In this personal essay “The Structural Integrity of the Foundations of Being,” the author reflects on the concepts of development and growth, using examples of the Indian cities she has lived in. In the process, she hopes to find herself.
The only sit-down day-time desk job I ever had was a five month stint in my hometown, one and a half years after I decided to move back home. An unexpected change after five years spent studying in Delhi. Followed by two years exploring, meandering, volunteering, and dawdling, in addition to learning and going through certain personal and larger socio-political experiences which shaped me as a person. And finding pockets where I could situate myself.
Needless to say, I had no idea of the concrete (pun intended) crises that would rumble across my life. In my hurry to get out of Bhopal as a 17 year old (I did manage to move away five days after I turned 18), little did I know the snapshots I had in my head, of a city in my heart, were not static. Someone had been screwing with them behind my back. I found myself there again as a 26 year old, in a home that was familiar and comfortable, then unrecognisable and alien, in a quick succession of rude awakenings.
Having been home in Delhi for so long, a place which became that in its already metamorphosed form, which was the only version of it I had experienced. And it was good. It was convenient. And it was just there, doing what it had to do. Friends born in Delhi would be better equipped to express their (dis)approvals to its changing facets. But it was not second nature for me then to expect my environs to be standing as a companion to my own self.
Although the most obvious changes I saw in Bhopal were the clear uptick in traffic, number of cars and people, it mostly stopped there. I started paid “work” in August of 2019, and it consisted of carrying out research looking at recent urban development projects, its sub projects, financing, checking up on their status, and how these projects are affecting the communities on ground. It was interesting work. But I fell out of the idea owing to the regularity/monotony of it. The compulsory physical sedentariness of it. But I was soon to discover the real unpleasant part of that work. Facing the city full frontal.
I realised I had made a habit of taking for granted the green and the blue and the birdsong and quiet. I was seeing those niggling changes, like that game that used to appear in the newspaper cartoon section. Where there’s a set of two pictures, identical at first glance but the small edits and additions to the second one start being apparent one by one. But it was soon the glaringly huge changes that hit me first. In retrospect, they might have been as minuscule as being in a newspaper game, to others around me. I was seeing demolished houses by the dozens, in one sweep across the main road. Places I had crossed several times a week till my late teenagehood. In different phases of destruction. I realised how much of it I had been carrying in myself and how small parts of me were getting demolished, an assault by strangers and the state.
My consciousness was by then was somewhat rooted in Anarchist thought. I was initiated into the ideology was well before I left Bhopal, but coming back to it, and to the city coincided in a serendipitously long and tragic moment. Roads I remember in their almost jungle-like glory were bare. Surrounded by concrete. Friends’ homes were being razed to the ground. The skyline of the city from my favourite side of the lake was glitching in the middle with tall eyesore buildings. Statistics, numbers, and comparative studies already undertaken by well-meaning researchers were perused dejectedly.
A visit to Indore proved even more depressing. I saw cross-sections of apartment buildings. Cut right through the middle. Standing on main roads. Citing the need for widening of these streets, it was just an okay thing to do, breaking buildings in that way. People’s personal possessions still hung on hooks on the walls, there were some haphazardly covered by tarp, some just open to display, their jagged broken walls standing, almost as if apologising. For wanting to give people shelter in the first place.
Needless to say thousands of people are affected by this rampant unchecked corporate capitalism, and enough has been said about cities and their existential violence. But I had to come back to myself, to acknowledge the psychic hurt it caused. I was in a place where I was unable to function around it. Whenever I’m recounting my experience with this “work” and “research” with friends, I am surprised by the intensity in my voice. I receive messages in my inbox sympathising and relating with my thoughts on social media on this. But it’s a rare occurrence for public support to play out. To the point that I have put off putting this out for longer than necessary.
I moved to a place called Bir in March last year. It’s a village in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. Frequented by tourists and adventure sport lovers who arrive to paraglide, tandem joyrides with trained pilots, many return to stay in Bir and learn how to do it solo. There’s a community of local and ex-city folk/ non-local business owners who have settled there (this is where one would technically count me). There’s also a group of workers-from-home whose numbers have seen a drastic increase since 2020. The main draw of the place is the paragliding Landing Site, the street leading to which is lined with more than a dozen cafes and restaurants, and an even greater number of homestays, hostels, and hotels, stretching away into the bylanes leading off the main street.
When one nears this landing site, there’s a brand new construction – a direct visual assault situated between us and the sunset sky – on the left, a multi storeyed parking lot. Shelter for the constant influx of large and extra large vehicles. One which was apparently needed. But it just draws me back towards similarly “needed” and “necessary” pieces of “development” closer to an earlier home. I keep this in my head and dozens of new and ongoing constructions across nearby villages. It almost feels like I’m bringing this unpleasantness and clatter-clutter along with me to places I’m going to. I, of course acting (?) as representative of the human race, unfortunately. Or to rephrase it, at least a passive aggressive representative of humankind.
Edward Abbey once said: growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Of course, the fact that we have chosen to be malignant over the benign is invisible to us as a whole.
I can only write this right now because I have distanced myself enough from Bhopal, having been away from it for years. Physically and emotionally. I can only write about Bir right now because it’s been almost a month since I’ve been away from the place. Delhi often feels like just a place, it is huge and anonymising, but maybe the one time it really hit me between the eyes was when metro stations started being leased out to corporations and were quickly renamed one after the other, with prefixes being added to these closely familiar places. In the last year, I have had to (semi) contend with a railway station back home being privatised and then re-named – in a complex politically charged way, which I did not see enough discussion around. It is the vacuum of that vocalness which is even more hurtful.
Maybe the fact is that I am desperately hanging on to being true to myself. Keeping the trees inside me intact, throwing a few seeds around now and then and hoping for a miracle. Keeping the lakes pristine, sometimes daring to head out on a boat alone to explore what all of this is about. Maybe one just wants to stick to the uncorrupted basics. And get rid of anything concrete.
When I see new construction, after a visceral reaction to the noise and dust, it comes down to a multiplicity of ways of seeing, involuntarily: the sight of workers on the site, the materials going into that structure, the dug up ground and the thought of the death of a few million microcosms which were living in that piece of land. It is unchecked human arrogance with a homicidal undercurrent. Yet any average person can definitely retort with: people need a place to leave, some other people need jobs, a shelter or some other necessity. All would be in good stead with reason and logic. But in what ways and at what cost?
This isn’t an argument for anarcho-primitivism or degrowth, because things have been beyond argument for a while now. Maybe this is only an ongoing engagement with a solipsistic reality of the failure to come to terms. But the terms are unacceptable. Coming back to seeing oneself as co-existing with one’s environs, not unlike a companion, I’m still on the fence on my malady of being: is it self indulgent or the clear opposite of it?
The fight between collective and individual action has been done to death, playing out in the form of shifting of responsibilities of the global North and South and the possibility of ethical consumption under capitalism. It is a mishmash of a dramatic series of tragicomic unfortunate events. The only livable space left to retreat to sometimes is that recluse one repeatedly forgets to be.
Asmi is still trying to figure herself out. Writing about it is in equal parts terrifying and exciting for her. Borrowing the words of Oscar Wilde: ‘to define is to limit,’ she is finally willing to spend the rest of her life substantiating this idea, in a lot of written words, till she runs out of them.