the rural will die; long live the urban

At the Global Investors’ Meet, Mohandas Pai was ready to speak but the introducer droned on about Pai’s achievements and didn’t notice his hand urging a stop to the paraak, so Pai walked over and squeezed the man’s shoulder and silenced him.

Pai threw down facts on what IT has done for India, and of what is in store, that IT and like businesses will deliver a five-trillion GDP to India in twenty years, which means an additional two-hundred million "high-quality" jobs. He had the entire hall in his thrall, and I was stirred when he tossed to the Labor Minister: “The village model is dead, sir! The only solution is urbanization!”

Rain begins in MalnadI didn’t like it when I heard it. I saw without feeling that urbanization would work splendidly for his IT and (on a smaller scale) for my Manufacturing. Now, after some days, I’m veering toward his drift, like on this evening when I saw the paintings on the walls flanking the street linking Mysore Road to Majestic—village girls carrying water in urns on their heads, which is all right in a painting on a Bangalore wall, whereas for the girls the deal is dirty water, low-yield labor, and opportunity denied.

But the road that drew that thought showed also grime and noise and an absence of joy. And in Majestic when we turned toward the flyovers, the misery multiplied. To arrive into this from the village!

Still, I am not intelligently tuned to Pai’s drift. I can’t objectively train my mind toward what the city, or on the merits in the “village model” that Pai might have overlooked. My emotions for the city overwhelm me when I try to imagine the village, whose reality is for me linked to my childhood.

Singapore: Bugis JunctionI love the city for many things: cafes, promenades, ponds, avenues, boulevards, quiet side streets, restaurants, bookshops, unisex saloons, cineplexes, some malls, stationery stores, crowds when they are thin, and people with a lost look on the face. Also, the city makes everyone some shades more beautiful.

I have a passion for city centers like Ginza district in Tokyo, for the entire length of Orchard Road, and in the last decade I always added Chicago into a trip to USA so as to walk endlessly on North Michigan Avenue. Hong Kong is exquisite on both sides from the ferry, and from the windows of bars and restaurants, but I abhor its streets. I love walking in the Huaihai street in the former French Concession in Shanghai, in the sun and in rain, and in the streets that lead from Huaihai to the Garden Books store. When in Istanbul before the merging waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus, I have felt I should be frozen there forever. Here at home I loved MG Road once—I don’t believe them who say they’ll make it better than it was.

I have enjoyed walking also in dismal Bangkok and acrid Phnom Pen. I’ve been moved most in Jerusalem, and also in Munich where I have walked so many streets so many times for so many years, just as I have in Helsinki.

My greatest nostalgia is for the scores of times I walked on the narrow road in Mysore that connected my part of town to Jayalakshmipuram, the Open Air Theater of Manasagangothri on the one side and the Kukkarahalli Tank on the other. Mostly I walked there late nights when none were out, and occasionally a car would pass, slow and furtive and amorous, and, as it seemed in those days, amoral. There was often the moon above, down close like a friend, and the air, I realize now, was clean and crisp but in those days I had no thought for it, having surrendered to the cigarette.

Cafe in Singapore, Bugis JunctionIndeed, it is the urban I have always loved, the bigger the better, where I delight when I pierce the genteel air of swank places, where I spend cash only rarely—mostly I drink coffee there, watch people, and have the monthly haircut.

If it is true that the expanse that brings peace and joy is not that which is outside of us, but that other which should be unraveled in the mind, then that expanse is accessed as much in the city as in the village, in condo or villa or slum. It is possible to dwell in that expanse even while experiencing the things of the city that I don’t like:

Garbage, even when it is in neat black plastic bags, or in green tubs with lids shut; crowds; processions stalling me on the way to work; the cut-outs of India; the sight before restaurants in the morning; neons revealed during the day; children going to school (which sight is lovely in the village); the debris of buildings brought down, and the raw of unfinished buildings; glimpses of unpleasantness beneath veneers, behind facades.

Singapore: Bugis JunctionBut it takes just a moment to turn away, only a few seconds to walk back to the liberating wombs of the city. Even the greatest urban sprawl is experienced mostly in confined spaces, but the anonymity it offers, and the opportunity to jump from confine to confine, and the ease to shed this life for that, makes city life a mind game with infinite possibilities.

So, "while I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,” I feel contentment in my “deep heart's core.” I’m beginning to be convinced that if the city is where the citizen is better served, and if the city gives the citizen varied opportunities to serve in return, and for profit, it might be that increased urbanization is the better solution for the human. Whereas Innisfree is for poets, and their number is small. I wonder if Pai has read the poem, and if it describes, at least in part, the "village model" that he mentioned.

Singapore: Ion Mall, Orchard Road