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Life in a Concrete Jungle

A well-researched sociology of Delhi, where people have learnt to live in the ruins with hope, knowing full well their own contribution to the ruin.

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
March 14, 2015 12:36:57 am

Book: Entangled Urbanism
Author: Sanjay Srivastava
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 364
Price: Rs 950

If you stand on the rooftop of any of the high-rises off the Yamuna, all you see below is endless parasitical sprawl; it’s hard to distinguish building from earth or landscape, home from street, public from private. On the river-bed, people live in a sort of half baked semi-hard rubble that only gives off intimations of impermanence and erosion, as if the things that have risen from dust, are still very much dust. The overall picture makes no distinction between new and old, living and dying, growth and decay. It is a state of agitated timelessness that makes redundant the architect’s obsessive need for newness, glitter, and glassy atriums that lie behind high boundary walls. Instead, life in the Indian city subsumes everything into a neutral brown haze, a human, animal, material composition of habitation, excrement, movement etc.

To compare then, Delhi with Chicago or Shanghai is meaningless. Even though the 21st century urban dweller in India remains smitten by the love of cosmopolitanism, no longer can the measure of urbanity be linked to the stated Western ideal of the city as a physical comprehensible place defined by metropolitan aims. It may be possible to write on the culture of Manhattan through its architectural history, but Delhi defies any such logic. People live and thrive here with contrasting aspirations, ideas that Srivastava describes as “a swirl of people desperately seeking out familiar places”. The struggle to give cohesion to a place of multiple identities, incidents and experiences becomes, for the sociologist author, an engagement with the culture on its own historic and social terms.

The result is a book as divided and contentious as the city itself. Its urbanity is a cross-fertilisation of semi-independent communities and processes that include the slum, the shopping mall, the refugee settlement, the gated colony. Srivastava’s valuable research condenses the often obsequious but necessary relationship between the illegal slum and the legitimate settlement, and produces a finely wrought anthropological thread that ties the seemingly awkward settings into a sociological matrix.

He is at his literary best in juxtaposing contrasts. In a detailed description of Victoria Park in Gurgaon, he talks of the protected abundance of the gated community, keenly viewed through the eyes of the multitude of decrepits who must enter the sacred gates daily to lend physical support to the life of plenty. The cultural confidence he describes in the residents is a way not just to define their place in the globalised world, but also to make clear indisputable statements of their distance from the serving classes — the maids, servants, chauffeurs, traders and other workers who appear almost magically each working day from the villages that ring the condominium.

The subject range of the book is enormous, and takes the reader on a contemplation of various urban signals — what it means to be middle class, the cultural and religious complexes that define their identity, the social life of malls that captures the essence of the Indian street, while simultaneously keeping out its smells, crowds and other discomforts. The savage consumerist intent, the city’s material and service availabilities are described in clinical and disturbing juxtapositions. The noxious fumes of industrial pollution, asthma, and diseased water supply, all become tolerable when measured against the pull of the jewellery store, the Audi showroom and the Thai restaurant. People learn to live in the ruins with hope, knowing full well their own contribution to the ruin.

Entangled Urbanism is both an unusually well researched sociology of a city, as well as a remarkable take on a subject too often riddled with passionate prejudices about city life. But because of the depth and detail of its inquiry, it makes for a difficult read. Not for its insights and perceptions, but for the tediousness of its excessive quotes, referencing and footnoting. The book is quite obviously the work of a serious and wonderfully perceptive sociologist, critical in comprehending a city like Delhi with its tangled uneasy complexity. Perhaps, a less seriously engaged mind would have produced a more legible – but less important – text.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect, artist and writer

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