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Cities, Heritage, People, Urban Design

Poetry in a city

City – the word evokes such dichotomous imagery. As I savour the languorous beauty of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, the words speak to me and I learn to see through new perspectives, the city I live in. Feeling every bit the outsider, adjusting to the linguistic differences, the charms of this city have begun to work on me.

“I’ll give you a book on the history of Delhi. You read that and see if it doesn’t inspire you to look around.” (Dalrymple, 2014)

Literature about cities can influence your outlook in so many ways. Beyond travel writing, there is that brand that is not quite academic, nor poetic enough. It talks about the city that just is, sighing about what once was, while expressing hope for what might be. These readings of a city are simultaneously personal and political (yes, appealing to the feminist in us), anecdotal possibly, but definitely critical as well! Prone to devouring such text, I tried my hand at writing about my own city, based on experiences through my Thesis research, using the word ‘city’ as my prompt.

Staring out the window of yet another 5E, having finally gotten a seat after Saidapet. Looking at the strange ruins-but-not quite of the slums of Saidapet (and having a separate memory trip about Kaaka Muttai and all that there-in.) battered and ravaged by the floods, which strangely seem to have escalated the speed of the Metro Rail construction.

I am reminded of that poster titled “Urban Spaces – Call for Abstracts: Academic Conference by DoHSS”. That beautiful word cloud cluttered with terms I barely understood back then, but which shapes an entire aspect of my life today.

A hot and humid afternoon, walking around in the postal code 600004 (yes, to my Chennai-ite brain NSK Road is Triplicane, while Beach Road is Santhome!) with the tall, bespectacled girl and literally running ahead when the fish market came into nasal contact. Wrapping up the mad exercise with two glasses of cool badam milk, excited by the green & red marked butter paper tacked on to the A2 sized Google map, lying in between us. A subsequent Saturday morning, after an intense discussion of our learning from the field, singing and dancing to the Madras Song.

Walking into that enormous library with three floors and entire sections dedicated to urban sociology and anthropology and getting excited enough to click pictures and send to every contact remotely interested, on WhatsApp. The beginning of a rigorous academic disciplining, reading one basic urban reader a week – a habit that has stood me in good stead in the ensuing three years.

My interview of the celebrated chronicler of Madras-Chennai was the high point of my Master’s Thesis. In awe of the man ever since I started following his column in The Hindu, never did I imagine I would gather the courage to interact with him, let alone interview him on the iconic Madras Week.

Personally this post is an attempt to get out some of my own thoughts on urban discourse, interjected with very limited inputs from academic literature. Someone once told me to hold on to this poetic idea of the urban that I seem to have developed and this is an attempt to do just that. Working in urban policy, I get caught up in questions about infrastructure and governance issues. The last two years that I spent on my Master’s Thesis took me all over urban academic literature down to the unforgiving depths of dense social science jargon. Influenced immensely by Walter Benjamin and my guide of the same last name, I see the urban as an entity of its own.

Current academic discourse is beginning to perceive the city as more than a geographical space, shaped rather by the neo-liberal flows in the networked society (theoretically, this is a juxtaposition of Henri LeFebvre’s notion of space with Manuel Castell’s networked society) – as cited by Neil Brenner1 in his 2013 paper. Growing out of this thought process is the idea of planetary urbanization, again propounded by Neil Brenner2, which argues that the urban does not necessarily pertain to a city, but has produced a fabric without the outside. This idea, intentionally provocative, is currently driving momentous debates in urban theory. In the age of Anthroposcene, while one ponders the havoc that humankind has wreaked on the environment, barely repairable through claims of sustainability, our biggest achievement as a species is the successful promulgation of societal living as is evinced by our networked cities of the day.

I believe that the urban is an experience. Entranced by the idea of the flâneur, I consciously support the peripatetic reading of a city. Walking through a city gives you the best idea about the secrets it holds, the way it treats an outsider and most importantly what it truly stands for. My personal favourite places in each city are not the monuments that supposedly provide identity to the entire metropolis, but the simple market place, preferably teeming with street hawkers. These centres of economy do not merely allow one to understand monetary flows, but provide an insight into the socio-cultural fabric of the neighbourhood as well. The products on sale determine the economic status of the area – if Brussels Sprouts make their way into the roadside vegetable vendor’s wares in Besant Nagar/INA, it shows the average buying capacity of a resident. The extent of the bargaining the hawker allows talks about the cultural relationship between a buyer and seller, as well as set the tone of the popularity of the market itself.

Gently caressing and quite subjective, these are my thoughts on the city. Purposefully, I have not tackled the ideas of the feminist urbanist (though it largely shapes who I am) or policy and infrastructure (definitely more prosaic than the trajectory of this essay), for they warrant entire sectors of literature and academic discourse. This piece of writing is my personal ode to that entity that spurs me and keeps me occupied and interested in my everyday life and research – that which makes me an urbanophile.

  1. Brenner, N. (2013) Introduction: urban theory without an outside. In N. Brenner (ed.), Implosions/explosions: towards a study of planetary urbanization, Jovis Verlag, Berlin.
  2. Brenner, N. (2011) What is critical urban theory? In N. Brenner, P. Marcuse and M. Mayer (eds.), Cities for people, not for profit: critical urban theory and the right to the city, Routledge, New York and London.

This post was originally posted on the author’s blog and has been cross posted here.

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