Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

Centre Pompidou: Sensory overload!

Despite a longish four weeks in Paris, its hard to shed the feeling of being a tourist. For there is truly so much to do in this city and so little time to do it in if you put in regular work hours. So I woke up on Saturday morning with determination. And my destination was the Centre Pompidou, which celebrates its 40th year in 2017.

Armed with a online ticket, I set off on a meandering path, certain that I had plenty of time. I got in a couple of quick sketches and a detour through Saint Chapelle and the Conciergerie, which are within a massive Gothic complex that once was a palace but is now the Palace of Justice, housing judiciary functions. I even grabbed a delightful lunch, sitting solo on the sidewalk, enjoying the rare autumnal sun.

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The online ticket was to be on no use whatsoever, but the long wait in the line that snaked across the massive square in front of Centre Pompidou offered me a chance to take in the mind boggling structure before me. All steel tubes and pipes, it is a geometrical and structural orgasm created by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini in the spirit of an “evolving spatial diagram”. The project was part of a larger renewal plan for the area which included the controversial relocation of the giant meat market that was inside Les Halles, which now houses a transport interchange and shopping centre. This facility was to house a museum and a public library that extended the dream of Andre Malraux (author and France’s first Minister of Culture Affairs) to decentralize art and culture. I can imagine the design being met with utter horror by the conservative Parisians, because it sticks out like a sore thumb like a disruption, offering no continuity whatsoever with the surrounding urban form nor showing the remotest respect to the heritage around. Instead it soars up, in white, blue, red and yellow, unapologetic and grand. I was to realize its true impact only a day later when I traveled to Belleville in the northwestern part of the city and saw it glisten from the top of Boulevard de Menilmontant! I read later that the architects saw their chance to bring in new ideas to capture the mood of Paris post the massive political unrest in 1968 that nearly destabilized the country. For them, the bold design signified a changed thinking.

[Click here for some delightful pics and thoughts shared by the architects on the Centre’s 40th anniversary]

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Once inside, I felt like a child in a candy store! My first stop was the massive and impressive retrospective of David Hockney. The British artist is 80 this year and the show had works on display since he was about 17 years old. The span of styles and the bold statement his art is left me overwhelmed. I was in that strange state of feeling filled to the brim and drained out at the same time! And this is when the gorgeous views offered by the building rescued me. I wandered the terraces for a while taking in the city sprawling below me, recognizing the monuments on the skyline and appreciating the strange zig zag roofs of Paris.

And then, I delved into the museum’s permanent collection of modern art. I had already soaked myself into the works of the avant garde artists at the Musee d’Orsay in my first week here and later at the Musee l’Orangerie. Now I felt like I was taking that journey forward, moving through the Dada, Cubist, Fauvist, Expressionist, Surrealist, de Stijl and ‘Return to Order’ phases of modern art. An impressive collection, the vast and modern spaces of the museum have much to add to the experience, and its frequent terraces offered timely relief. Unlike the other museums, there was something informal and easy going about the Centre Pompidou. Even the staff was not in uniform and sat around casually, unlike the alert and stern security that is standard at museums across the world.

Walking away from the museum, I just did not feel like heading home. There was too much inside my head, swirling shapes and blocks of colour, too much energy! So I wandered through the lanes in the Marais and treated myself to a glass of Chardonnay, as is fitting at the end of a glorious museum-filled day in Paris.

All content and photographs © Mukta Naik

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A ‘brutalist’ China Town and the Parisian ‘bo bun’

It was while sauntering through the delightful Chateau Fontainebleu during our Parisian stint this summer that I first made the connection between the 13th arrondissement and industry. Le Gobelins, a stop on the metro line (7) we often took into town from our suburban abode in summer, was where the French aristocracy got its tapestries from. Up until the ’60s, from what I understand, this area of Paris that lies south of the Seine was a marshy mish mash of industrial workshops and village like neighbourhoods interspersed with patches of gardens and farms. Inspired by Corbusier’s ideas of city planning, a massive urban project called Italie 13 was planned here in the ’60s for the urban professional classes, dominated by high rise towers and large interconnected public spaces on the ground level.

I had the chance to visit Les Olympiades, one of the prominent high-rise complexes built in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a colleague recently. We were out to get some lunch and he kindly decided to show me around the China Town nearby. Which, against my expectations, was amid this giant brutalist complex of monotonous and monumental high rises! The tall towers of Les Olympiades, which I hear are now rapidly gentrifying, frame a large plaza with a market and access to multi level shopping centres. The design of the Pagode shopping plaza, with its pagoda style roofs, turned out to be prophetic because this neighbourhood saw the arrival of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Camobodia and Laos in the late ’70s, most of them escaping the Vietnam War.

IMG_4400IMG_4409IMG_4408IMG_4407IMG_4401IMG_4396Though architecturally this area hardly looks like the ‘China Town’ one expects, many of the businesses here are Chinese owned. A south-east Asian style set of vendors selling greens on the streets and a number of food stalls selling Vietnamese food were the most obvious signs here. Sitting on the sidewalk, we enjoyed a quick meal of ‘bo bun’, a dish of rice vermicelli with grilled meat, raw vegetables and tangy sauce that has become my favourite food in Paris. This one in ‘China Town’ was way better than the bo bun I have had around the university I work at, which is only a few blocks away within the same arrondissement, part of a later and arguable more successful redevelopment project called the Rive Gauche.

One of the nicest things about being interested in urbanism is that there is pleasure to be derived from the simplest things in a city like Paris. Walks, commutes, lunches and visits to friends are all part of a giant educational and sight seeing experience. And this is how the pursuit of a good bo bun taught me quite a bit about a chunk of Paris’ urban and immigration history.

All content and photographs © Mukta Naik

A Parisian party and the realization that my smartphone need not be my security blanket anymore!

Earlier this week, I had the marvelous opportunity to be part of a Parisian soiree. The occasion was a housewarming celebration of a senior researcher in the lab I am visiting. The house in question was a beautiful apartment in a 19th century building adjacent to Gare du Nord. The neighbourhood was fiesty. Crossing the road outside the station, my eyes swept past a dosa joint and a sex toy shop among the usual cafes and tabac stores.

We punched the code and entered a hallway with the most gorgeous mosaic tile floor. A service elevator, perhaps no longer functional, marked the days gone by when servants had separate entrances. Carpeted and curved stairs led to level 1, while a square stairwell with wrought iron rails led the way further up. The red carpet, slightly frayed, was placed as a runner at the centre of the stairs and a wrought iron gas lamp, no longer functional, hung all the way from the ceiling far high up till where we stood waiting to alight.

We did not need to find the house. The voices and music wafted down to us. Pushing open the door, we walked into the lobby, where now stood a modern kitchen. The proud owner explained to me that in the original apartments, the kitchen was located at the back of the house, connected to the chambers through a long corridor and of course with a separate access for the staff. In the modern avatar, those alleyways have not been retained and usually one of the bedrooms is converted into a kitchen. This particular bold placement of the kitchen, right at the entry was refreshing to the owner, who thought it fitting with a modern lifestyle that has “nothing to hide”!

We walked into the main living area of the apartment where the party was on in full swing with much ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ wine flowing and a typical French spread of cheese, cold cuts, bread, dips, grapes and olives. The room was striking, with white walls divided into broad panels and a high ceiling. The street facing side was full of open windows, through which the city’s sounds and smells streamed in. But more striking than the room itself was the fantastic art that it was filled with. Oils, bright and somber, figures, portraits, expressionistic landscapes and number of sculptural pieces too, modern as well as ethnic, from Asia and Africa. I was enchanted. Looking around at the house still being set up, I found more paintings, frames lined up against the wall, waiting to find their spot. Inside, in the study, two fantastic male nudes looked impassively onto the mass of handbags and jackets that guests had dumped there.

Being the only person who couldn’t speak French was an initial advantage. I took many moments to soak in the atmosphere. The Parisian academics had understated style. They were all here directly from work, so nobody was overtly dressed or made up. But there were subtle touches. A statement neckpiece here, a colourful scarf there, a dress instead of the usual pants. Conversation flowed easily. These were people who had known each other for a while and the comfort was easy to see. It also absorbed me seamlessly.

I must have had long conversations with half a dozen people I hadn’t met before. Some had halting English on them, others were more fluent. Another colleague teasingly chided me for not making some effort with my French! With each of them – historians, geographers, anthropologists – I found some common interests, which only goes to show the depth and breadth of their own experiences. This was an educational experience, packaged as a genteel evening of socializing. The conversations indicated how India, is history and present, has a nuanced place in the world. I felt a bit sad about the reductive understanding of India that is being bandied about in everyday life and politics today.

At some point in the evening, I got an education on organic wine, its making and its distinct flavours, particularly the nuance that comes from its inherent instability. I found that fascinating and I’ve been thinking about this since then. The notion that food must conform to some set standard, rather than its natural range, is something we have all adopted without really thinking about the implications it has for our environment band our lives. I thought about the experiments with growing organic food that some of my friends have been engaged with back home and how much of a movement organic and local food is here in France.

At some point in the evening, a large group had seated itself on the rug around the centre table. The rest of us continued to hover around the dining table. The seated group reminded me of parties back home with close friends and family. The lack of formality, the deep and engaged conversations, the congeniality, made me immensely happy to be there. I felt strangely at home. The only thing missing was singing!

It was late and people began to leave. Goodbye pecks and thank you’s filled the room. Through the evening, I observed, not one person had checked their mobile phones. No pictures were posed for and no selfies were clicked. I think perhaps the host had taken a few generic ones. No one went back to their social media feeds even. Phones remained firmly inside those bags, in the other room. Mine too! And this, perhaps, was my biggest takeaway that evening. The realization that I, like many of us back home, use my phone like a security blanket. To combat any unexpectedness and awkwardness, and to draw a cocoon around me even as I remain present in society. It doesn’t need to be this way. Part of the reason I could have those meaningful conversations with people I had not met before was the absence of the phone and the presence of participants in the here and now, without distractions. I’m holding onto that lesson with new resolve!

Women in India are having to fight for opportunity, dignity and life; and it’s heartbreaking…

No matter where I travel, my heart remains at home in India. Especially in these turbulent times when basic humanity is eclipsed and everything is a public spectacle, a jumble of accusations and vitriolic hatred. It seems to be that dignity and respect is the prerogative of a narrow sliver of India’s population right now- Hindu, male, upper caste. The rest of us do not matter. We are to give ourselves up in the service of the nation- get an education, get a job, toil away, embed ourselves in acceptable social structures and raise children who conform. If we do so, never complaining, we are good citizens. If we speak up, we face vilification and worse, abuse. And ever worse, violence, even death.

Far away from home, I watch the news emanating from BHU, a university campus that is located in the ancient and endearing city of Varanasi, the pulsating heart of Hinduism and the constituency of PM Modi. Here, a girl is assaulted on a dark street in the evening and deigns to complain. The poor response of the university provokes widespread protests, which are met with police force and brutality. The authorities claim the protests are politicized, the students claim their demands are simple- better lighting, more security, accountability and action against those who did not respond and a functional system to address harassment complaints in the future. Instead of asking why a prominent university has been found so lacking, the nation is busy victim blaming and cooking political plots. In the meanwhile, thousands of girls across the country  have lost the chance to study ahead and become independent as their parents stare at TV screens in fear!

For a nation that dreams of being a global power – delusional factions of it believe it already is – this is sheer idiocy! How in the world are we to progress if women, half the nation, is consigned to live in fear and subjugation. I do not have to reel out the stats here. Domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, marital rape, son preference leading to malnutrition and female infanticide, insufficient public toilets and school latrines, poor public transport, disproportionate familial responsibilities in a patriarchal society, dowry related torture and death, body shaming, trafficking – the list of what women in India face everyday is endless.

Even so, women aspire and dream. They top school leaving examinations. Their performances trump that of boys year after year. They enter college with big dreams, which for most of them are trampled by early marriages decided by their families. Some of them manage to work, but drop out when family responsibilities become too hard to bear. The majority endeavor to make the best of their lives, balancing a heavy load of social expectations. A thin sliver get the right opportunities, live lives somewhat equal to their male peers. An infinitesimally small number breach the glass ceiling. They are celebrated, even as the dreams of millions are crushed.

It is irrefutable logic that India’s dreams of economic success and global power will be more easily met if women are allowed the same opportunities as men, but I will not make a purely economic argument here. India’s female workforce participation is a dismal story, we all know that. Instead of inching up, it has fallen. Yet, women work harder than ever, doing non-remunerative work at home, in family enterprises, and in large number, on the fields. All those hardworking women are counted as out of the workforce, ironically, while those who are in it walk the tight rope every day, torn between home and work, chided for the choices they make and facing increased expectations all the time.

What is the point of it all, if basic dignity is not on offer and if, instead of rectifying the flaws in the system, women are blamed each time for asking for their due? I would think that we would all have given up. Instead, we fight, we scream, we bear the brunt of the lathi charge….because we know that thousands are cowering under the wrath of a husband or the father (or the mother-in law!), thousands still are completely confined and thousand others will not even be born. We know we are the lucky ones and so we fight. Hats off to the girls in BHU who won’t back down and shame on those who attack and vilify them; they must question their own humanity. Hats off to the crusaders who have fought in the courts and campaigned and worked in communities countrywide to help women access their rights, and shame on everyone who thinks this is not their problem; they need to open their eyes. Hats off to the men who have stood by women and seen their cause as human not female, and shame on those who continue to deride feminism and the demand for equality; they need to wake up and smell the coffee!!

Travel memories: Boots that tell a story 

As I laced up my boots this morning, in my little Parisian studio, I was transported to that magical evening in Quito last year when, entirely by chance, I happened to buy them. In that moment, Paris blended into Quito and I hugged myself, thankful for the opportunities, and holding close that all consuming love for travel and adventure. 

Back to that October evening in one of the highest cities in the world. The altitude must have made us dizzy, my friend and I, because we were giggling and chattering like schoolgirls as we walked back from the craziness of Habitat 3, a large conference on sustainable urban development that the United Nations had organised. The day’s events had overwhelmed us, and we were looking for fun. My brown boots, bought lovingly my Rahul a few years ago in London (hilariously via a series of whatsapp messaging that flew across the world as his colleague modelled each pair in a succession of shops in suburban London) were beginning to fall apart. On a lark, I entered a footwear store we crossed. This was no ordinary shoe shop selling mass manufactured shoes made half the globe away! Nope, this was a shoemaker’s atelier, where each piece had been handmade with love and care. I was over the moon! Looking around, I saw this pair. Black military boots that looked like they would be super comfy. And they were, perfectly fitting too! 

I refused to take them off and the shoemaker was thrilled. He showed us his entire workshop. He babbled incessantly in Spanish regardless of whether we understood him. He kept calling me “Chica” with great affection, making me sit and pose with my new boots as he tried to click pics from his really basic phone, staring myopically into it. Finally, after my dear talented friend had bargained sufficiently, we had a final obstacle to overcome. Change!! No one takes a 100 dollars easily in Ecuador. So we put shutters on the shoe shop and marched down to the local grocery store, where change was available. Here, we were accosted by excited cries of “Namaste, meri jaan!” by local girls who had apparently picked this up from an Indian friend! We walked away in total elation. Boots bought and adventure had. 

All of this flashed before me this morning. I missed my friend a little, and I hugged myself a little. My boots felt snug and a new city beckoned…

My boots with dear friend’s boots. Pic clicked months later in Delhi, as we shared that good story once again!!

Because architecture is art: Musee d’Orsay, at last!

A jaunt to the gorgeous Musee d’Orsay made my day today. The museum stays open till late on Thursday, so I wound up work early and walked down from Place St Michel where I’m staying along they Seine. The weather has been exceptionally kind and the walk was leisurely and easy. 


The museum has been on my hot list for Paris not because of the excellent collections it hosts, including a choice selection of works from my favourite French Impressionists, but because of its architecture. And it is indeed a spectacular transformation of a Beaux-Arts station, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even though this rather nasty review of the renovated buildings that appears in 1987 suggests that a breaking up of the volume inside the station was a misstep, I must say that the beauty, intricacy and monumentality of the vault hit me the moment I entered the space! The building combines both elements of the Beaux-Arts style, the structural metalwork as well as the ornamentility and this is still very visible in the current interiors. I do believe the ordering of the galleries has been redone in 2011 though and it is quite easy to figure out how the collections are arranged. 

The icing on the cake, of course, was the special exhibit on the portraits of Cezanne, which I savoured with the aid of the audio commentary! 

The beautiful solitude of being in the heart of Paris

I arrived in Paris this Sunday past with some excitement and much trepidation. The excitement was not on account of being in arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Three weeks of being here in summer had satiated some of that hunger. The excitement was about having solo time to think and write, something that is hard to carve out in the mad bustle of our lives in the Delhi NCR. The trepidation was the other side of solo time, the loneliness, which for a social person like me is hard to bear.

Luckily, I have found accommodation in the heart of Paris, at St Michel Place, in the Quartier Latin. Everyday I see clumps of tourists being taken around on guided tours. And smaller groups exploring the city. It’s not terribly busy at this time of the year though. Back to the accommodation- the Maison Suger is part of the Fondation Maison des Science de l’Hommes which is dedicated to international cooperation in the field of social sciences through the support of research. From what I understand, the foundation does not run its own educational institutions, but offers post doc fellowships and research residencies for scholars across the world. The Maison Suger is one such residency and I was lucky to get a timely tip-off and support from my colleagues at the CESSMA Lab at University Paris Diderot. So here I am, in a beautiful old building: the Latin Quartier was built in the Middle Ages (I have yet to find out more about the building itself)!

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St Michel fountain…we were all here in summer together as a family!!

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On Day 4 of being in Paris after some initial struggles, I finally feel like being alone is not such a bad thing. I woke up this morning and hit the gym, which I found all to myself. The walk to the gym took me down some labyrinthine stairs, made of solid stone masonry, and that was a treat too! I opened the windows to hear the lovely sounds of little children as they walked with their parents to the nursery next door. Delightfully, the corridor that leads to my room looks onto the inner courtyard of the nursery and I feel happy to know that the little souls are prancing about there through the morning, right next to me!! I have spent my days at work and my evening reading quietly and though I miss home a bit, I feel like this is a chance to dig into myself and concentrate.

Now, as I fix myself breakfast and look forward to my little jaunt through the city’s Metro system, I feel blessed and grateful to all the people and circumstances that are making this possible for me. I know that it does not befit me to complain about being lonely, instead I hope to use my blog (like I have done before) as a tool to vent, keep myself on track, and conjure new possibilities.

Art empowers: How kids from Kanhai urban village tell the story of Gurgaon

I knew something very special was brewing when my friend Swati called me to tell me about the kind of work kids from Kanhai gaon (village) were doing as part of the art project she was mentoring in Gurgaon. She sounded excited about both the process and the outcome. That I had interacted with Shikha from NGO Udaan-ek meetha sapna before through another dear friend Sarika further connected me to the project. And I waited in great anticipation of the final result of what had been titled the Growing Gurgaon Community Art Festival.

What I saw displayed in the public space at Good Earth City Centre in Gurgaon blew my mind. I saw 12 very confident young adults, who not only had original ideas but had put in a lot of research and contemplation into their paintings and installations. Their projects commented on class structures in the rapidly growing city and articulated the acute environmental crisis that residents (humans and non-human) find themselves in. The projects highlighted the flawed model of urban development that Gurgaon is an example of, a model that does not include original residents, that is insensitive to the environmental conditions and that does not anticipate growth well. With the innocence of childhood and the power of art, they were saying important things that the city needs to hear. Read more on what the individual projects are on this media article as well as see more pics on the process and outputs on Udaan’s website and FB page.

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Kids imagine their dream home!

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The artist has made a model of her neighbourhood depicting the condition of water supply. It shows a clear class distinction, with poorer areas getting few hours of water. Second, she superimposes her village pond (that was filled by the govt to create urban infrastructure some years ago) as a way to highlight how the city has swallowed its natural water bodies and now complains of inadequate water

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The star attraction- the cow filled with plastic milk bags. The artist spent time at a gaushala to understand how the process works, had followed a cow around to observe its routine. The irony of the milk-giving cow fated to die because it eats plastic milk packets is too clear to miss here!

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Beautiful collages showing the artists themselves

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The hexagonal box depicted the past (fields), the moment of change (the farmer selling his land) and the future (skyscrapers) interspersed with mirrors. A wonderful commentary on how urbanisation changes places, leaving us with memories and spaces residents cannot often relate to.

As an urban planner and urban researcher, I saw particular value in this endeavor and wish we had many more of its kind. Below are some thoughts I had while seeing the exhibits:

1- We adults need to be told the truth and the clear vision that children have does that very well. As a corollary, we need to listen more to kids and instruct them less.

2- Children perceive the world around them in particular ways. Their observations offer clues to how we should plan and design cities and public spaces. The lack of play spaces was a prominent thought that told us clearly about how urbanisation has impacted children. That public space is shrinking and becoming less accessible must concern us all. Interestingly, the exhibition of the artworks held inside Kanhai village drew hundreds of visitors and intense participation. In Good Earth, an elite space, people were less forthcoming and crowds sparse.

3- The particular background of these children, mostly underprivileged children from governments schools and residents of Kanhai urban village, offered specific insights that are not available to the well-heeled residents of the city. The empathy exhibited by the child artists was rare. In one installation, the artists spent time with the night security guard to tell his story. Their idea was triggered when they saw the guard being yelled at. They wondered why the guard does not get respect instead for helping keep us safe. Their project also highlighted the difficult lives migrants in the city lead, often working two jobs to support their families. This empathy touched a raw nerve in me. I often worry the elite, protected upbringing I am giving my children is causing them more harm than good. I am not sure they will have the depth of observation, empathy and freedom to investigate that I found in the artists. Food for thought!

I was also invited to speak at the festival. I decided to speak about urban villages and the transitions these spaces experiences as this has been a subject close to my heart for years, with much of my research time dedicated to documenting these transitions in Gurgaon.

I’m summarising the main points below, for those who don’t speak Hindi.

Gurgaon has grown rapidly. Urban villages are those spaces that have contributed their agricultural land to accommodate the city but where the spaces where people lived have been left alone. These spaces, and the people in them, have faced several transformations as Gurgaon grew. I describe transformations in governance structures, from rural to urban. I talk about the methods of providing services and in the attitude of the government towards these space, using examples from Shenzhen, China on service provision and redevelopment. Third, I highlight social transformations. I describe the post-agricultural livelihoods adopted by village residents, foremost among them rental housing, which brought in a new type of resident, the low-skilled migrant. Lastly, I highlight that urban villages are filling the gaps that planned development has left, by providing affordable housing, services and even space for small-scale manufacturing. My closing point is that we need to think about the different kind of people that inhabit our city because we essentially face similar issues. Unless we come together to find community-based solutions and hold the government and ourselves accountable, things will not change. We need more spaces like this festival to be able to document what we remember of the past as well as imagine a shared future through collaborative process.

I am imagining a much larger community project that communicated citizen’s needs and imaginations at a much larger scale. I imagine the urban village as the sootradhaar (the story teller or rather the story weaver), one who is wise and old and yet, new and changing constantly. What these children have done through the Growing Gurgaon project – kudos to Udaan and mentors Swati and Friederike – encourages me to dream bigger, to shatter the false cocoons we live in and take charge of our environment as opposed to being silent, complaining and passive recipients of what can only be termed as poor governance and poor citizenship.

If you want to help raise funds for Udaan- ek meetha Sapna, you can participate in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon under their banner.

Guest post: It’s Time to Enjoy the Twilight

By Richa Bansal who sent me this short and introspective piece on a difficult day when life revealed itself as beautiful….

I have always run a race with myself. Right from childhood. With due rewards of course in terms of career success and associated benefits. But not without its cost. The biggest one being I forgot what it meant to slow down, even if for a few moments.

Until today, when a severe back spasm and a hearty scolding from my physiotherapist placed me under ‘house arrest’ for five straight days with strict instructions of ‘no going to office’, ‘no alcohol over the weekend’, and ‘no exercise (for two weeks!)’. Clubbed with daily physiotherapy and muscle relaxants I didn’t particularly relish. In short, I had to rest it out and there was no shortcut.

I was appalled! Having been trained as a journalist in my formative years, I am used to finding my way out of sticky situations and often enough having my way. This time I had to comply. Not so much because I wanted to but because the pain was too much to bear.

I am used to being super active. If not working, I am doing high intensity exercise (my room has most of the basic equipment of a gym), or making an errands list (a must when you live alone), or catching up on news, or having a whatsapp/skype call with friends abroad, or compulsively responding to emails at night.

Yes, I meditate for a few minutes in the morning, but after that it is non-stop. I didn’t realise or value the importance of stopping in the tracks to appreciate the moment – be it the rain, a walk in the park, or watching the twilight hues. Even if I ever did, being an obsessive planner cum organiser, some list would be constantly running in the background in my head.

Naturally, as I trudged back home, I was grouchy about how I was going to get through five full days of rest. As I was planning all that I had to reschedule, my back creaked again, and a book I recently purchased called ‘Present over Perfect’ flashed across my mind.

I suppose it is not a coincidence that in the last 10 days, I watched Shauna Niequist talk about her book on Oprah Winfrey’s show, where she spoke about how she used to ‘skim’ through life and then decided one day to slow down. Not give up. But re-craft her life. Deconstruct it and decide what to retain and what to let go in order to improve the quality of her life. I was inspired enough to buy the book off Amazon but hadn’t yet opened it.

Walking up the stairs, I noticed that the weather had suddenly changed, and the sun was about to set. It was twilight. I didn’t want to lie down again, so I decided to go up to my terrace, which is surrounded by greenery and stroll a bit. Since I was not meant to even walk fast right now.

And as I stood there barefoot, with a cool breeze flowing through my hair, an overcast grey sky with shades of pink and orange, the leaves of the plants on the parapet swaying slightly, the white flowers gleaming, a salty smell in the air which precedes rain, and birds flying home – I calmed down. I was present in that moment, not thinking about anything else, not worrying about what needed to be done, but simply taking in the twilight.

Twilight has always been particularly calming for me – there is something about the stillness of that transition zone, which I find mystical. Somewhat of a parallel to life – so much of which is in flux.

Plant on the parapet

I used to go for evening walks by the lake near which I grew up in Calcutta all throughout my growing up years and often watch the sun set over the water – the solitude was blissful. And I realised suddenly how much I missed it. A few moments of solitude, not once in a while, but throughout the day are essential.

And in that moment, I decided that I was going to enjoy this forced ‘house arrest’. I was going to go up every day to my wonderful terrace for the next four days to soak in the twilight. I plucked a white flower, came down, placed it on my altar (yes, I pray) and said thank you. And messaged my physiotherapist thanking her for forcing me to slow down. Her response – ‘Great. One should take such breaks without pain ;)’!

In seasons of deep transformation, silence will be your greatest guide. Even if it's scary, especially if it's scary, let silence be your anchor, your sacred space, your dwelling place.

In the face of disaster, active citizens are already filling the governance gap; let’s upscale this now!

Owing to an attempted shift to more academic writing and partly in reaction to the few friends who haven’t been too thrilled with my use of this platform to rant, my posts over the past year have been fewer and less about opinion and more about experience. However, what’s the use of nurturing a blog of your own if you cannot occasionally rant!

My peeve today is, unsurprisingly, the flooding many cities across the world are experiencing and the general unpreparedness we have seen in dealing with them. Experts have attributed the higher incidents of flooding to changing patterns of precipitation (in the form of storms, rain, typhoons, cyclones), both in terms of the amount and the timing. Whether or not we link this to climate change, to me, is a moot point right now as we stare at mass destruction and anguish in Houston, eastern India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mumbai.

Reports pour in from friends in Houston, those evacuated worry about their homes, while those who are hunkering down currently safe are concerned about rising waters, survival with limited supplies and to what extent they can help others in distress. While attacks mount on the administration for not heeding warning systems and anticipating the scale of disaster, the focus is on rescue and prevention of further damage, as it should be. In Mumbai too, friends host strangers who are stranded in the vicinity, others despair and curse, life comes to a standstill and the government is unable to answer questions about the absence of warnings and alerts. In both cases, local government did not admit guilt; Houston’s officials have defended their decision to not evacuate ahead of Huricane Harvey, while in Mumbai the government did too little too late. That both cities have had previous experiences with flooding makes this even more unpalatable.

Some of the bad press for Houston is also stemming from its infamous no zoning and limitless growth stance (see here and here), and therein lies an obvious comparison with cities in India where urban sprawl and massive unregulated growth are undeniable realities. In India, this was driven home to us post the December 2015 floods in Chennai (see urban expert KT Ravindran’s piece here); and now, the idea that these disasters are not just nature but considerably exacerbated by human folly has been firmly established. Even as India banks on its cities to become ‘engines of growth’ and economic powerhouses, this dream is seriously challenged by its inability to plan and manage urbanization even in an everyday sense, leave alone in the face of a disaster!

 

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Mumbai Floods 2006, Rakesh, under Creative Commons License

A discussion on how this might be fixed is a long one but I will leave that for another time. For now, I’d like to dwell on how it is not enough to blame the government and the system. We must go beyond this to ask pointed questions and hold them accountable in specific ways. For instance, by displaying maps of floodplains and flood levels juxtaposed with built form, we can demonstrate how the State has disregarded basic environmental logic in its plans. While doing fieldwork in Gurgaon’s urban villages recently, for instance, I recorded vivid accounts from locals about how natural drains and ponds (johads) were covered over by government officials in order to built community centres and roads! These oral histories combined with GIS mapping and government data obtained through RTIs can clearly demonstrate the flaws in planning. But if this evidence remains confined to academic journals and limited circles of activism, it cannot create the pressure needed to prevent more of the same from continuing to happen!

This means that we as citizens need to engage with issues related to development and the environment. We need to move towards active citizenship. I can think of many ways to include citizen oversight over processes of planning and development, but the dream of participatory governance can only come true if we engage pro-actively without first waiting for the government to set up the processes for that engagement. For starters, we can educate ourselves about governance processes in our cities, about issues we face and about the environmental status of our communities, we can organize training sessions to empower citizens to manage disaster relief operations, we can ensure our communities follow laws on waste segregation and disposal, accessibility and water harvesting…..the list of actions we can take is endless and many of us have made commendable beginnings already. Those beginnings need to coalesce into movements that force governments to act!

Beyond this, we need to turn our gaze inward to reflect on how we are part of the problem here. After all, we are the consumers that sprawling development projects and mega infrastructure projects are catering to! We have bought into that ideology (and the imagery) of unlimited growth and ‘world class’ development. Rarely did we think about the environmental consequences of our consumption, rarely did we support those who did voice these concerns. Today, when we shout ourselves hoarse about the failures, we too need to feel a sense of responsibility. The world over, the mantra of sustainable development has focused on the first principle of REDUCE. Of course, this is directly in conflict with capitalistic urges to consume more, but we do need to question where consumption is taking us. We need to ask: Can we become responsible consumers?

These are no longer mere ideological questions, but matters of utmost urgency for citizens living in an age of urbanization, rapid environmental deterioration and yes, climate change! It is no longer enough to encourage our kids to submit cute ‘Save our Planet’ posters to local art contests and consider our jobs done. In an age of paralyzed governance, the citizen must step in to fill the gaps.

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