Utopian Futures vs. the Fictional Present

July 3, 2016

This is the summary of a talk given at Oris – House of architecture, Zagreb, Croatia on June 16th 2016, which was part of the the Future Architecture Platform. Illustrations by Ismini Christakopoulou, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava.

The modern notion of the future is based on a Biblical timeline, which has raised messianic expectations ever since Daniel’s prophesies. Such an understanding of the future even spills over into worlds where a more cyclical notion of time dominates – for example in the Asian context – and generates constant excitement of impending change. It prevails also in secular milieus, which believe that our future should be in our own hands rather than in those of the divine.

The quest for a better future is something that seems to infuse modern life, from political revolution to consumerist aspirations, from technological fantasies to ecological utopias (and dystopias). The strong faith in the possibility of a future that is radically different from the present has fueled architectural ambitions throughout the twentieth century. And it still prevails in some of the most dominant architectural practices today. ‘Parametricism’ being its latest and most hopeless expression.

Such moves are locked in linear time, where the past becomes a source of nostalgia or a vast archaeological site to be preserved in museums, while rendering the future into an amusement park of technological wonders, which promises to leave the misery of the world outside. Such grand architectural gestures always seem to provide the future in a self-contained form, managing to exclude misery out altogether in that ideal world.

The present becomes an awkward point of transitioning from an imagined past into a desirable future. It also has the irritating habit of tripping big plans and visions, by asking mundane and profane questions. It is in the present that ugly, mistaken or confused architecture sits cheek by jowl with political problems that challenge architectural ambitions.

Narratives of injustice and poverty may clearly go beyond the scope of architecture as a discipline. However, that doesn’t prevent the well-meaning architect to make a valiant attempt at becoming a saviour. He gathers as much of political energy as he can and gifts his architectural solution to the world, which can either emerge in the form of a master plan (for instance to rehabilitate millions of slum dwellers) or as a small but perfectly controlled architectural object (such as the $300 house project -R.I.P.). That these projects actually have no relationship to the context they are supposed to transform doesn’t bother him the least.

To the young heroic architect aiming at making a difference, looking at the present is not as straightforward as it seems. Especially when the dominant gaze is already coloured so heavily by a linear notion of time. The present is infinitely complex and dynamic, fusing the familiar with the unknown with disconcerting fluency.

Thankfully, linear time is not the only way to relate to the world. If anything at all – it only seems to distract us from a creative, imaginative and direct engagement with the present.

The present contains its own ‘becoming’. It inevitably moves in different directions, pushed and pulled by all of us. But we, who produce the present, are also firmly embedded in it. The present absorbs the future – not through the projected fantasies of a few visionaries but through the chipping and shaping away of the present by those who live in it – the unruly multitude of inhabitants.

The full range of architectural concerns, where the language of space, time and depth shape worlds and animate built-forms are all pervasive processes. These are important and exciting holistic moments. It is a real pity to split them up along a linear representation of time.

What would a practice of architecture and urban design that is not projecting ‘the future’ look like? One which is rooted in the present, rather than in a nostalgic notion of the past, or a wonder of the future, even though it may be inspired from and powered by those fantasies?

The notion of ‘recognition’ provides an important clue. Forms would not simply be projected out of nowhere, but are based on the recognition of processes at work in the production of places (economic, cultural, political). ‘Form follows recognition’ is the tagline of our current exhibition at the House of Architecture in Graz. In our introduction to the exhibition we explain that:

The process of recognition involves a reorientation of our gaze, and the way we interpret and deal with the world around us. It is about framing the reality in a way that allows us, and everyone else, to become legitimate actors. It is about the acceptance of our world as an unfinished and imperfect, collective work in process. And taking part in that process.

According to Amitav Ghosh, “Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge… The knowledge that results from recognition … is not of the same kind as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.” (The Great Derangement, 2016, pp: 5-7). The act of recognition thus involves the establishment of a relationship between the subject and the object – which may be almost fusional. It is not a passive observation but an active engagement with the present and the potential that it embodies. Pre-cognitive forms of intuition and creativity thus have a central role to play in the act of recognition.

In another exhibition, currently showing at the Maxxi in Rome, we show wood, steel and acrylic models of ‘dream tool-houses’ designed by artisans in Dharavi, Mumbai, with the help of the urbz team. A tool-house is a typology that is very typical of unplanned settlements such as Dharavi, but which is also pervasive throughout Asia – from India to China and Japan. It merges residential functions with productive functions, thus optimising the use of space in dense neighbourhoods.

The tool-house models we produced with local actors in Dharavi are fictional and idealised representations of the reality they live in. They represent a potential that is at once hopeful and pragmatic, which draws on local skills and responds to local needs better than any utopian urban design for the future of Dharavi ever could.

The Illustrated Street

May 2, 2011

The practice of photojournalism and image making has changed everywhere. Whether it is on websites of mainstream newspapers or on amateur blogs all around the world, images are increasingly taken by sources close to the scene of action. It is about being right here, right now, and having a sharp enough reflex to snap the image at the right time.

The story is more complicated than simply the amateur journalist taking over the job of the professional. What is happening is that the amateur becomes an expert when she talks about what’s near her, what she is familiar with.  This abundance of information from an infinite number of sources doesn’t mean the end of professional journalism at all. Instead it implies a reinvention of the journalist as a selector/editor of the texts and images that she receives. The journalist still has to be at the right time and the right place but this doesn’t necessarily mean the time and place where the action is unfolding. The place to be is at the receiving and transmitting end of deep networks of actors and readers.

Journalism was already global before the advent of decentralized media. It had become an industry that successfully mobilized people in different parts of the world, and through communication technology such as the telegram, the phone or the fax, connected them to control rooms where the information was being processed and then broadcast. The field of journalism was already broad. What new technologies have brought is a new depth. This depth is not an analytical depth (which may well have been reduced by the speed of diffusion of information), but a depth in the story, since the object of the story can also become a storyteller. We can get the insider story. The end-receiver of information is increasingly intimate with the reality reported in the news. The reader can now interact with the actors from the stories she is reading and even become part of the story, by asking a specific question or offer unique insights.

It follows that there is no simple opposition between the so-called “democratization” of the media and the role of the specialist. The amateur is a specialist of her own reality. We recently started a workshop series on the theme of ‘water’ at the Dharavi Shelter. The kids have quickly become familiar with the use of the digital camera. For this project, we are asking them to look at water in their neighbourhood. They shoot pictures and describe what they have photographed in their own words. Then they document the way water is being used at home, how it gets evacuated and where it goes afterward. This material is then shared with water system specialists who ask questions back to the kids. We are only facilitating this communication. In a way we are acting as journalists, getting information from here and transmitting it there, and then the other way around. Our role is not simply that of a mediator however – we are also actors. And a lot of this involves connecting people to each other. The art of connecting is just as creative as any other, be it writing or photography. This connection, going both ways, empowers the children  significantly.  They will be able to speak with authority about something near them and will get to know it better than anyone else.

It seems to us that good photojournalists have always looked at photojournalism as much more than a profession. It is a form of engagement with the context, with the subject. The most moving and insightful work in that field, has always been one which constructs its own story and doesn’t try to elude the presence and subjectivity of the photographer. Carrying a camera automatically changes the response of the people around you. Playing with that effect is what makes great photography. What we love the most about previous the photos taken by the kids at the Shelter is that they could never have been taken by anyone else. People on the photos would simply have responded differently if they had been snapped by unknown adults. Maybe some would have smiled or felt intimidated in front of a photographer. In front of their friends or family people are more spontaneous and natural. Some of the best shots taken by the kids are the ones that let us sense the relationship between the person behind the camera and the person being photographed.

The images that emerge have a distinctive aesthetic and politics. They emerge from the knowledge embedded in familiarity, the taken for granted, the mundane but eventually emerge to have a sacredness of their own. What facilitates this process is the collective energy that is unleashed by the use of digital technology. The plasticity of which is an individual nightmare for the professional photographer surrounded by amateur images and image-makers, but which becomes a powerful tool when it allows for users to come together and enter into an exercise that becomes a shared and collective practice. The process of making images together, of exploring familiar contexts as a collective, of sharing with an immediacy that this technology facilitates like none other, makes the entire exercise in photojournalism enter into a different realm – one that needs to be appreciated for its aesthetics as well.

Historian, philosopher, writer, Umberto Eco points out how new knowledge technologies that use the digital image are connected to a world at least as old as European medievalism in which the word and the image have always been integral to the political imagination. He looks at contemporary society and all its technological paraphernalia as one more episode in this epic story. He insists that digital technology is potentially liberating and – more importantly – irreversible. We need to find the right handles so that our relationship with knowledge continues to be genuinely challenging and satisfying.

Anthropologist Appadurai points out that the contemporary practitioner is part of a shifting, moving and fluid landscape. New technologies help us express these further and connect to the ‘scapes’ that make up our social imagination in more ways than one. This ‘social imagination’ continues to be rooted in a complex, ever-changing context, one that is inevitably local, because locality is always being produced. However, at the same time, it is acutely aware that national boundaries, like many others are being challenged by new constantly mutating technologies. For him, the globalized world is not the same as Marshall Mcluhan’s mediated global village. It is rather about the migration and movements of people from one part of the globe to another. It is about becoming aware that our lives and worlds are deeply interconnected. Most importantly, it is about the way in which media and new technologies help us come to terms with these connections, shifts and movements.

One story that encapsulates the entire experience of the photography workshops that we do at the Shelter, where images keep being produced and then tell their own stories, where the location is supreme, where time is tamed by sheer presence and immediacy, is told by Ray Bradbury in ‘The Illustrated Man’, first published in 1951. This is a collection of narratives about a dystopic future in which the media literally comes alive. The stories are embodied on a man and are alive with moving images, tattooed by some enchanted artist from a local fair. The man himself could be from any point from the past or future. The stories his body ‘reveals’ ultimately end with one that starts to reflect the life of the person presently ‘watching’ them. They are futuristic stories about a world where a giant screen absorbs human beings into its digital folds, and about human impulses emerging through the ruins of a nuclear devastated world and the intricacies of faith.

But what is striking is that that it places the storyteller at its centre, weaving images and worlds about the past, present and the future. It is ultimately about the triumph of her imagination that cuts through the varied contexts in which one finds her telling her story – always part of a collective universe of story tellers – performing around a fire, thundering in an auditorium, whispering through cyber-space, crackling through television or hitting back at the player in a video game. When the kids at the Dharavi Shelter take pictures of their own streets and homes, they also tattoo them with their imaginations, report it, narrate it and emboss it with their own lives.  The story that emerges has a life of its own.

The photos have been by children living near MG Road, New Transit Camp, Dharavi, during a workshop conducted at the Dharavi Shelter by photographer Lasse Bak Mejlvang from Denmark and Himanshu S. Jan 23, 2011. The workshop participants are: Simon, Anand, Vishal, Neha, Reshma, Karishma, Muskan, Umesh, Gautam, Punam, Amar.

More photos here.

Click here to read an article on photojournalism by Neha Thirani that inspired this post (pdf document).

Urban Fables 2.1: The Downpour

November 28, 2010


This is a series of new fiction pieces that accompany a longer narrative we are working on.

1. The Downpour

The seven-computer cyber cafe was housed in the smallest room possible, testifying to the words hung on the wall near a window right next to Neel’s terminal.

‘This physical world of ours is unimportant, secondary, immaterial’. The words, in golden hue, circled the image of a guru with a white beard and wise eyes.

All of them – words, guru and enlightened halo – were embossed on cheap calendar paper, laminated and given new life by Neel, the cyber cafe owner, only last week. Additional words on the image, ostensibly also voiced by the guru, claimed that the physical world is so immaterial that it can fold inside out in ways that you cant imagine, just like a flexible, lithe dancer’s body.

That part made no sense to Neel.

The guru also happened to be his grandfather, now dead. He would have been safely forgotten, if it had not been for Neel’s dad who found this particular picture attached to a 1934 calendar, tucked away in an old trunk. He insisted that his son put it up in the cyber cafe.

‘He was a real guru and his blessings will have the power to get your shop to actually make money’.

Neel in fact did make more profits last week then he had done in all of the six months since the café’s inauguration. He was now planning to reframe the image in a proper wooden picture and was even ready to build a little altar around it.

He had seen images of his grandfather before of course, but none in this glorious guru-avatar. He knew a bit of his grandfather’s story. Mainly that he had left this fishing village to build his ashram in the hills on the outskirts of the city fairly early in life.

Neel’s family, which had come to the village,when it was all mangroves, sea, ponds and coconut trees, more than four hundred years ago, never took to fishing. That was the condition they were allowed to stay on the fringes of this habitat in the first place. Consequently, every generation found something new to do. His grandfather became a guru. His dad and mom ran a pharmacy and he decided to open a cyber café the day he graduated.

The village itself had transformed beyond belief in the last forty odd years. The edge and the center were all mixed up and the city from the south had pushed itself in and around it, transforming the DNA of the whole neighborhood. It was neither village or city now but something else. Something intense and wholesome, dense and textured. Where space had danced intricately to create all kinds of patterns and sculpted unusual structures, all of them emerging from the bodies and lives of everyone who lived there.

Right now he was curled up in one cubicle, all alone, his rich blue denim shirt merging with the blue of the room, the color evoking his name, which meant blue too. The room had been freshly painted, the intense, plastic aroma overpowering the damp monsoon smell that normally hung around this time of the year.

The last user had left two hours ago, daunted by the rain, which had finally put a stop to his sex-heavy conversation with an anonymous friend. The thought of being trapped in floods had eventually managed to douse his feverish desire to continue.

The cyber cafe was ten feet long, five feet wide with a roof so low it made you duck and walk straight to your chair as soon as you climbed into the room atop an iron ladder creeping up the small two-and-a-half storey high building.

He was not worried about the flood, as he just had to step down the ladder and into his little alcove where he slept, just below the cafe. His parents lived on the ground floor, behind the shop that now sold and repaired mobiles as well as medicines.

Through the tiny window next to the computer, he could see water falling over his neighbor’s roof and rolling down into the gutter. The rain was falling in heavy sheets providing ambient sound that was deafening. The gigantic drops fell onto the corrugated cement roofs with an aggression that threatened to blow holes like bullet shots into them.

Neel’s parents had cleaned up the drain below their house just last week, in anticipation of precisely such a downpour. If they had not, the ground floor would have been knee deep in water tonight.

The room was dark, except for the glow emanating from the sole computer switched on. It reflected right onto the laminated image placed on the wall at Neel’s elbow, making it come alive.

Neel looked into the glowing eyes of his guru grandfather.

‘Thanks for the money grandpa. If only I had known, I would have resurrected you earlier’.

His grandfather’s piercing eyes seemed to shine back approvingly.

A familiar, crunching sound pierced through the din of the rain. Of somebody stepping on and climbing up the iron ladder to the cafe.

Neel turned around in surprise. The entrance to the cyber cafe was really like an open trap door that made the visitor pop headfirst, then heave up the ladder into the room, immediately double up, and reach out to any available chair.

The woman whose face emerged startled Neel. She did not seem to be anyone he had imagined entering his little den at this time of the night. She had straight, black, thick, hair. Her face was unnervingly beautiful and impeccably made up.

In fact, Neel was so disconcerted that his mind seemed to melt in a haze. The next morning though, he remembered everything in vivid detail.

He remembered her black shirt and trousers fitting her perfectly proportioned, full, and sexy body. Of her rich, glowing olive colored skin. He remembered her walking confidently to the computer right next to his.

She placed a fifty-rupee note on the table, barely glanced at him while switching on the computer and sent text messages on her mobile while it came to life.

She then logged onto to google earth (or that’s what he imagined) and peered intently at the images, unfolding and shifting with clicks on the dirty mouse made by her slender hands.

It was because he was trying to peer at her in frank admiration of her beauty and to get a closer view of her cleavage that he managed to notice what exactly she was looking into.

She had zoomed into the country, then the state to get a birds-eye view of the city and the region around it. She was obviously on some very advanced real-time version of the site. He could see wisps of cloud layering the geological configurations and realized that the water movements on the ground were marked out with some glowing bluish green hue that pierced the thin layer of mist.

He remembered being hypnotized by the image. It made him lose all sense of proportion. He felt he was in a large dark room and the images were all around him on a gigantic wall. It was as if he could see every trickle and flow of water on the region around his city. Springs trickled into streams, which flowed into rivers. He saw the familiar dark shadowy shape of Mumbai surrounded by movements of water, as if it was trapped in a large network of rivulets. Then she zoomed in and he was seeing the city up close. There was a thickening of flows in several parts but one strand was larger and thicker than the others. She zoomed in again and he realized he was seeing his own neighborhood, Koliwada surrounded by mangroves on one side and the dense conglomeration of human structures on the other. The thick flow of water, glowing blue on the screen in his eye, was thick and ferocious and the sound of the rain in his ears made him panic. Made him feel as if the river on the computer was actually all around him.

He remembered her staring at him with a hint of a smile as she saw his eyes locked onto her computer.

He turned away embarrassed.

Then a small piece of his roof gave way and water poured inside. He yelped and ran towards it trying to pull the attacked computer away. He managed to save it, dragged out a blue plastic sheet to block the broken roof, and strung it across some nails on the wall. He then turned around, wet, but triumphant, only to see the woman do the weirdest thing possible.

She was standing near the image of his grandfather. He could not make out  her gestures entirely, but if it wasn’t for how she looked and the way she was dressed, he would have been sure her head was bowed down a bit and she was praying with folded hands.

Then she turned, smiled at him, and walked across the room and down the ladder in the most elegant way possible.

He remembered running to her computer. It was switched off. He saw the fifty rupee note. He caught hold of it and rushed to the trap door. It was way too much for the time she had spent.

It was only as he climbed down the steep ladder did he realize what exactly was wrong with her presence in his cyber café.

He nearly slipped on the wet iron railings at the realization. The rains lashed him on all sides. He barely saw her turn around the corner through the downpour and hastily returned to the cafe. Soon he was in bed in his little alcove, shivering with the cold and the layer of fear that had enveloped him. He pushed his thoughts away, not allowing them to take over his sleep.

Next morning it was still pouring. The grey, dark, wet morning did not do much to help him relax. Nothing really made sense. It was only when he went across the bustling street, dodging gigantic pools of water and sludge, to the tea-shop run by his friend, had his first smoke and morning chai, when he let loose the self-imposed barrier in his brain.

She had been bone dry. She did not have an umbrella. No raincoat. Her hair was absolutely untouched by the rain, as were her clothes. Her skin did not have a touch of moisture whatsoever. The chair she was sitting on had been dry too. The fifty-rupee note was stiff and fresh.

That was not all.

She did not seem to be particularly short but had not crouched in the cafe . She had walked across to and from the tiny room as if its size did not act like an obstruction to her elegance and gait even the tiniest bit.

The fact that she was staring at her grandfather’s picture in apparent prayer, now became the least intriguing part of her.

If it were not for the crisp fifty-rupee note in his pocket, he would have convinced himself that his imagination had conjured her up.

(to be continued…)

Wierd Cities

April 17, 2010

Here are some links to the most fascinating explorations of unusual urban settings…or takes on them…

10 Wierd Eco Systems on Earth – features Dharavi as one of ‘em!

Read about the Walled City where Sunlight could not Reach.

And for a great read on the impact of Science Fiction on Architecture and Urban Design.

When Enmeshed Worlds Remain Parallel

January 25, 2010


Right from Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra’s evocative title (Bombay; The Cities Within) , to the trite images of slums juxtaposed against high-rise buildings – Mumbai’s many personalities have been alternatively celebrated and chastised. The diversity of built-forms, the many different urban sensibilities (small town enclaves in South Mumbai, coastal villages in  the suburbs) and the contrasting economic and cultural lifestyles are still very pronounced experiences in Mumbai – making any first time visitor feel disconcerted beyond the normal lag of time, space and culture. It does take a special level of composure to walk from a street, crowded with makeshift homes with children playing around dizzily speeding cars or being accosted by a demanding beggar for your sandwich and then walking into a mega-mall lined by the latest branded items even if you do see the shocked face of the girl behind the counter marveling at your ability to buy goods worth her entire years salary. You don’t have to be a card-carrying socialist to know that these are- at the very minimum – moments demanding some element of erasure, forgetfulness and glossing over if you want to continue living with a semblance of normalcy. Visitors still wonder at how easy it is for such worlds to co-exist without erupting into easy violence. That’s when you realise that there are many ways in which people live around and through contradictions. Its not that you need Johannesburg style gated communities with electric walls to keep people apart. There are all kinds of gates – many a times invisible and even more effective. Older feudal structures in the mind are pretty strong, easily making a rebellious soul stop short of pushing the envelope. Combined by good old brute police force – this helps in creating a perfectly gate-less secure society. At least for the moment.

When we came across the theme of China Mievelle’s  wonderfully wierd fiction story ‘The City and The City’ (introduced to us by Carol Breckenridge) it lent itself easily to a comprehension of Mumbai’s extreme contrasts. In his novel two cities are enmeshed in each other, but citizens of one are conditioned to ignore the evidences (sometimes staring at them in their face) of the other. The office of the ‘Breach’ ensures that the urban worlds remain parallel (even though enmeshed intricately) and disconnected. When a body from one city is found in the other – the narrative starts to flow and the reader discovers the rules through which people can co-exist and remain disconnected.

For anyone in Mumbai who has rolled up a window in an air-conditioned car – in the face of a highly professionalized beggar economy, or walked over a sleeping homeless body, or appreciated the new arty graffiti on a wall once housing streams of homeless families, the novel touches a raw nerve. Reminds you, with the same moral force of your conscientious school teacher – that there is a world out there, which you see and need to respond to in a manner beyond glazed eyes. And yet that would be a ridiculously simple allegorical connection to make with the book. Thankfully our comparison is not moralistic nor intended to create victim – based hysteria. There always are deeper reasons behind the resignation to accept contrasts, particularly when they are so obvious.

But what Mievelle’s world conjures is the ability to see how deeply etched are the invisible worlds that exist around us in many scenarios. It is an ideologically divided Europe that is the inspiring context of his novel. It can work in several ways. Reminding us that there are schisms in several cities – energetically cosmopolitan New York, aggressively regenerating Moscow, ethnically complexed Paris, or migrant enriched London. Its possible for the office of the Breach to operate in all kinds of ways. Its possible for us to be oblivious of the obvious in more ways than simply not seeing the faultlines that are all too evident. Its about finding out where the faultlines actually are. And they may not at all be where you look for them.

Aerial Roots: Geddes and Tagore

January 14, 2010


At the moment we are reading this inspiring text. Tagore is a legendary figure within the Indian intellectual, literary and public realms – as legendary as Gandhi and therefore almost as taken-for-granted and relegated into picture frames. As a poet, he was India’s earliest Noble laureate and invested substantially in the vision of Shanti Niketan, a special space of learning, about a hundred and fifty odd kilometers from Calcutta, which combined the magic of forests with intense urbane, cultural and learning experiences. Patrick Geddes is a more than special name in the world of urban practice – providing inspiring ideas on cities, regions and connections between the environment and habitats. He lived for several years in Mumbai and established the department of Sociology and Civics at the Bombay University in the late nineteenth century, besides doing planning surveys in several Indian cities. The fact that the two met a few times and had a great correspondence on issues linked to cities, forests, rural lives, and cultural practices, around the early twentieth century, fires our imagination. A detailed review to be posted very soon here…

Rabindranath Tagore and Patrick Geddes, the Correspondence
Visva-Bharati Press (India) and Edinburgh University Press (Scotland)
ISBN – 1-85933-203-X

Architecture and Fiction

January 5, 2010

The First Issue. There are 3 out already.
The First Issue of Pedro Gadanho

We ended 2009 with an imaginative blurring of District 9 and Dharavi with the help of some extra-terrestrial help and found ourselves stimulated by the power of fiction to visualize context, space and location in the most unexpected ways. The relationship of aesthetics to design related practices is obvious, the fact that imagination is the fountainhead for architectural practices is even more so – but the capacity of fiction to infuse that relationship with a full-blooded, wholesome stream of subjective connections is something that tends to get overlooked. We pay light-hearted tributes all the time to the power of speculative fiction to influence the architectural imagination but dont always acknowledge how deeply cross-influential those forces really are in the way we think of urban futures. That is why we were so happy to come across the work of Lisbon based writer, curator and architect, Pedro Gadanho who has started a bookazine called Beyond – Short Stories on the Post-Contemporary (through Sun Architecture) which is dedicated to the relationship of fiction and architecture, where architectural projects are conjured through writing, where builtforms can be seen as fiction and much more.

Look for more Airoots writing celebrating this relationship in 2010… A Happy New Year!

Prawn Nagar – Dharavi, Mumbai

December 30, 2009

Softer landing for District 9’s Prawns in Dharavi

If the aliens hadn’t found their way to District 9 in Johannesburg but turned a few latitudes east, across the Indian ocean, over a tiny sliver of land jutting out obscenely and defiantly off the v-shaped south-Asian sub-continent, their fate in cinematic history would have been something else.

Imagine the spaceship hanging over the hot and humid city of Mumbai, specifically over its most mythified neighbourhood – Dharavi.

Its enterprising residents would have absorbed the presence of the craft and its seafood resembling occupants with relative ease. The metallic tentacles of Dharavi’s legendary recycling industry, would have eventually penetrated the most sophisticated barriers and shields to slowly and steadily dismantle the alien structure for absorption into a million-dollar industry that does not allow even the most ordinary piece of scrap to go unsold. How could tons of exotic metal be left to hang in mid-air? Notwithstanding any degree of technological superiority…Bits and pieces of the metal would have found their way into spare body-parts of second-hand cars, ships, toys and assorted machinery. The unusable celestial leftovers may be left to hang in space with no one caring much for aesthetics. Instead somebody would start a little sight-seeing tour by making an improvised crane-bridge to take curious onlookers and tourists for a closer look.

And what of the aliens themselves?

They would have managed to build a tiny little habitat between the crevices of the impossibly dense habitat. Maybe on the toxic watery edge of the mangroves. Not having access to tinned cat-food in Dharavi, could well have found the fish in the sewage water a worthy substitute, considering that a few older residents still fish there even now. And they would have found something worthwhile to do for sure. Their presence would have inevitably fired several wild allegations.

Prawns are said to be hiding in the Mahim Creek near Dharavi

Economically they could make leather goods in Dharavi even more globally competitive with a dash of their own technology. Of course, this could mean a legal crackdown – since scientific tests about the safety quotient of alien substance aren’t possible. But Dharavi’s grey zone economy would take care of that and eventually the aliens would become integral to the neighbourhood’s oldest and most prosperous economic activity, getting swallowed into its several residential, community based enclaves, taking the disputed figure of eighty –eight nagars to eighty nine.

It would have been difficult for any curious journalist to actually discover Prawn-nagar as the boundaries between enclaves are not easy to discern. The only way she would know she’s arrived would be on seeing a bunch of young prawns playing cricket with local Dharavi boys. They would point her out to a set of structures around a small clearing where a few adults would be having a heated argument with neighbours over the right to build a shrine in memory of their lost home – in the form of a replica of their ship.
The shrine would be the only way to connect to their past. No chance of returning home now – given the remains of their emaciated, skeletal, once proud extra-terrestrial space vessel. The other reason nobody would want to return is because the cost of homes in Dharavi would have increased four-fold by now.

Typically, the temptation of making more money eternally overrides any possibility of return.

The journalist would most likely be reporting the possibility of a riot because a prawn-girl and a local – earthling boy had fallen in love and were nearly lynched by both communities, only to be contained by an elderly local activist trying to broker peace.

The prawns would soon be part of political demonstrations trying to save Dharavi and a politician would eventually have got them voting rights. Against the will of a local right-wing party which tried hard to fight their presence tooth and nail – equating the aliens with worse – those from the states of UP and Bihar.

Sooner or later though, a clever prawn leader would have won over the local right wing forces by declaring Marathi as their earth-tongue. He would then have proceeded to pledge support to their drive against the real aliens – the hapless migrants of U.P. and Bihar.

That would pretty much have been the story.

Look out for regular updates from Prawn-nagar, Dharavi, Mumbai on airoots…

Dharavi Tales

February 13, 2009

In our list of fiction relevant to Dharavi’s universally appealing history, we cherish Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Hungry Tide’ (Ravi Dayal, 2004). It is a thrilling account of power and space that unfolds in the dense mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in Bengal. It drags into its intense narrative flow, all of the Indian state’s contrary feelings towards its own people, its neighbors and its continued fidelity to arcane categories, especially those which describe nature and forests and those who live directly off it.

The novel opens itself to allegorical interpretations to historical moments in completely different parts of the sub-continent.

We draw from it a powerful lesson for Dharavi. (And not just because of the obvious mangrove connection; Dharavi too grew in the marshy lands of the mangroves that surrounded the city even more richly in the past).

There is a moment when a schoolmaster revolutionary first encounters the community of recent settlers in the mangrove forests and is completely disarmed by their ability to re-organize their lives.

‘What had I expected? A mere jumble, perhaps, untidy heaps of people, piled high upon each other? …But what I saw was quite different from the picture in my mind’s eye. Paths had been laid…little plots of land had been enclosed with fences; fishing nets had been hung up to dry. There were men and women sitting outside their huts, repairing their nets and stringing their crab lines with bits of bait and bone.
Such industry! Such diligence! Yet it was only a few weeks since they had come’.

(Page 171)

The protagonist goes on to document his thrill at seeing ‘the birth of something new’ – the creation of a world not by a single visionary but one that was dreamt up by ‘the very people who were trying to make it real’, not ‘by those with learning and power but by those without’ (ibid).

At the simplest level – this response echoes the typical responses of many who encounter habitats like Dharavi for the first time. Take a look at the numerous reports and accounts of journalists and travelers. Surprise and shock at the organized level of activities is in sharp contrast to the perspectives of authorities and uninformed public opinion that usually reaches their ears first.

The organized prejudice manifests itself in kinds of violence too, as depicted in the novel. Maybe not a massacre – but something close – a complete destruction of the intricacies of economics and resources that are enmeshed in the neighbourhood – as intricately as the mangroves connect to the lives of the settlers in the Sunderbans. Besides, the category ‘refugee’ morphs into similar condensed prejudices such as ‘illegal’, ‘criminals’, ‘encroachers’ or simply ‘slum dwellers’.

But there is more.

The full impact of the nuances of the story became more evident to us when we came across Ghosh’s essay ‘Wild Fictions: Narratives of Nature and the Politics of Forests’. (Outlook Essays, January 2009). It is a powerful critique of the idea of nature and the environment as a-priori in our understanding of human history.

He points out how the presence of the ‘environmental unconscious’ within the lives of those who are perceived to be living directly off the environment – has to constantly contend with the articulated notion of ‘Nature’ as if it lies above human life.

Ghosh’s essay uses parables, history and razor sharp arguments to reveal how the ‘environment…is peopled, inhabited and continually enriched by history’. For us the argument made it abundantly clear that any understanding of habitats needs to factor in how intimately connected are the omniscient categories of ‘Nature’ and its counter-point ‘Urban Civilization’. Accepting the fact that both feed off each other makes it clear why the story of the settlers of the Sunderbans resonates so much with the lives of those living in a place like Dharavi – and several others like it.

‘The Hungry Tide’ can be seen as a larger commentary on administrative categories and such mythic constructions that make and break habitats. It shows how nationalism and its accompanying discourses of legitimacy and illegitimacy translates into questions of development that then play vicious games in the name of the environment and its unarticulated and equally constructed anti-thesis – urban spaces.

The preservation of the forests as an end in itself goes hand in hand with the demarcation of the city. And the rules of demarcation must be always respected – both ways. A city as the epitome of civilization must not show signs of wilderness at all – and if it does – then it must be civic-minded and always under-control.

And equally important: – wilderness must never show signs of industry. That’s why the emphasis in the protagonist’s response (such industry!) is so memorable.

The fascinating account that Suresh Sharma describes in ‘Tribal Identity and the Modern World’ (Sage, 1994) comes to mind. He points out how the Agaria tribes of the forests in Central India, were adept at smelting iron and had a rich legacy of crafts involving iron work. They responded with enthusiasm to the coming of the (rich-in-iron-symbolism) railways but were confronted with an administrative gaze that could not see them as anything more than savage forest-dwellers. Instead of harnessing their enthusiasm, their presence in the forests (where they used to shallow-mine iron in an ecologically sound way) was criminalized. And the forests themselves were either mined and destroyed or zoned out as a Nature Preserve.

The need to neatly demarcate pristine forests and civilizational spaces go hand in hand. The boundaries must never be breached.

This compulsion for categorization and zoning runs very deep. A village in a city is eventually considered to be anachronistic and must either be gentrified or lose its identity as a village. In Mumbai – almost all the biggest slums have a nucleus that once was a recognizable village. Including Dharavi. It is easy for a village – which should not exist in the city in the first place according to the laws of demarcation– to slowly be downgraded into a slum, especially when rural refugees start crowding the city and need to be housed.

In addition, a place like Dharavi, which is almost all about industry, is illegal for another reason. It violates another zoning taboo – where residences and work places must never over-lap. A taboo that makes no sense in Dharavi at all in which the main built-form is the tool-house itself – a multi-use space that defies categorization and zoning. And yet – the laws continue to be in place citing all kinds of disputable and excessive reasoning, at every level.

We read The Hungry Tide as a parable about habitats such as Dharavi, encased in a powerful vision about power and space in which ideas like the environment, nature, urbanism, development and economics are fiercely contested.

Of course it is about lots more – including being a treasure trove of knowledge about the environment, dolphins and the magical-ecology of the Sunderbans – besides being a thoroughly enjoyable read!

The future is in the periphery

September 22, 2008

This sentence stayed with us since we first heard it from Yehuda Safran, one of our mentors and inspirations. We were at a workshop in Taichung, the third biggest city in Taiwan, which aimed at producing ideas for a leftover industrial site called TADA. While the site was not itself in the periphery of Taichung, the city certainly was in the periphery of Taipei the capital city, and Taiwan itself is in the periphery of China. At a time when all eyes are turned to the urbanizing dragon, what meaning could this dead site in an unknown city in a doomed country really have?

Well, it probably has as much meaning we can infuse it with. We imagined how much of a place of creation that old industrial site could be and devised 99 rules to preserve freedom and stimulate the imagination. We were so stimulated by that place onto which we could project our wildest dreams that we produced a small book, the TADA Manifesto, in four days. For a moment that abandoned brewery in the middle of nowhere was the most inspiring place on earth. It was full of potential because we could make it ours.

New York was creative when no one was looking. SoHo, The East Village, the Lower East side in Manhattan and more recently Williamsburg in Brooklyn were cultural hotbeds for as long as the city was bankrupt and these places were ignored. That’s when people like ABC No Rio and CBGB could squat buildings and Futura were spray painting subway tunnels, when artists that are now established, recognized and often not so inspired anymore, were still crackheads, rebellious gays, punks, bums and squatters. There was nothing there to see. No hype and no romance. These much venerated places were at the periphery of a city on the verge of a breakdown.

Now that New York is universally recognized as a creative city all we see instead of artists are art directors, graphic designers, ad producers and their like. Established and wannabe communication professionals, commercial artists and other marketers come enmasse to such cities, where they know there is an industry that can use their know-how. Rather than breaking new grounds this so-called “creative class” recycles tired clichés and remixed proven formulas. New York is good at attracting people from elsewhere, but doesn’t breed much local talent anymore. Of course just like everywhere, pockets of innovation remain. New York is big enough and its periphery is full of creative tension and driven people. But as a rule, creative work seems to happen where no one is looking.

Some type of “observer effect” seems to be at work. Once too many people start observing and pointing out how creative a place is, it stops being creative (Berlin is recognized as one of the most creative city in the world right now. That must be the beginning of the end). Nothing messes up the creator’s work more than attention to the public and the media, let alone the market. What will they think? Should I be more/less explicit? Is this over the top? How can I justify my creation? How can I make it a commercial success?

The creative process is profoundly egocentric, free and subversive. It seems to come from a visceral need to project the self onto the world, but only really for the self’s sake not for the world. The world can go to hell. Indeed the creative act is usually destructive, at least the risk of destroying what’s around can’t stop it. As the creator dives into the self and indulges in the most gratifying self-expression, he abandons himself and the world to his creation. As if the creation had to happen at all cost, even at the expense of the creator’s own existence. Creation drives the creator, not the other way around.

Take for instance what is happening in the periphery of Geneva at the moment, at the CERN, where scientists have built the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator complex (LHC). They try to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson, a hypothetical massive scalar elementary particle that exists only in their theories by recreating the condition of the big bang. The experiment was supposed to start this month but because of technical problems it is delayed. We’ve heard that some scientists had concerns about the possibility of this experience creating a black hole that could grow and swallow the universe. Of course CERN-commissioned safety reviews have concluded that the risk of complete destruction of the universe is extremely small, even smaller than the possibility of a technical problem happening at the LHC.

After all, it would be a shame to call off the experiment after so many people put so much passion into it, right? In fact they can’t stop it. They are absorbed already. The drive to create is what keeps us going in the face of emptiness and what drives us into it. When there is nothing but a hole at the center, our best hope is the periphery.

Download the Tada Manifesto (41 MB)

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