“How Can I Describe the Desolation?”

New literature on India’s cities is a variation on the old literature of lament

Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, an award-winning account of life in Mumbai, inspired an efflorescence of city literature. Colin McPherson / Corbis
Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, an award-winning account of life in Mumbai, inspired an efflorescence of city literature. Colin McPherson / Corbis
01 June, 2014

COUNT ON URDU to have a word for it: shahr-i-ashob, lament for a city. Here is Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda, a poet from the eighteenth century:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi? There is no house from which the jackal’s cry cannot be heard. ... In the once-beautiful gardens where the nightingale sang his love songs to the rose, the grass grows waist-high around the fallen pillars and ruined arches. ... Jahanabad, you never deserved this terrible fate, you who were once vibrant with life and hope, like the heart of a young lover.

Some centuries before, it was Sanskrit, like Urdu a language of many cities but identified with no one province, that had the most extensive literature of the Indian urban. As human beings are irresistibly drawn to visions of a bygone golden age, this literature too has its share of lament. An early example depicts decay by describing perfection:

The people in that city were happy, virtuous, learned, experienced, each satisfied with his state, practicing his own calling, without avarice ... None was indigent or dwelt in a mean habitation ... In that city ... none was a miser or a swindler, none was mean-spirited, proud, rash, worthless or an atheist. Men and women were of righteous conduct, fully self-controlled, and in their pure and chaste behaviour they equalled the great sages ... They bathed daily ... there was none who had not learnt to subdue his mind.

These are descriptions of the city of Ayodhya from the early cantos of Valmiki’s Ramayana in Hari Prasad Shastri’s translation. We know that the real cities of ancient India had their share of misers and swindlers, liars and atheists, adulterers and lechers, even some who didn’t bathe daily. We know this because any conception of an ideal city implies the grubbier reality of actual cities, a fall from the ideal. In a word, it implies loss.

It was almost inevitable that there would come to be a literature of the Indian city in English, which has inherited, or rather expropriated, the non-provincial status that once belonged to Sanskrit, and then to Urdu. However, it is only in the last decade or so that the characteristics of this literature have become discernible. The path was paved in a series of anthologies published by Penguin: Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes’s Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (2003), CS Lakshmi’s The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai (2004), and so forth. These volumes, being anthologies, suffered from a certain unevenness born of the valiant, if hopeless, editorial aspiration to be representative. But they do something that English-language volumes, particularly those with a bias in favour of translations, are well placed to do: to bring together in one place a range of experiences of the multilingual Indian city long isolated from each other.

This year sees the publication of the one anthology to rule them all. Vinay Lal’s two-volume Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City presents a splendid set of extracts from a vast corpus of urban literature, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, with a healthy balance between texts originally in English and translations. As a bonus, it comes with an extensive annotated bibliography. It is tempting to say about it that where the Indian city is concerned, what is not here is nowhere. But this is the anthologist’s fallacy. For if no single writer can say everything, nor can a thousand.

In any case, anthologies, far from being impersonal volumes, say much about the anthologist. “There is no other way of putting it except to say that the selections are entirely mine, indeed exceedingly personal,” Lal writes. Lal is an academic historian specialising in colonial and postcolonial India who is interested in “the city ... as a nodal point for contestations over modernity,” but his selections are not academic. “What are the lures of the city,” he asks, “the anxieties it provokes, and the satisfactions it alone offers? Whom does the city possess, disown, and embrace, and why are some drawn to it while others are repulsed by its hurried pace, indifference, and monstrous appetite?”

These are excellent questions, and there are answers to them in the urtext of the most recent efflorescence in this genre, a book Lal admires: Suketu Mehta’s 2004 chronicle of gang wars, dance bars, film stars and Jain monks, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Mehta’s is an insistent voice, opinionated and splendidly selective. He puts the frenzied moral ambiguity of Mumbai life into exhilarating prose whose big theme, whence its appeal for non-Indian readers, is the grisly excitement of the third-world megacity in the age of what optimistic leftists call late capitalism.

Maximum City is not centrally a book about loss; it finds the present exciting enough. Or, we might say, its present, for the early twenty-first-century moment it chronicles is in some respects already a lost epoch: the film industry is changing, an increasingly globalised underworld is less tied to the city, and today’s land mafia can make the property prices of fifteen years ago seem almost reasonable. But for all his love of that historical moment, even Mehta, like his precursors in eighteenth-century Delhi, is haunted by visions of a golden age of sorts, when Mumbai was still Bombay and embodied a complex “cosmopolitan”—to use the word that Indians love to apply to that city—ideal.

Mehta inaugurated a new way of writing about place. He was no fly-by-night visitor and his prose was consequently free of the usual travel writing clichés. Identified with his city even while detached from it—Mehta spent his adolescence in the United States—Mehta’s Bombay was the backdrop to a large chunk of his life lived in real time, as opposed to the accelerated travel time of someone with a return ticket booked. He saw the passage of the seasons, watched his rent rise, filed income tax returns. He was there long enough to know loss.

Other writers took notice—here was a mode in which Indians could write about place without going abroad, without even travelling. After all, it has never been easy for Indians to travel abroad, particularly to the West. No Indian traveller in Europe, not even the relatively well-heeled kind, can affect the nonchalance of the Western traveller in India, cushioned by his country’s power, a favourable exchange rate, and a confidence that a couple of phone calls to the embassy and the insurance company will suffice to deal with the worst disasters. The onus is always on the Indian to prove himself worthy of that stamp in the passport, to be ready to produce yet another document to show that he has no designs on the skyscrapers or welfare states of the first world. And this is not to mention the uncommon reserves of fortitude it takes to endure the queues and bureaucracy at Western embassies while trying not to look like a terrorist.

Better stay put, or if you’ve left already, to return. The Indian city is exotic enough, grotesque enough, even for those who live in it, the rich as well as the poor. Perhaps it has always been that way if you have known where, when and how to look. If long habit has dulled the senses, a spell away will restore you to vigilance, re-sensitise you to the city’s extremes. And for those not drawn to exoticism or extremity, there is the Indian city’s endlessly diverting ordinariness.

There is no more devoted curator of the Indian ordinary than Amit Chaudhuri who, last year, gave us Calcutta: Two Years in the City, a book that wisely makes no attempt to replicate Mehta’s rambunctious ethnographies and opts instead for a quietly cerebral impressionism of street corners and colonial architecture. Chaudhuri disclaims any predilection for nostalgia. His theme is “modernity,” which he skilfully translates from abstraction into image, for example that of a French window from “one of the genteel bourgeois houses of south Calcutta”—an instance of a European style assimilated into the modern Indian architectural sensibility. His material is memory, capaciously interpreted to include everything from his fragmentary recollections of childhood trips to the city to a shared historical memory of the nineteenth-century “Bengal Renaissance.”

The Renaissance in Chaudhuri’s hands isn’t a textbook history of social reform and incipient nationalism but a story of aesthetic renewal, with all the force of the word’s etymological roots in the Greek term for perception and sensation. He is afflicted by a sense of loss, as when he finds house after house in genteel south Calcutta replaced by—what else? —apartment complexes built to generic designs with no trace of what has been demolished to make room for them. He hears people make noises about conservation, but the housing market reflects no serious commitment to it—as it does in London or Berlin, where the most expensive houses are those that bear such a trace. Calcutta, he says, “has still not recovered from history: people mourn the past, and abhor it deeply.”

Indrajit Hazra’s Grand Delusions (2013) is a much less writerly book than Chaudhuri’s, and evidently the work of a journalist. He is less drawn than Chaudhuri to the world of the city’s declining gentry—“read: colonial and anglicized post-colonial,” Hazra writes in caustic parentheses. His Kolkata is a meaner place, its aesthetic more akin to the graphic novels of Sarnath Banerjee, with their wandering eccentrics and sweaty grocers. He is less convinced by the exalted claims of the Bengali gentry’s bhadralok culture, more anxious to tell us about the Kolkata of Punjabis, Sindhis and Marwaris, the people least likely to watch the films of Satyajit Ray or hum the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. He too finds the real estate market revealing of the city’s priorities, but his eyes are turned to those buying up the old houses for their land. He traces the stereotype of the grasping, philistine Marwari back into Bengali history, all the while reminding us of “the straightforward fact that Kolkata was a city that was largely built and maintained by Marwari money and enterprise.”

Indrajit Hazra, a novelist and journalist, writes honestly about Kolkata in Grand Delusions, his recent biography of the city. Jitender Gupta / Outlook

This is well done, the consignment of clichés to a bonfire of honesty. Hazra’s achievement is replicated in his book’s companions among Aleph Publishing House’s series of slim “city biographies”—for it wasn’t only writers who saw that Suketu Mehta had struck publishing oil. The series would smack of editorial opportunism if the results were not, for the most part, so enjoyable. But there are exceptions.

Nirmala Lakshman’s short biography of Chennai, Degree Coffee by the Yard (2013), is a handsome dictionary of received ideas, many of which deserve to be cast into a similar bonfire. Alas, that bonfire never comes. On all counts the weakest in the series, everything about this book smacks of duty, duly (and dully) discharged: “these marvellous structures on the shores of the Bay of Bengal are a must-see”; “Carnatic music along with film music ... appear to be the two most popular musical forms in the city, especially among the young”; “whether it be a Louis Vuitton handbag or a Jaguar XK, Chennai is ready to buy and ready to pay.”

One waits in vain for some distinctiveness of vision, or failing that some quirk of style, to turn her bundle of facts and images—nine-yard saris and the Bay of Bengal—into something less shapeless. But Lakshman lacks the slight measure of alienation that would give her an edgier view of her city. It is not irrelevant to her failure that she is a member of the influential Kasturi family, whose members own and edit The Hindu, a newspaper that has cast a long shadow over the cultural life of Chennai.

Malvika (“Mala”) Singh’s contribution to the Aleph series, Perpetual City (2013), a short biography of Delhi, shares some of these defects. Singh’s is the world of left-wing intellectuals who congregate in the family home in an area of Lutyens’ Delhi built by her husband’s grandfather, Sir Sobha Singh. Sir Sobha’s contribution to the construction of the “New” Delhi that was to replace Calcutta as the capital of British India earned him a knighthood and his descendants a secure place in the city’s haute bourgeoisie.

Singh wisely writes the book as a memoir of her years in the city and succeeds, where Lakshman does not, in evoking a unity of mood from a miscellany of elements. Ah for the old days, she says, when one drove from coffee at the old Coffee House (as opposed to the new “Café Coffee Days across the city where no one knows anyone”) to dancing at The Cellar, where her “young generation came together regardless of cultural differences, language, caste or colour on the back of the music of the moment and the international dress code of blue jeans” (naturally there is no mention here of class), and ended the evening at one of the president’s tasteful garden parties at Rashtrapati Bhavan (“utterly charming affairs where high tea is served and where the ‘rulers’ of India meet with ordinary professionals, albeit those privileged enough to be invited”).

The “albeit” registers an honest discomfort, but Singh, like others of her class, cannot do much more than register it. This is not the only time readers without a Lutyens’ address will wince. Singh embodies in her person all the virtues and vices of her class—their discreet charm and their careless indifference to the extent of their privilege. But her wistfulness is infectious, even for those of us unlikely to be invited to these garden parties. Best not to carp and instead to recall Walter Benjamin’s splendid aphorism: Every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism.

Singh mourns an ancien régime that is keenly aware that someone somewhere is sharpening the guillotines. The world of Sujan Singh Park, where she continues to live, is an anomaly in a Delhi dominated by an increasingly violent land mafia and a brash, garish new elite. Those tempted to cheer the vandals as they storm the castle should think hard about what it will be like to live under the new dispensation.

The arriviste vandals remain spectral, unindividuated figures in Singh’s telling, and one must look to a very different sort of work—say, Rana Dasgupta’s recent Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi or the films of Dibakar Banerjee—for an unsentimental account of this class’s ways of thinking and feeling. These portrayals are driven not by Singh’s arcadian wistfulness but a form of utopian indignation that despairs at the alternatives and calls for a plague on both houses. Not belonging to either elite, they are better at seeing the barbarism hidden in the Lutyens’ civilities, and, to their credit, at seeing the civilisation hidden in capitalist barbarities.

More Indians will live in cities in the coming years than in any other time in history. The great reality of their lives will be the reality of capitalism. Perhaps this is to be the task of India’s literatures in the twenty-first century: to tell the complicated truth about capitalism, to chronicle its pleasures and to describe its desolation.

There are passages of lamentation in City Adrift (2013), Naresh Fernandes’ short biography of Mumbai. Fernandes too despairs of what will become of beauty and civility now that the real estate sharks have been loosed, but his is a cannier eye, more attuned to the facts of power and inequality. A memorable account of the city’s hidden cave monasteries, some of them many centuries old, ends with this thoughtful observation:

Other cave sites have been enfolded into slums, many of which have been built by neo-Buddhists—Dalits who followed the example of lower-caste leader B. R. Ambedkar when he embraced the faith in 1956. Depending on which way you want to see it, the caves are either a vibrant example of living history or a blatant act of encroachment. At Jogeshwari and Mahakali, hundreds of families have taken up residence around the monks’ cells and on top of them. At the Magathane complex in Borivali, people actually live inside the caves. After a heritage-minded citizen filed a petition demanding protection for the site, the Archaeological Survey of India informed the High Court that it was too late to conserve it. The Court agreed with that opinion. The judges asked with an air of resignation, ‘What is to be done now?’

“I shared their despondency,” Fernandes continues. Yet, he is able to see poor Dalits living in ancient caves as more than mere squatters. If every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism, the converse too must hold, but it takes a special kind of literary gift to write as if one believed it. A literature of pure lament is not literature but kitsch.

Correction: The print version of this article had an error in the title of Nirmala Lakshman's book, Degree Coffee by the YardThis has been corrected online. The Caravan regrets the error.