Positivity in the face of disaster: Our experience at Gurgaon’s burnt down slum- March 31, 2012

A slum of about 80 houses burnt down in Sector 57 in Gurgaon yesterday.  When a group of us visited this morning, the sight was not pretty (see pics below). The fire happened in the daytime when everyone was at work but all the children were in the slum being watched by a few adults. By some miracle, no lives were lost. Everything these poor families possessed- clothes, vessels, savings, documents- was lost to the fire, that consumed the jhuggi in 12 minutes flat!

Staring at empty space where their homes stood just a day ago!

Charred remains of things essential

At site, we found people sitting around in various moods. Despondent, sad, industrious, belligerent, curious, resigned and even indifferent. We gathered within minutes that this is a community of migrants, predominantly Muslim, coming from West Bengal. A few families from Bihar, MP and UP live here as well, but relations are strained between the various linguistic groups.

Nobody is aggressive towards us though and they are more than willing to share information, talk about their lives, what they need, how things work or don’t work in their jhuggi, etc. In fact, some of the conversations are so normal to almost be surreal if you consider these people, who are already living on so little, just lost everything they have! They don’t focus on what they lost, they want to talk about how to rebuild their lives.

The realities of their lives hit me over and over, walking through the charred remains of their homes. Kids don’t go to school. Most residents are cleaners, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, etc. Cellphones are common. The homes are tiny, most able to accomodate only about three adults sleeping side by side. Yet there were no tears, kids played around cheerfully, I saw little anguish and no greed for what we would possibley give them. Only an expression of genuine need.

Jhuggi dwellers told us that the first response was by the local mosque, which distributed clothes and provided food. The maulvi assured us when we spoke to him later, that the mosque would continue to supply food. Some government departments have reportedly provided some bits of help- a water tanker, some clothes, food. Our team that has had experience with disaster relief before (they ran the super successful Mission Julley in the aftermath of the Ladakh flash flood), felt immediate and sustained and above all, organized efforts are required to really meet the needs of these families.

A positive experience came in the form of a couple of contractors who were building on plots nearby. They had seen the jhuggi burn down yesterday and they were shaken. They promised to get together a group of their friends working in the vicinity to support our work monetarily or in whatever way possible, promptly sharing their contact information and standing with us till the end of the visit.

There’s a lot to be done and fast! We’re chalking out a plan to move ahead and help these families. I will convey the details soon via facebook and twitter.

My blog will continue to follow the story of this jhuggi for the next few days. I have in mind to write about the condition of housing and the system of administration in such communities, the unique systems they develop for survival in a harsh urban environment, the lack of initiative I observed in then to form a community and analysis of why, and of course, how we are able to help and our experiences whole doing so…..Keep reading!

Exhausting yet totally satisfying: A great party at home- March 30, 2012

At the absolute end of a marathon day of cleaning, organising and finally experiencing a birthday party for a four year old and a thirty six year old, I can safely say that I am wiser, richer (and not monetarily) and completely bushed!
There are many arguments for and against hosting a party at home. On the down side, it’s stressful, physically exhausting, chaotic, and you do get the impression that you haven’t spent enough time with your friends. And the cleaning up after a daunting task. The picture at the bottom shows you how much trash came out of a party for over 70 adults and 25 kids. And this is when only a part of the serving was done in disposables.
All this said, its simply not the same hosting a party in a commercial location. It’s not a personal space, you don’t get the same feel of closeness and camaraderie. Kids are a lot more comfy in a home than in a club or restaurant or banquet facility. On the commercial side, hosting a party at home is a lot cheaper (we calculated it would have cost us ten times outside). The garbage generated is probably one tenth of the wastage a caterer would incur, behind the scenes of course!
All in all, even though I am totally exhausted, I feel loved, happy and satisfied. Those who can come home, handle the chaos and the noise (and some garbage lying around); those who can be guests and also help out with the serving and washing dishes; those who do not stand on formality and accept us for who we are- those are the friends, the family who truly matter! Thanks all! And promise to post pics later!

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Small retailers are superbly efficient: Another party planning tale- March 29, 2012

So today was the errand day. First stop was Landmark. A huge pan-India chain selling books, music, stationery, toys, etc. We were trying to buy return gifts for Aadyaa’s friends and Udai’s, who would be coming for the party tomorrow. It took us about half an hour to select what we wanted, basically large quantities of finite items. It took us nearly the same amount of time to bill them!

One young man, sprightly enough but clearly on his first job ever, was patiently passing every single pen, pencil, crayon and comic (oops, did I let out the secret?) through the barcode scanner. He even fed in barcodes where the scanner didn’t oblige. About ten minutes down, I asked him if there was a better way to do this and he told me the system only takes one item at a time. There apparently was no way to enter a code and then enter the number of items of that type! All the items that he did scan were meanwhile piling up on the other side. About ten employees of the store hung about, not one of them attempting to fill these into a bag. Finally, we (scanner boy and me) had to ask one to help! And then, this dude proceeded to put all the books in one bag and the stationery in the other! Explaining the merits of weight distribution was sort of pointless…..So, after having a word with the manager of the store, who looked pained but not inclined to do anything much about the situation, we left carrying one bag that was nearly bursting open and another that was fairly light!

We didn’t find wrapping paper at this huge mega store (only the super expensive kind!) and so we visited the stationery shop at the urban village nearby (Chakkarpur, Gurgaon). We saw in operation a well-stocked store, efficiently manned, with an owner-manager who knew his stock (and most of his customers) intimately.  I could bet all the stuff we bought at Landmark would have been billed here in 3 minutes flat! Plus, we would have got a better deal, more variety, friendlier service….

Stupid us. Falling for big names. Lesson learnt! Look local first. And for other stuff, plan better and order online!

Collaborative creations: Planning a b’day bash- March 28, 2012

Today is Aadyaa’s birthday and amid the deluge of phone calls and errands, we sat down to make invitation cards for her classmates (we’re having the party the day after, on Friday)! Aadyaa loves paint and I had the idea that the cards should all have her imprint on them; but making a four year old paint 20 cards is no easy task. So we found a mid way solution.

Aadyaa was given a free hand with paint on A3 size paper. Udai and me used her painted sheets and old wedding cards on a fresh piece of white card to create these invites. Each one is unique and we had a lot of fun working together to make them. Take a look!

Mies turning in his grave? Mish mash architecture in Indian cities- March 27, 2012

On the 126th birth anniversary if Mies van der Rohe, a formidable name in the architectural community, I cannot help thinking what his reactions would be to the kind of aesthetic we commonly see in Indian cities and towns.

When we were in architecture school, modernism was still regarded to be the last distinctive movement in terms of architectural philosophy and style. Our professors were those who had attempted to emulate their western heroes and tried their best to instill in us a love for the rationalist thought in which form, material and indeed every aspect of design originated from function. Clean lines, minimalism and the language of concrete are the visual images we took away from college, even as post-modern and deconstructionist design was sweeping the world. As we graduated and looked at the world around, we realized that the new ethic was all about pluralism, a variety of expression, experimentation, a bold flirtation with form and material- the complete opposite, in fact, of what we had been encouraged to idolize.

In India, though, the prevalent aesthetic is a curious mix of influences. Since architects play a minimal role in the built environment and the credentials (and ethics) of many architects who do are questionable, we see a lot of pop design all around us. Aspirational motifs ranging from Greek and Roman to colonial, traditional Indian temple architecture to glass clad techno facades converge such that our cities are a curious mish mash of visual stimuli. An orgy of elements and styles. Sure would make Mies turn in his grave, or if he had a sense of humor, laugh real hard!

Indians have an obsession for gates. We passed this in Bangalore....it isn't ancient, its ultra modern!

This is a brand new mall we drove by also in Bangalore...I rest my case!

 

Resilience & buzzing activity at Russell Market, Bangalore- March 26, 2012

Earlier this month on a work trip to Bangalore, I had written about how traders in the city’s Russell Market were taking a private initiative to rebuild it without waiting for the city authorities to do so. This trip gave me the time and opportunity to see for myself.

I found a bustling market in Shivaji Nagar, in the heart of the city’s busy shopping district near Commercial Street. Visiting on a Sunday, we saw crowds pouring out after finishing mass at St Mary’s Basilica, the oldest church in the city, which is right opposite the market. The streets were lined with vendors and it was a bit of a mela. Russell Market is an Indo Saracenic structure built in the 1920s like much of this part of the city, which was known back then as Blackpully.

The char marks left by the fire were apparent on the exteriors and interiors of the market. Inside, the place was a medley of assorted wares–flowers, vegetables, fish, meat, fruits, poultry, even shops dedicated to prawns! The trade seemed to be largely in the hands of Muslim tradesmen; having driven through a few districts in Karnataka the past few days, I could see that the influence of Islam runs deep and is seeped into the fabric of this region; and the obviously Islamic character of the shopkeepers was not surprising at all.

Naked, dangling wires were everywhere. Apparently, this was the cause of the fire, which had gutted 123 shops and required 29 fire tenders working five hours to douse! Traders have accused the city municipal corporation of having neglected their repeated complaint to fix the wiring.The corporation did compensate shop owners though (to the tune of Rs 50,000 reportedly), and the money is being put to good use from the look of the renovation work that is proceeding full steam. The renovation is focused on the most damaged part of the market. The rest of the place continues with business despite the charred walls and structure; the walls have been painted over where necessary and life goes on. Of course, poking around with camera did attract some curious stares, but none   hostile! Finally, one vendor asked me which newspaper I work for. When he learnt I am an architect, he seemed delighted. And I had to make a swift getaway lest he expected instant advice on the interior remodeling of his shop!

I returned with a sense of hope at the resilience of the ordinary person in this country. Despite systems breaking down all around, Indians have the knack to refuse to be intimidated by obstacles and Russell Market’s traders epitomized this. I was saddened, however, by the neglect of this lovely building by the city. Clearly a heritage structure, a public place that must occupy a significant place in the public memory of this city’s inhabitants, Russell Market deserves a better deal.

Market entrance

Buzzing streetside activity in this predominantly Muslim neighborhood

Naked wires, charred walls

Hindu Gods and puja flowers share the space too

Charred walls have been whitewashed over and the market is buzzing again

Architectural delight

Lots of meat. This was one organized market....

The new interiors...not much heritage, but who can blame shopkeepers for wanting modern finishes!

Enjoying Bangalore’s open spaces-March 25, 2012

Bangalore was a great launch pad for our Coorg vacation. Today, we experienced the wonder of the city’s weather eating breakfast in the lawns of the Bangalore Club. The kids, after gobbling dosas and idlis, made gleefully for the swings. Under the shade of the city’s enormous trees, they were able to fully enjoy the outdoors. We saw a large number of relaxed parents whose kids were on the swings as well. What luxury to live in a city where even in summer, the outdoors can be enjoyed! As much as they crib about traffic and the crazy expansion of this city, Bangaloreans would not leave their city only for the pleasure of the green outdoors!

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Notes from Madikeri- March 24, 2012

As we began our drive back from the Kodagu Valley, we stopped a short while in Madikeri to walk around and buy some fruits. The Brits called it Mercara, this quaint town set in the heart of coffee country. The largest urban area in Kodagu district, Madikeri has a population of some 30,000 people. The district itself only has some 550,000 people in it, making it the least populous districts in India! A sex ratio of 1019 females per 1000 males and a literacy rate of 82%, Kodagu fares well in terms of indicators of development.
Madikeri felt larger than its 30,000 though, spread out as it is over an expanse of hills and valleys. It does have an ‘urban development authority’ though, so I am wondering where the towns ambitions lie!
What immediately caught my eye was that the town and indeed the district is well administrated-clean streets, organised markets, public transport on place, law and order visibly in place.
Largely, townspeople live in pukka homes with walls usually made of hollow concrete bricks or laterite stone and roofing of traditional or modern terracotta tiles. The more prosperous properties on the outskirts if the city have well tended gardens and exude a certain pride. Even the modest dwellings seemed well kept. A provincial town, Madikeri’s main market had large bunches of bananas being delivered to stores, a system of one way roads to manage traffic and an air of deliberate business. The historic Madikeri fort added to the charm as well.
As we headed on to Mysore and finally spent a couple hours in Bangalore’s traffic, I doubly appreciated the simplicity of Madikeri.

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Adventure trail: Testing our limits- March 23, 2012

One of the loveliest aspects of leaving the city is the experience of enjoying the outdoors. Here in Coorg, the forests beckon and the weather is warm but not enough to drive us indoors as it certainly will be when we get back to Gurgaon!
Today the family was in the mood for adventure. Mum and Udai went on an 8 km trek to Abby Falls. A tough walk for someone not yet eight and reportedly one full of sights of the bountiful flora and fauna of the Kodagu Valley. Aadyaa explored the property and tried all the swings and curvy trails.
Rahul and me tried the obstacle course. He went first and I hadn’t quite made up my mind if I was up to it. On impulse I started the course, but as I went along I found my confidence grew. The sheer height of the ropes from the ground meant you needed full concentration. It was important to focus and relax at the same time and necessary to follow instructions to the tee. It struck me that this was true for anything we want to do well in life. But it’s only that, for many other tasks in our everyday lives, we choose to not remember that we are indeed high above steady ground. Instead, we delude ourselves and create excuses and escape routes in our heads. No wonder the results aren’t often as good as mine were on today’s obstacle course!
The last few days, I have been fairly upset about a few small health issues, the perpetual battle with my weight and generally a bit low. The obstacle course jerked me out of my self pity and drove home the need to set myself small targets, find mentors to help me, follow their advice, leave aside my fears, and simply go for it!

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Water, elephants and peace away from the madding crowds- march 22, 2012

Already in the lap of nature in Club Mahindra’s Kodagu Valley resort in Coorg, we took the opportunity to delve further into the jungle to visit the elephants on the Tala Cauvery river. The drive offered a visual treat of plantations growing coffee, betel nut, banana, coconut, maize and many other crops we couldn’t identify. The diversity of crops and the prosperity of the villages testified to the fertility of the Kodagu valley. We also saw this translated into the ready smiles of the locals who enthusiastically gave us directions in local dialect; they were confident and easy going and best of all, uncomplicated.
Closing in on the elephant camp we were headed for, we saw a group of about six elephants being led away. Soon we learnt that a strike had just begun and there would be no elephant bathing today. It was hard to be disappointed in the midst of such beauty and soon we were all rowing ourselves into the river on a still water rafting sortie! One leg in the raft, the other in the water, we rowed hard and worked off breakfast. The kids were totally in the mood to jump in the river, even willing to swim with the magnificent water snake we saw swim across right before our raft. Our guide informed us that the deceptively still waters were in fact about thirty feet deep and so the kids were reigned in!
On our return, we were delighted to see a group of elephants being bathed on the opposite side of the river (they belonged to the ‘private’ camp). Getting to them, however, entailed a rather tricky crossing of the river bed hopping over slippery stones and fording mini streams. Finally the kids did bathe and feed the elephants, those magnificent creatures stoically tolerating the crazy excitable tourists surrounding them.
All in all, it was an enjoyable morning. My idea of a holiday is either being in a bustling city where myriad stimuli hit you simultaneously or this- surrounded by the peace and quiet and melodious sounds of nature.
My day, fittingly, ended in an Ayurvedic massage. The spa here came highly recommended and Marlynne the masseuse did not let me down. She confided that she would be leaving next month after eight years of working to marry and settle down in native Kannur. A bit later, we were regaled with interesting stories by the resident musician, a creature of interesting ancestry and some talent, whose name we don’t yet know. And that, to me, is the best aspect of travel- meeting people you will forever associate with the place you’ve been to!

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