Vantage points in the city nowadays offer only a sad sight — concrete eating into the green, writes Anees Salim
I had a strange way of sizing up cities. I did it from rooftops. I grew up in a small town, and I grew up dreaming about it developing into a big city with skyscrapers lining the streets. I used to go up to the terrace of my home occasionally to see how fast the town was upgrading itself to the next level. Back then, towns grew at a snail’s pace and every time I cared to check, the rooftop had the same view to offer, of a street lined with squat buildings, trees standing in neat rows and thin traffic flowing silently past a small roundabout. What a depressing sight!
One of the myths of my childhood was that cities held the key to happiness and adventure. I believed that behind every door in the city there lived a happy family, and I wasted no opportunity to visit the nearest city, which was about an hour or so away by train.
Every time I visited my relatives in the city, whom I revered and envied for the geographical advantage they enjoyed, I had a new reason to hate my town. Every visit made me love the urban space more, and I found it hard to go back to my small town, and it unaccountably pained me to watch the city racing away from train windows.
So, let down by the crawling pace of my sleepy little town, I grew up dreaming of escaping to cities that never slept. When I was old and bold enough to leave home, I travelled from one city of my dreams to another. But I found them all completely nightmarish. From rooftops, each city appeared to be an overcrowded ferry, swaying violently and threatening to sink. If my hometown disappointed me with its smallness, these big cities left me feeling choked, and I ran right back to my town and surrendered to its slow pace and quiet ways. Years later, my profession of advertising forced me to settle in Kochi, the most vibrant city in Kerala, a city that was begging to be recognised as metropolitan.
In advertising, one of the first things you learn about Kerala is that there is no urban-rural segregation. They call it one big metropolis. Where one city ends, the next begins. Every brochure and advertisement that tries to sell industrial parks to investors sings praises of this particular virtue.
Every now and then, I hear my friends complain about this city. They are people who don’t live in it any more. They live in more happening places in India or in different corners of the world, thanks to their thriving professions. But they have roots here and they are genuinely concerned about the city they grew up in. One among them is one of India’s best known book editors. Born and brought up mostly in this port city, she has been living in Delhi long enough to think wistfully of Kochi and its lush green settings. The last time we met, she complained about how fast the greenery was being erased from this city and its suburbs. On every visit, she sees less of green, more of concrete.
Another person who perpetually complains about the city is a former colleague who comes down from the US every second year for a month-long holiday. On his last vacation, he mocked the city for the assortment of languages it spoke: Bengali, Hindi, Nepali, Oriya, Manipuri and Malayalam. He said the man at the carwash spoke broken Hindi, the shop assistant at the supermarket spoke Bengali and broken Malayalam, the lady at the laundry spoke Tamil and nothing else, and the waiters at his favourite Chinese restaurant took orders in broken English with a strong Nepali accent. True, Kochi speaks many languages, but that is only expected from the biggest city in a state with a huge migrant population that is growing by the day. It is estimated that more than 25 lakh domestic migrant labourers are working in Kerala and their remittances to their home states amount to Rs 2,00,000 crore.
I have many more friends who are bent on adding to the list of Kochi’s shortcomings, or genuinely concerned about the pace of its growth. But when was the last time I looked at this city the way I used to look at others? I hadn’t had a bird’s eye-view of my city in years. I had been driving around it, walking its streets, going to its malls, cursing its sluggish traffic and swearing at the public administration. But I had long taken it for granted.
A few months ago, I went up to the terrace of the 14-floor building I live in to have a look at the city. The city had lost its overtone of green. With tower cranes, clusters of tall buildings and large areas of land cleared for construction, it had come to resemble those teeming places I had run away from. And it was not stopping there, I could see the city slowly reaching out to the distant line of greenery.
I have the same kind of attachment to my hometown my friends have for the city they grew up in, and when the city gets on my nerves, I drive down the “seamless metropolis” called Kerala to the town I once hated for being so small and insignificant. But things have changed there too. It is no longer small or simple. I complain to my childhood friends about the quick urbanisation of the town much the same way my friends complain about the changes happening in the city. It is a cycle.
On my last visit, I decided to look at the town the way I had not in what could be two decades or more. I climbed two flights of stairs to my childhood vantage point and faced the town. I could no longer see the town square or the traffic circle. The squat buildings had grown tall while I had been away. What a depressing sight!
Salim, based in Kochi, is the author of ‘Vanity Bag’ Series concluded