Once Upon a Time in the East

The tangled histories that have shaped today’s great eastern metropolises

01 May, 2013

SPEAKING AT the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mid-Century Convocation in March 1949, Winston Churchill argued that, though war appeared likely to break out between the communist bloc and Western European nations, it was far from inevitable. He reminded the audience that:

Four or five hundred years ago Europe seemed about to be conquered by the Mongols. Two great battles were fought almost on the same day near Vienna and in Poland. In both of these the chivalry and armed power of Europe was completely shattered by the Asiatic hordes. It seemed that nothing could avert the doom of the famous Continent from which modern civilisation and culture have spread throughout the world. But at the critical moment the Great Khan died. The succession was vacant, and the Mongol armies and their leaders trooped back on their ponies across the seven thousand miles which separated them from their capital in order to choose a successor. They never returned till now.

Though they did not return, the Asiatic hordes menaced Europe’s imagination for centuries. The barbarians were perpetually at the gates, threatening the cultural as well as ethnic purity of the continent. Nazi propagandists used the phrase “asiatischen Horden” for the Red Army, on the basis, presumably, that Russia had in the past been ruled by Mongols. The word ‘horde’ originates in ‘ordu’, the Turkic and Mongol term for army camp, but ‘Asiatic hordes’, which has equivalents in most major European languages (‘hordes asiatiques’ in French, ‘hordas asiáticas’ in Spanish), eventually came to represent any perceived Eastern threat, whether from invaders or migrants.

Unlike Western Europe, which was fortuitously spared thanks to a Great Khan’s demise, India endured a number of invasions by Central Asians. The Hunas destroyed the Gupta empire early in the 6th century; Mahmud of Ghazni raided the subcontinent repeatedly early in the 11th; Timur massacred a substantial portion of Delhi’s populace at the end of the 14th; and Timur’s infinitely more refined descendant Babur established a kingdom in Agra in the 16th. The armies of the mainly Turkic kings who ruled north India between the 13th and 18th centuries included a mix of foreign and indigenous troops. The foreigners learned the local language, but mixed it with large numbers of loanwords and alien constructions. This jumbled idiom came to be called Zuban-e-Ordu, or tongue of the camp, and eventually developed into the sophisticated literary language known as Urdu, simultaneously an emblem of confluence and conflict.

The variant histories of Western Europe and India in relation to Turko-Mongol invasions serve as a template for a more general contrast, exaggerated for effect but not entirely invalid, between the two civilisations. Europe had, by the 16th century, rid itself of all non-Christians, except for a few Jewish communities living primarily in France, Germany and Eastern Europe. Iberian Jews, expelled by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella after the conquest of the kingdom of Granada in 1492, were offered asylum in the Ottoman Empire. Concurrently, India accommodated a huge variety of faiths and belief systems, without ever approaching the modern ideal of perfect inter-community equality. While Europe tore itself apart in inter-denominational wars, and discriminated against its lone non-Christian minority, eventually eliminating large sections of the Jewish population through pogroms and genocide, India, and Asia at large, found ways of managing tensions without the comprehensive ethnic cleansing practiced in the West.

Given this history, it seems strange that in the course of the 20th century, and more exactly since the introduction of the virus of nationalism, many Asian nations have become less diverse, and less tolerant of ethnic or religious minorities, while Europe and its extensions in the New World have grown increasingly accommodative, and now boast significant minority populations from every region of the world, especially within metropolises like New York, London and Paris, that have gained the status of world cities. It could be that precisely the exclusionary nature of Europe laid the foundation for a society grounded in negative liberty, in which individuals are free to act as they like without interference, as long as their actions do not impede the liberty of other individuals. Respect for negative liberty seems the best, if not the only, basis for a pluralistic, tolerant nation-state. Yet it is an idea that Asia has found difficult to adopt, arguably because its complex history of inter-community engagement encourages positive group privileges over negative individual liberties.

DANIEL BROOK'SA History of Future Cities (WW Norton & Company, 480 pages, $27.95) and The Other Global City (Yoda Press, 200 pages, Rs 395), edited by Shail Mayaram, approach this tangled history from different ends and with very different styles. Contributors to Mayaram’s anthology tackle ways in which communities have coexisted in Asia and the Middle East, and explore how the nature of this coexistence has been modified in our time. Brook has picked four great cities for scrutiny, St Petersburg/Leningrad, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai, and Dubai, each of which was, in Brook’s broadly convincing reading, founded on Western paradigms grafted onto a culture that considered those paradigms alien. Brook narrates the substantial achievements and dreadful shortcomings of top-down models of development fostered by visionary rulers and administrators, whereas the essays in The Other Global City deal with ground-level tensions and adaptations among ordinary citizens.

There is a temptation, strengthened by ignorance of Asia’s histories of syncretism and pluralism within contemporary global political discourse, to romanticise those histories, ignoring the very real tensions that were usually bubbling under the surface, but periodically burst into outright violence. To the credit of the contributors to The Other Global City, they evade the trap of nostalgia and provide nuanced historical perspectives on inter-group relations in contemporary Asia and North Africa. In each essay, whether about Copts and Muslims in Cairo; Tibetans, Han Chinese and Kashmiris in Lhasa; Maronites and Shias in Beirut; or minorities in Tokyo, Bukhara, Delhi and Kuala Lumpur, I found information about and insight into a micro-subject I knew little about.

On the flip side, most of the essays are written in a style that non-academics are likely to find a turn-off. The stodginess can get dispiriting, as when Engin F Isin, in discussing how non-Muslims within the Ottoman Empire were allowed to create religious endowments (awqaf), utilises variations of the catch-phrase ‘negotiating difference’ four times in as many sentences:

The subject is vast, but this chapter aims to provide not only a glimpse of how various groups negotiated otherness and difference but also insights into the rise of modern reformism and nationalism that displaced governing through millets and awqaf. Thus, the chapter is part of a broader investigation on “oriental citizenship”, which interprets various social and political practices as citizenship (understood as a generalized otherness that enables negotiations of recognition, difference and identity). I am investigating if, and to what extent, founding awqaf as gift-giving acts can be considered as “acts of citizenship” in Ottoman Empire in its classical age with a focus on Istanbul. I argue that Ottoman and Istanbul awqaf as institutions of negotiating differences and providing social institutions in the context of awqaf in Delhi, Cairo, Tehran and Beirut can provide significant insights on how groups both share and contest spaces to negotiate their difference in ‘cosmopolitan’ contexts.

The larger problem with the book has to do with its title, which is really a misnomer. Reacting against definitions of global cities proposed by noted urban sociologists Saskia Sassen and Mark Abrahamson, which highlight recent transformations in trade and technology, Mayaram emphasises, “multiple indices of globality, including that of state and empire, sect and science, knowledge and culture”. This is vague and confuses past conditions with novel economic formations that have emerged in the past three decades as a result not only of the political shift ushered in by the end of the Cold War, but also the communications revolution that has fostered instantaneous transnational transactions and interactions.

To assert that a new kind of globalism was inaugurated in the late 20th century is not to deny that Byzantium/Istanbul and Baghdad were crucial centres of power and knowledge in the past (Istanbul remains such a centre). Mayaram laments that definitions of global cities provide “no space for the globality of religious centers that might spawn transnational religious movements”, and puts forward the example of Delhi as “the headquarters of the Islami Markaz, the font of the worldwide operations of the Tabhligi Jama’at”. Well, Salt Lake City is the centre of the worldwide operations of Mormonism, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a provincial town that would rank far below Delhi in any list of global cities. Mayaram’s stab at a redefinition of globalism seems a misplaced reaction against the domination of the West, at a time when the tide of that domination is ebbing with each passing year.

Daniel Brook appears to embrace Churchill’s notion of “the famous Continent from which modern civilization and culture have spread throughout the world”, and traces that spread through four case studies. However, unlike Churchill, Brook is as cognisant of the suffering inflicted by imperialism, and of the contradiction at its heart, as he is of the cruelty of Tsars, communist dictators and sheikhs. His reconstructions of history are based on readily available sources rather than extensive primary research, but he marshals well-known facts with great facility into exciting narratives that steer us from each city’s origin, through cycles of boom and bust, to its present state.

Having guided us through these fascinating stories of incomplete Westernisation, the author makes an unexpected U-turn. In the manner of the deadpan brogue, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it’s all dark,” at the end of the Pink Floyd album, he concludes, “the entire Europe-Asia distinction is a mental one, not a geographic one”.

The strongest features of A History of Future Cities are Brook’s portraits of pioneering builders, and his interpretations of architectural landmarks. Starting with Peter the Great’s incognito visit to Amsterdam, which sparked a determination to outdo Europe by constructing a grandiose city from scratch at the edge of the Arctic, on land that Russia did not even possess, Brook recounts numerous examples of planners who believed, incorrectly, that they could import the outward forms, edifices, technology and culture of the West without giving citizens rights equal to those enjoyed by their West European counterparts. The sheikhs of Dubai believe this, even as the Arab Spring challenges dictatorships across the Middle East, with the same blithe conviction as the Empress Catherine, who, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, built a vast collection of paintings, only two of which were by Russian artists, carried on a long correspondence with the radical philosopher Voltaire, hoping to induce him to visit St Petersburg, and hired as her personal tutor the even more radical Denis Diderot.

OF THE FOUR CITIES BROOK COVERS, Bombay fits his schema least well, being, in the words of the architectural historian Preeti Chopra, whom he quotes approvingly, a “joint enterprise” between philanthropic local elites and colonial administrators. He does find a far-sighted hero in Bartle Frere, who was appointed Governor soon after the British Crown took over from the East India Company. Frere broke down the Fort walls that constrained the old town, and planned to build a university, courthouse, hospital, telegraph office, customs house and railway station for Bombay city. He improved sanitation, introduced gaslights, converted the Esplanade into a series of parks, established rail connections with the hinterland, and encouraged exports. As it happened, Indian cotton was in great demand in the early years of his term, thanks to a blockade by Unionist ships of Confederate ports during the American Civil War.

Though I enjoyed Brook’s descriptions of the Bombay of Bartle Frere’s era, and concur with his criticism of the abandonment of strategic planning in present times, I have serious reservations about some of his interpretations of my hometown, particularly those contained in the final chapter on the city, titled ‘Slumdogs and Millionaires’. He writes, “While the Doge’s Palace in Venice might be a nicer place to visit on vacation, it is in the fake Doge’s Palace at the University of Mumbai where the future prime ministers and CEOs of an ascendant India are training.” The University is hardly a replica of the Doge’s Palace, any more than it is the “aped Oxford” mentioned elsewhere. It borrows from both those sites, but is an original design taken as a whole. The role of the 19th century campus has substantially diminished since most departments moved to the suburb of Kalina. In the unlikely event that any prime ministers or powerful CEOs of the future graduate from the university, they will probably do so without having stepped into the old grounds.

Such inaccuracies, and there are quite a few of them, can be forgiven as poetic license. More difficult to explain is Brook’s contention that “the real ideological naysayers against Nehruism” were Bollywood studios. “While some studios dutifully turned out politically correct fare, saluting Nehruvian socialism with tedious documentaries on the openings of rural cement plants and the like, others presented a vision of a vibrant Bombay as an alternative to a staid, self-abnegating, official socialist ideology that ignored the metropolis at best and condemned it at worst”. Leaving aside the strange notion that privately owned studios produced documentaries, the description completely misinterprets the resolutely anti-materialistic films produced in Hindi cinema’s golden age by Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Mehboob Khan. Brook obviously underestimates the widespread appeal of Gandhian and Nehruvian idealism in the early years of independence.

My strongest criticism of the book relates to the two central crises the city has faced in my lifetime: the mill workers strike of 1982, and the riots of a decade after. Mystifyingly, Brook devotes barely a paragraph to the riots and fails to mention the strike, despite earlier giving a fairly long account of how cotton mills came to be central to the city’s economy, as also of life in that quintessentially working-class form of Bombay housing, the chawl. Instead of the transformation of mills to malls, which might be a cliché, but is nevertheless a crucial aspect of the city’s architectural and social history, Brook concentrates on a housing complex in the city’s north called Hiranandani Gardens, designed by Hafeez Contractor, “the architect behind so many of the one-off Bollywood-set spectacles that now dot contemporary Mumbai.” Hiranandani Gardens, in Brook’s view, “is a West as experienced by the global Indian, where all its differences from India rise to the fore and the distinctness of the Indian city, most notably its vibrant informal commerce, is dismissed as an embarrassment that must be expunged.” Contrast these judgements with the author’s enthusiasm for the architecture of the 1930s:

…the new line of Art Deco buildings on the maidan facing the Victorian Frere Town announced Bombay’s arrival as a pace-setting city that had transcended its origins in colonial imitation… Bombay was now on the same schedule as the world’s other leading cities. And while the university was designed entirely in London by a British architect who didn’t even visit India, the vast majority of Art Deco row was the work of Indian architects.

Art Deco might not have been colonial imitation, but it was certainly a copy of the style then in vogue in the West. If anything, a number of Hafeez Contractor’s designs are more original, or at least more unusual, than the buildings lining Oval Maidan and Marine Drive. The difference lies not in degree of mimesis, but in the fact that Bombay Art Deco displays excellent taste, and Hafeez Contractor’s buildings exemplify bad taste, precisely the kind of bad taste, in fact, that appeals to Indians, whether in Contractor’s ‘Bollywood-set spectacles’, or in Bollywood movies themselves. To say this is to come across as snobbish, but being snobbish is preferable to being plain inaccurate. Hafeez Contractor’s buildings do not present global Indians with fun-house imitations of the West from which uncomfortable Indian features have been erased. Rather, they cannily modify existing architectural styles to suit the bad taste of affluent Indians, which has roots deep in indigenous culture, in the love of surface ornament for example.

Brook circles around the idea of an indigenous modernity, whether Indian, Russian, Chinese or Emirati, which would build on local traditions while guaranteeing individual freedom; but he never discusses in any detail what such modernity might look like. Brook blames liberalisation and its consequences for a number of the city’s least pleasant features—gated communities, proliferating slums, the breakdown of planning, the mania for renaming institutions as a substitute for developing new ones, and even the beggars on the Haji Ali causeway. However, most of these were present long before 1991, though population growth has exacerbated them. The harsh truth is that India has a very meagre tradition of urban planning. The subcontinent’s earliest civilisation is famed for its well laid out cities, but it was replaced by a society whose primary structuring principle was caste, and which, consequently, had little conception of the general good. Although some West Asian, mainly Persian, ideas percolated into Indian town planning, they never penetrated very deeply.

In contrast to India, as also Russia and the United Arab Emirates, China is heir to a glorious tradition of infrastructure building. Brook might be correct to reject the skyscrapers of Pudong, Shanghai’s newly built business district, as a soulless antithesis of the city’s Jazz Age buildings on the Bund, and to lament the Cultural Revolution’s erasure of traditional knowledge. What he does not recognise is the relationship of China’s current construction boom with the Great Wall (or Great Walls) and the Forbidden City. Tradition is not merely a matter of building in wood and bamboo, but also of the scope of imagination a culture permits itself, and the ability to execute projects on the most massive scale. Of course, China also executes people on a massive scale. The most pressing question in the world today, one which nobody can answer, is whether it will find a way to keep building and stop killing.