Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Book Reviews in Wasafiri

Daniel Brook A History of Future Cities /

 Amit Chaudhuri Calcutta: Two Years in the City

Amalgamating the elements of social and political history with aspects of reportage and commentary, in his latest book the well-known American journalist Daniel Brook paints interesting, refreshing and sophisticated portraits of four mega-cities – St Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai – which he claims are the future cities of the world.
These cities lie in different geographical zones. Their demography, culture, social composition and weather vary. But, according to Brook, there is one element these four cities have in common and that is ‘dis-orientation’. The word ‘orient’ manifests both its meanings here. They are cities socio-culturally inclined, or oriented, towards the West. But in so being they are also ‘Dis-oriented’, which, in other words, can simply be interpreted as something which is not oriented towards the East. And this is the basic thread that runs through the book.
Brook links Mumbai and Shanghai because they were built by Westerners for people who wanted to have their own versions of London or New York in India and China. Famous British architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, like T Roger Smith, F W Stevens and Sir Gilbert Scott, created some of the landmark buildings. Britain's leading practitioner and proponent of the Gothic Revival style, Sir Gilbert Scott, for example, designed the historic University of Bombay and was also one of the designers of the majestic Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai. Importing the architectural sensibilities of European and American cities – like Vatican City, London, Manhattan and Oxford – what the colonial powers created was meant to make them feel closer to home. In doing so, they often ignored local cultural traditions.

Built on reclaimed land, Bombay (now Mumbai) was divided into two parts: the prosperous district, which boasted the best amenities and which looked like a European city; and the other, mostly inhabited by the native population who were crammed into ghettos which were infested with disease. In Shanghai, similarly, the Chinese lived in the segregated impoverished quarters and were treated as second-class citizens. But, by the early twentieth century both Indians and Chinese began building ‘their own versions of the institutions Westerners had imported but held beyond their grasp’. Today, these cities are cosmopolitan financial hubs of their respective countries.
Brook argues that St Petersburg and Dubai share similarities because both these cities were the culmination of their rulers’ desire to recreate a European city in their courtyards. The Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great, was so enamoured by ‘the tree lined and canal-laced’ city of Amsterdam that he built his own version in Russia and called it St Petersburg. Amsterdam at the time was a cosmopolitan trading hub and hosted people from around the world. The Tsar spent a year there, incognito under the name of Pjotr Mikhailov, and was employed in the ship building industry, mastering the art of ship making while also imbibing the city's liberal spirit. Modelled on Amsterdam, Peter the Great's St Petersburg became known for its openness and tolerance towards worshippers of different Christian denominations who were allowed to build their own churches, despite opposition from Russian Orthodox clerics. Like St Petersburg, Dubai was also a dream of its crowned head of state, Sheikh Rashid, who modelled it on London. When his vision began to take shape, the Sheikh started ‘to foster a freewheeling internationally linked economy while monopolising all political power’. He bartered the loyalty of his citizens with a lavish welfare state. While maintaining Islam as its official religion, Dubai welcomed people from all over the world and from all religions and nationalities. Today, Dubai's position as a global business hub and financial capital of the Middle East and South Asia is clearly established, and it has become one of the world's most ethnically diverse cities with ninety-six per cent of its population being foreign-born. But, in order to become a global metropole, Brook argues, the emirate of Dubai has separated itself from its roots by whitewashing its Arabic identity and culture.
Despite all the material progress and cosmopolitanism, Brook suggests that each city ‘experienced periods of loss of faith in modernity’. He reminds us that the Bolsheviks emerged in St Petersburg, the Communist Party of China came into existence in Shanghai and the Indian National Congress was born in Bombay. The October Revolution brought a brutal end to the Tsarist era in Russia and the army of the Communist Party led by Chairman Mao, claiming to represent both the poor and those living in the countryside, seized political power in China. The author terms the city Dubai as ‘an urban Frankenstein’ and warns the rulers of the possibility of similar revolutionary changes in the Emirate.

Like Mumbai and Shanghai, Calcutta, now Kolkata, was a colonial creation, an outcome of the deep yearnings of the British colonial rulers to create a home away from home. Once the capital of British India, this city has been left behind in the race to modernise. It is no more the cultural capital of India, and the typical ‘Bengali Bhadralok’ with a fine taste in music, art and literature, is fast becoming a rare species. Instead businessmen who care little about the art and poetry now populate the social circuits of Calcutta.
In his book, Amit Chaudhuri writes about this new Calcutta/Kolkata. Born in this historical city, Chaudhuri spent his formative years away in Mumbai and Oxford, but Kolkata remained an integral part of his identity. Indeed he returned to his beloved city to live in 1999 but was dismayed to observe how it had changed, and not for the better. Tastefully built colonial buildings had made way for ugly sky-kissing apartment blocks and multiplexes. Many of the city's famous bookshops had vanished and those which survived were more interested in selling stationery and greeting cards than serious literature. The city was losing its left-leaning temperaments and had discovered the ‘goodness’ of capitalism. These changes compelled him to write Calcutta: Two Years in The City.
This book is not an historical account of the city nor a sociological study of its people. Rather, it displays Chaudhuri's personal engagement which at times flows into broader narratives about marginalisation and urban decay. He walks the streets, keenly watching how the lives of the less privileged, bypassed by the city's economic progress, have fallen under the new social order. He portrays the mundane existence of street beggars, road-side food vendors, servants and rickshaw pullers with empathy and understanding. He also examines the lavish lifestyles of the city's élites with microscopic precision. He feels disturbed by what he sees but finds himself incapable of initiating any change.
As always, Chaudhuri's prose is comparable only to the sweetest of the cupcakes at Flurys, the city's best-known cake shop, his observations are insightful and intellectually stimulating, and, his arguments are sharp and to the point.

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