Friday, December 26, 2014

Kolkata: Desirability of Decline



William Gibson had a point when he said - the future is already here, just that it is not evenly distributed.

The same thing can be said about the past, which refuses to go away. 

The city I come from - Kolkata, India - retains a large slice of the past. A visitor may see in Kolkata people who have lost hope. A people who is clinging to the past - they are justifiably proud of their great citizens - but the future has been erased out of all conversations. All the dilapidated buildings, all the great clocks situated all around the city which have stopped working, the noisy tram cars and the procession of Ambassador cars, modeled after a GM model from the 60s which is now out of production, make this a city of all-embracing nostalgia.

It is no surprise that the young people leave. They go away searching for better education, jobs, money and lives - to other Indian cities and abroad. They leave behind parents who talk incessantly about them - even their bright futures turned into annals of the past - and the city to people who move in from elsewhere; when they can, these visitors leave too, leaving the city for the next lot that needs to come in. 

We can add to Gibson's point that the future tends to lump together, and it migrates away from places which can't hold it.

But, then, creative cities don't become creative because they enjoy concentrated money and power, but rather because decline of money and power create space for new forms of thinking to emerge. Remember Jane Jacobs' point about old buildings and new thinking: "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings". The rising, shiny real estate, the current measure of a city's prosperity and life, may be a triumph for the realtor - but that, going by the history of great cities, drive away the future of the future. This is why, as we must add to Gibson's observation, future is incessantly mobile.

However, decline does not automatically guarantee the seeding of the future. There is a type of decline that is irreversible, dark and hopeless. Many who have left Kolkata would see its path leading to the pointlessness of a dead city; indeed, the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, said as much in the eighties. Kolkata's declining public life, the flight of its young, its murderous administration and its politics of poverty, all point to a kind of futurelessness. This is not the kind of decline New York had - as it came back from the dead in the 1990s - but rather like one of those ancient cities, which are now dead, gone and forgotten. The relevant data point about Kolkata is no longer that this was one of the two Asian cities to reach a million population in 1900 (the other being Tokyo), but this is perhaps the only big city in the world to have lost population since the turn of the millennium.

What differentiates the desirable decline that is a precondition for regeneration from the the irreversible decline of the dark kind that it seems to be is whether the people can still hold those in power accountable. When the finest students of the finest institution in the City refuse to take their certificates from a propped up administration, they are demonstrating just that spirit: They are the proof that the city lives on. In turn, this proves Gibson's point: The future is indeed unevenly distributed and only some can see it. The powers-that-be, represented in this case by the State's Governor who wanted to impose his dictatorial wishes on how educational institutions are run, are clueless when people who see the future start imagining - start holding them accountable for their lack of imagination. In many ways, that act of standing up, as the students of the university did, respectfully but firmly, evidence the future that refuse to disappear.

When such spirits live on, the decline is desirable: It drives away the lusty gaze of the unimaginative financier, who invariably mistake a city for its shopping malls, and believe that infrastructure, not people, makes a city work. The allure of their world view, packaged and presented in the conferences, reports, and speeches, are irrefutable, but mistaken in their sense of one crucial dimension: Time. We have laboured to lose a sense of history - so we can afford to think that today's successful cities are really the result of financial engineering and architectural triumphs of recent years, and not the other way around. However, the history comes back, in its usual long arc, and we see the lessons again and again: The cultural genius of a Vienna create a ringstrasse, and not the other way around.

So, let us celebrate the hopelessness, that drives the greedy away. The buildings that need little effort to tear down preserve for the posterity an ability to tear down, the politics that seems near the breaking point afford the imagination of a new politics. The only thing that seems to matter is the spirit of the people to live on, an ability to love - a few words, a few people, some ideas and some fragmented dreams - and not buy wholesale into the consultant-speak. To the dismay of the socialite, the rich and the powerful, let us celebrate the decline that let a city die, bury its structures of power and then, just as it happened in history, start again with hope.






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