Collusion and Collision of Cities within Cities

By Shveta Sarda

All of us live in different cities, cities in which we carry with us different senses of anticipation of its tomorrow. The acceleration of movements, technological enmeshment and change of scale compel us to continuously re-work the co-ordinates of our ways of thinking urban life.

It is said that ‘Mumbai dreams of Shanghai’. A total transformation into the other city, without malformations. The textile mills in Mumbai, where an 80 year old industry that was in the doldrums in the late 80s rediscovers itself as a part of global economy of entertainment and creative technologies, and is now redrawing the way culture and leisure will be produced. After you’ve walked 30 minutes at a slow pace in a straight line along the road, you’ve barely touched the two ends of the mills. A large shopping complex has been constructed, where thousands throng everyday. Signs painted in red on the now defunct chimneys of the mills announce names of new restaurants, malls, discotheques and art galleries. Somewhere, construction continues and entry is denied. Elsewhere, the old buildings made of stone are still being pulled down. You can see a vast expanse of land that has been emptied out, and in one dense corner, a tall chimney, the inside walls of what was probably a warehouse and a lone wall that doesn’t contain space any more. This part of the mills seems haunted by the city’s future. As you watch and walk, the emerging city landscape comes in the way. The city continues its battle over the remains of the mills.

Concurrently, the city generates its fresh crop of what are officially named ‘PAPs’.

The two Ps in PAP stand for project and persons. ‘A’ is the relationship between them. The relationship ‘A’ can be generic, and there are a few words in our dictionary for it. The ‘A’ in ‘PAP’, the hyphen between ‘Project’ and ‘Persons’ could be anything – PAPs could mean project associative persons, project affective persons, project arranged persons, project augmented persons. There is in fact a world of PAPs around us. The city is a strange landscape of PAPs.

There is also something called the ‘PAP smear’. It’s a test to detect cancer. When a body and its cells get into an antagonism. The test determines whether this antagonism is bearable or aggressive to the body. And here we have two more PAPs – the project aggressive persons and the project antagonistic persons. However, PAP has its own designated full form in the city – it stands for Project Affected Persons. Persons – working class persons – moved, relocated, removed for new developments. The city gives them share money for new houses, or it builds houses for them which announce Hiranandani (builders) building 8304 houses for project affected persons. The fact remains that the contemporary situation is increasingly about the ingenuity, innovativeness or failures of these PAPs.

Let’s return to Beijing, where I have now been for a week. There is a central axis that runs through the city which forms a kind of organizing principle. The Games City (engendered by the Olympics), the Forbidden City (survives primarily as a heritage city) and the upcoming Media or Film City (the space for the emergent economies of creative industries) are located along this axis. It is possible to sense many cities wrestling inside this one city. They all have their own morphologies, temporal rhythms, world of things, spatial practices and projected futures.

Is there a growing speculative city that cuts across these constitutive elements? Buildings with apartments that no one lives in. Apartments that lie vacant for those who will purchase them at a higher cost next year, another time. A making of ghost structures in anticipation of wealth. A kind of alchemy with buildings – the conversion of concrete into gold. It’s a story similar to Gurgaon in Delhi. Gurgaon is a satellite city built to accommodate factories, build call centres, malls and gated residential colonies. It’s a kind of ‘security city’. A city afraid of its many millions. Once I wandered onto the roof of my grandfather’s apartment in a 15 storied building in Gurgaon when my grandmother was very unwell. From the roof, I remember seeing a vast landscape of concrete, where the incremental, ordinary city tussled with the belligerence of the anticipated city.

In our cities, the process of the construction of a ‘lifestyle city’ is also underway. Compression and dispersion are played out producing various effects. In Delhi, a riverfront that gave home to a million in 30 years can disappear in 4 years, to give way to something in 3 years. The memory of the erasure of slowly made dwellings will lie dormant and fade, and be replaced rapidly within a few years by high end luxury apartments with ‘secured’ environments.

The transfer of the evicted dwellers to various edges of the city opens up the city’s frontiers. All expanding cities produces their ‘frontier city’. These are zones of administrative ambiguities and relocations, disruptions. They are spaces in formation, with a deep ambivalence to what their future can be. These ambivalences are administratively contained through various strategies of legal seizure, rhetorics of welfare and promises of projected possibilities.

Edges are not the only frontiers of a city. There are various other frontiers: Frontiers of illegibility that have to give way to prescribed ways of life.

The old, inner city of Delhi has built a life around recycled economies and old crafts-based economies. Here, the old meets the recycled. This old city was legally designated a ‘slum’ very early into the history of independent India because of its density and illegibility. Embedded in and around it are markets that transact in second-hand hardware, low-end electronic goods, copied music, pirated software, etc. These feed into far away localities, their cultural life and livelihoods. For instance, all night musical recitals and performances, and perhaps in them, the making of the bards of these visible yet unuttered cities. This ‘pirate city’ of practices, which falls outside representation at the moment, is part of an exuberant and proliferating culture of the copy; access to technology is arrived at through innovation and defiance of the established rules of the game. This city – the pirate city – is volatile and open. It borrows from the traditional and both transforms and relays it through encounters with emerging techno-spaces. What it has to negotiate is the harsh reality of legal reprimands and threatening admonishments.

It is important to remember that the contemporary moment remixes, it recombines and it also throws away, at times with surgical violence, a lot in its acceleration. What happens when the dispersed, tenuous, fragile, sites interfere with the imagined cartographic stretches of the industries and plans of the new accelerated economy? Sites which produce and tune in to different frequencies of the sound of the future, along with and sometimes in antagonism to or with aggression towards the emboldened newer economies?

There are multiple ways in which we encounter our various cities. Our imagined city is a contour drawn from various interfering lines of many cities, not knowing when they will override the other. Each of these multiple cities holds many lives embedded and yet dispersed in the city.

Edited version of a comment in ‘Mobile Research Laboratory’, Beijing, July, 2007.

Shveta Sarda is a writer and translator based in Delhi. She works at , as content editor in Cybermohalla.