Elusive periphery

January 3, 2014

The village of Paspoli, behind the Renaissance Hotel in Powai, Mumbai’s North-Western suburbs.

Urbanists and architects love to produce archetypes, physically as well as conceptually. These often reduce messy, complex realities into one simple image. For instance, Cedric Price has playfully described the medieval city as a boiled egg with a neat internal hierarchy and a hard shell delineating the inside from the outside. In his world view, the modern city is a fried egg, with a clear defining core and a sprawling, unruly periphery. The postmodern city becomes a scrambled egg, where everything gets mixed up. The core explodes into darker chunks of a yellowish spread. The scrambled egg city defies dualistic notion of a core and a periphery. These are lost in a blur of movement and information that connects everything indiscriminately.

Price’s scrambled egg city is reminiscent of Georges Bataille’s notion of the ‘informe’ (sometimes unsatisfactorily translated as “formlessness” or worse “informal”). The informe challenges the academic compulsion to label, categorize and organize the world. Price’s postmodern city resembles nothing. It is informe, like a “spider or a spit” to use Bataille’s words (1929-1930: 382).

It is temping to describe Mumbai as a scrambled egg, a spider or perhaps even… as a bit of spit.

The analogical power of the spider and its web has of course been fully explored with the advent of the World Wide Web, the self-developing network of which has been researched and represented ad nauseam. Indeed, of the most appealing features of the Web is the absence of central control. Governments can, as we know now, hack into databases and censure some of the new information that pop up. But they can’t foresee its evolution, fully muzzle it or shut it down.

Content on the Web is user-generated, just as Mumbai’s neighbourhoods – which are being reshaped by both an absurd, ‘surreal’ estate market responsible for its vertical makeover, and by the efforts of millions of “slum-dwellers” who rebuild and improve their tiny homes day after day.

But perhaps, the humble spit is a better analogy for Mumbai. The city to some is a disgusting, incomprehensible thing. Polluted to the point of being frankly toxic, arteriosclerosed by traffic jams, overcrowded and overbuilt, corrupt and rotten, dirt poor and filthy rich at once, unbearably hot and humid most of the year and drenched and muddy the rest of the time.

Our love for the city is a perverse one for sure – we love its apparent chaos, which constantly stimulates our imagination. And for us the question is not “how does it work?” as much as “what potential does it have?”.

Mumbai’s appeal is not to be found in its glorious colonial past, or in its shining, bubbling and speculative present. Attempts at containing its growth (by encouraging rural self-sufficiency as in the post-colonial Gandhian development strategies for India), at decongesting its crowded dwellings and roads (by creating a twin city – New Mumbai), at transforming it into a “world-class city (by razing its slums and replacing them with high-rise housing projects) have all miserably failed.

Mumbai defies urban planning like few other cities do. The city’s strategic “development plan” is notoriously flawed. It has “characterized by non implementation” and as “a ground for denying basic services to the slum” (Bhide 2011: 79-81). The fact that over 60% of Mumbai’s residents live in “slum areas” characterized by poor public services and infrastructure, only attests to the inability and unwillingness of the authorities to “plan” or simply to manage the city’s growth.

Paradoxically, the absence of central control and the powerlessness of its planners have perhaps turned Mumbai into one of the most sophisticated urban systems in the world! One that doesn’t get organized from the center out, but follows a totally different logic altogether. At some level this statement appears to be pure provocation. Most people can only think of Mumbai at best as a dysfunctional system and at worst as a total urban failure.

However, once we start reconceptualizing Mumbai’s urban organization and look at what makes it function, in spite of all odds, we can’t help but being amazed at the way end-users of the city have negotiated and driven its development. If we look beyond center/periphery relationships, what we see is that the city is made of countless little nodes each with their own power structures, networks, and geographies.

Mumbai’s millions of nodes are like tiny bubbles on a large informe blob of spit, each of which are accidents of history – struggling to create their own space and to contain their implosion.

Another way of putting it is that it is a question of scale. At the macro level, Mumbai is a 20 million people strong urban agglomeration, where the center and the periphery seem to have disappeared in an enigmatic blur. The historical colonial center built by the British throughout the eighteenth century on the Southern most island of the Mumbai estuary (long before the many islands that compose the city where connected and before Bombay was renamed Mumbai), is now an old city. While the old center retains most public institutions and some important bazaars, businesses and corporate houses have moved to areas that used to be suburban but which are now central in the agglomeration. It is not that the center has shifted as much as that it has exploded into various locations.

At the micro level we find relationships of dependency reproduced all over the city. The most archetypical relationship being that of the upper-class high-rise building served by the slum next door. These relationships, usually rooted in old caste histories, remind us – as Umberto Eco puts it – that our civilization has never quite left the Middle Ages. The cathedral and the bazaar, the castle and the village, the master and the servant are binaries that keep flashing before our contemporary eyes as we navigate Mumbai.

Relationships of social and economic domination and subordination are central to critical representations of cities since Walter Benjamin –to the point of becoming another archetype. They are expressed in contemporary urban terms as the binaries of the center and the periphery, the high-rise and the slum, the formal and the informal. These have become so dominant in representation of the city that it any attempts at describing the city outside this framework is seen as heretic. Yet, we find it essential to overcome these binaries.

The full text is available in the publication of the Moscow Urban Forum on Urban Peripheries.