Monday, October 09, 2006

A tale of two cities

The ancient Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are aids to instilling an organic consciousness in human society, are also essentially about the cities of Ayodhya, and Hastinapur.
In the same way as an epic serves to guide seekers of truth and wisdom through the slings and fortunes of their own lives by upholding a personalisable figure, such as Lord Rama, and describing his exile and wandering, similarly, the mythic cities are also metaphors for the process of becoming of any city, to an Ayodhya, the city of compassion and justice.

Thus, one can think of the journey of a city, through history, in terms of a cycle of birth, growth, prosperity, stagnation, decay, blight, recrudescence...

Mythology becomes the means for continuous renewal through the living culture of the people, as individual, institutional, city and social life trajectories act out, anew, contemporary versions of the epic events, with consequences that mirror mythic outcomes.

Or shatter mythic patterns and bonds to now enable otherwise unimaginable new possibilities.

The tale of the two cities, of Calcutta and Howrah, may easily be viewed mythically - for instance, in terms of the story of the two brothers, fated to be king and sage respectively, that is common to both Hindu and Islamic thought.

Few cities in the world have experienced what these two did - in terms of their rapid growth and massive industrial edifice, their wealth, and size and scale of their vast rural hinterland, the extent of their regional economic linkages - and the weight of the apathy to their labouring people.

More fundamentally, this process of urban growth was accompanied by profound enlightenment in the social and cultural sphere, through which elite, European-inspired accomplishments and deep-rooted spontaneous folk sensibilities were integrated, to produce giants of creativity, intellect and wisdom - like the revered poet-sage Rabindranath Tagore.

The story of the rise of these cities is also the story of the renewal of a tradition, of awakening, re-connecting with roots, and building with this strength. The subsequent process of decline, decay and blight in the economic, environmental and social spheres in turn leading to a moment when the wheel is again ready to be turned, and a heroic journey begun, through which a barren, arid wasteland is now to be made verdant.

Howrah has always been viewed as a ‘coolie (i.e. labourers’) town’ that did not merit any serious civic effort. The history, the context of resource scarcity, the survival imperative in the people of Howrah, and the parasitic greed and activities of profiteers, all interact to make today’s Howrah the ultimate planning nightmare, or challenge, depending upon one’s perspective.

The very blight that characterises Howrah today, can also be seen as a rare opportunity to shape the Howrah of tomorrow. This is the gift of Howrah’s history.

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