speaking of a need to hold on to individuality. We are a nation of corner shops and chai stalls, cobblers you know by name and tailors we speak of in the possessive (“I’ll take you to my tailor. He did my wedding blouse and my daughter’s.”). Let’s not let go of that so easily.
[A little more on the book because I realise it’s not very widely written about and I think it’s wonderful: It portrays the intricacies of adolescence brilliantly – The Daily Telegraph calls it ‘meticulously observed.’ This also means you might find it a little slow, but it only serves to reinforce the seeming perpetuity of a lonely adolescence and the wide-eyed curiosity of childhood, as Gilles struggles to comprehend the complexities of life with minimal embarrassment. Its humour is of a pretty off-beat sensibility. There are more than a few family skeletons to unearth, but most of the action takes place at a level of consciousness above that of the narrator’s, so it’s gripping, but in a subtle manner.]