The Big, Black Iron Gates

Once they invited an entire community in. Now, they only serve to secure ivory towers.

Written by Richa Jha | Updated: February 5, 2017 3:43:42 pm

black iron gate Big iron gates painted in black remain open all day, all night. (Illustration: Manali Ghosh)

In the last 10 years of having lived in city highrises, my reply to an innocuous “Where do you live?” swings wildly between an “ugly monstrosity of a gated community” to a “beautiful condo”. As such, I am talking about the same. But we’ll come to that in a bit.

I did not grow up at such addresses. The hospital campuses in small towns have houses with big lawns and courtyards. There are lots of trees, especially jamun and ashok, and neat sprawls of kyaaris, where families passionately plant flowers and pets run around without a leash. They also have unmistakably big iron gates at the entrance that remain open all day, all night. At least the ones I grew up in, did.

Big iron gates painted in black that remained open all day, all night. Big iron gates painted in black and carrying my father’s name plate (never my mother’s, but that’ll go into another essay) that remained open all day, all night.

Patients walked in and out; maali mamayyas screamed at the gates left ajar, as the nuisance of chasing the idle cow sauntering in invariably fell on them; children barged in to look for the ball that they were sure had landed in our compound; uncles and aunties dropped in unannounced; cars with unfamiliar number plates reversed inside before heading off in different directions; and strangers ambled in asking for water, directions, chandas, or just generally, to rest under the massive banyan tree. The big iron gates carrying my father’s name plate always remained open in that sort of way.

And so, the first time that I stepped inside a swanky highrise to meet a school friend, I was in for a rude shock. The big black iron gates refused to let my car through, making me wait while the security guards called her up to make sure I was not there to cause her any physical or emotional harm. That done, I had to negotiate two more rounds of big black gates — locked again and inviting the same scrutiny — before I was finally allowed to walk up to her flat. Thirty years ago, she and I used to jump across the boundary wall to land into each other’s courtyards. I felt annoyed, angry and humiliated. Never, I remember resolving, ever, would I live in a place like this.

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Just that, never say never.

You happen to look for a place close to your children’s school or workplace and you land at one of these. As you walk through the manicured lawns and artificial landscaping designed to seduce you, your kids already seem to have struck five — and counting — friendships. While you stand there wondering if these glinting marble-floored lobbies and characterless homogeneous brick-in-the-wall flats are your thing, the property dealer hard-sells the round-the-clock electricity, plumbing, elevator maintenance team and the swimming pool — madam, just for you and the gym, sir, you’ll never need to look beyond to stay fit, and the squash court, baby, just for you, and this karate room, baba, three different teachers come here, and dadi ji, this yoga room is packed with Maa-jis like you every morning. You casually ask a few residents about their experience of living in these and they can’t stop raving about the convenience, the community feel, the celebrations, the works.

It’s all a trap, something keeps screaming in your head, but before you know it, you’re packing up to move into one of these.

It is when you are standing in the lobby, unloading your cartons, that you notice there are residents-only elevators, where maids, drivers and dogs are not allowed. And, by and by, you notice that the daily work force gets patted down before exiting the premises — their bags checked, and, as an added safety measure, you are called to double check if your domestic help isn’t running away with an old pair of shoes that you gave away for her child. When you step out for jogs, you discover the support staff being shooed away from those very manicured lawns that charmed you on your first visit. Oh, and the cleaners who mop and shine those sparkling lobbies are not allowed to walk through them once their job is done.

Annoyance, anger and humiliation, anyone? There’s more. It makes me cringe that through my very act of being a part of the setup that is designed to create social barriers, I am perpetuating them. A couple of places I’ve lived in didn’t even have drinking water available for the guards until the residents organised it for them. Sure, there’ll always be voices that try to “fix” some of the offensives, but these minor patchworks can barely hide a fraction of the deep, irreversible damage we are heaping on our social fabric.

There is no worse, but more accurate, representative microcosm of the increasingly fractured world we are creating. What’s more damning is that we are letting our children internalise these segregations. In the name of self-contained, ultra-safe residential havens, we are giving them indelible lessons in discrimination. Within the gated community, the unequal world becomes more unequal and the chasm between “us” and “them” becomes unbridgeable. Even the “and” ceases to exist.

I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t I move out of these big iron gates then?

It’s difficult. I love where I live. But I abhor what goes behind making it a place that I love to live in. This unsettling selective blindness keeps me up at night. But when the lights suddenly trip off in the middle of the night with a 45 degrees or a 4 degree outside, and, within the blink of an eye, my air conditioner or the heater gets back on, I turn the other side and allow myself the privilege of sleep, never mind the gallons of diesel being burnt away every minute.

No, the thoughts that keep me awake don’t haunt me in my sleep. I am despicable in that sort of way. Each time my stickered car zips past the automatic boom barrier through these gates, I know I am. But by the time they close and I have parked my car effortlessly in the designated slot without having to gun down a few neighbours, I tune the despicable bit out.

The big black iron gates remain open for me all day, all night, the way they did when I was a little girl. Just that, then, they invited an entire community in. Now, they secure my ivory tower.

Richa Jha is a children’s author and publisher at Pickle Yolk Books. She can be contacted at richa@pickleyolkbooks.com

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