By Jayat Joshi
“…most lawns within the limits of the municipality are to be grown on billiard tables— fertilized by the organic matter that is commonly trapped in pinball machines when the marbles sit on their commodes.” -- Marjorie Hawksworth, Urban Renewal
When my home grew old, its windows started chattering in the wind like teeth. My younger siblings would remember it only as they would a distant grandparent near twilight years. They would remember the impressions of dusted off termite nests looking like brown, dried-up river routes on a map. I was impatient with such memories. I liked to reminisce the angsty drawings I painted at whim in my teenage years on the walls, or scribbles made by my sister when she was five, both of which had gotten layered over with whitewash. In memories younger than mine, home was a description of what it would turn into.
Even neighbours who came to live in houses vacated by older neighbours from my childhood had relatively young memories. There was a real estate dealer who remembered everyone’s homes in terms of what they would fetch when the nearby flyover to the highway was constructed. When he saw someone strolling in the street, he would hint the value he put on their plot with the width of his smile. There were also other people concerned with this make-believe flyover. Some folks whose ancestors had missed out on the land grab of the early years in the city and who had now been compelled to build up from benami land as a collective, and who had now declared this place a small ‘village’ with its own municipal councilor, were preparing to lobby shifting the flyover by a few yards, so it just missed stomping out someone’s house. The optimal outcome was to make the construction cut through a nearby square plot which made everyone suspicious. This patch had a boundary circumscribing it with names of four different owners in white chalk on each side. Benami: under no one’s name. Here, under more than one name.
Most real estate projects in the city had an underbelly that lay bare like a demo surgery for medical freshers, but concealed in plain sight. The underbelly of our home, the surrounding apartments, the real estate broker’s house, and the old and new neighbours’ homes was the settlement along the bottom edges of the area of migrant labourers from faraway states, dragged here on the same wind that entices investment in real estate.
Successive winds had made these populations denser, trickling their living spaces down precarious slopes where land descended into ravines of seasonal rivers. These rivers overflowed with mud and plastic in the monsoon, taking with it a limb or two of these makeshift settlements, like the sea dilutes the durability of a sand castle with every wave. From them, our homes sourced domestic helpers and those who wanted to build more homes sourced their workers. They were the gears of going-on-ness. A well-intentioned administrative servant had, before retiring, laced the margins of the enclave with bamboo plantations. Bamboo roots kept soil steadfast. Bamboo was a mute saviour for informal settlements. Below the bamboo shoots, iron rods jutted into the ground to lay foundations of large infrastructure, like a bed of a thousand arrows from the Mahabharata. The imposing character of Bheeshma breathed his last on a similar bed amid the battlefield. He had the boon of dying only when he willed.
When my home grew old, the sight outside its windows became weak. The eye could not wander far without colliding into a concrete block, manifestly an apartment structure called either ‘Mountain View’ or ‘Mount View’. Most of the flats in these apartments came in the way of each other’s view. For a couple or more square kilometres, residential complexes grew competing for the remaining thin sliver of sight of the nearby hillock.
Higher-end, dissatisfied customers then began shifting closer to the mountains to catch a better glimpse. Younger memories are not tempered with the punitive side of things. Between widening smiles of brokers and narrowing views of mountains, the remembrance of harrowing disasters is dissolved. In fact, the dissolution is all the more profitable. The aftermath of a natural disaster is a levelled playing field for real estate and repair to begin its game anew. Its anticipation marks the desire for a smarter city, a renewed city, a resilient city, a city that has gone on record trying to be the best version of itself.
Old houses in this city are nails in the imagination of the future. The people who own them refuse to ‘develop’ them—adding a floor, remaking the shape, clubbing two plots, encroaching extra space through a fence, rejigging the drainage, and so on. The view, finally, can be of state-of-the-art high-risers as good as the mountains themselves, often a cause of envy for them because they house more greens, lawns and gardens.
Bamboo, and many species of trees growing on sloping land have a packed network of rhizomes in the soil. These roots ought to tell us something; when the land yawns and shifts, all these interconnected rhizomes cling and stay. For narrow rods that penetrate deep, like flimsy taproots, the slightest tremor will send up magnified vibrations that reinforced concrete may be too rigid to bear. It could move when shaken. Or stand still and fall.
The city bureaucracy is like Mahabharata’s Bheeshma—of lofty character, having trained in the academy not far from here, and unwavering in commitment to the law, the Dharma, the golden rule of do unto others. The Dharma calls for moulding a supercity out of this virgin land, this plot-sized town at the scale of the nation. Uproot these cobweb-like rhizomes from the soil, make some fancy wood-furnished cafés from the barks, provide them with a natural aesthetic, and carpet the remains with rubble and concrete. Chase away the birds and install some ambience music, pigeons can stay, and someone will need to be employed to clean their droppings from the massive glass windows. Someone not from here, preferably — who share no votes here. The visionary gentle people who gave us ‘Mount View’ can give us our own sequestered enclave, replete with trees so our domain is secure at least.
Land title is presumptive in India. No one knows if you do own a plot, if you do, you may have some papers, these may be real or fake. The public record registers a few transfer transactions. The rest is too hard, too long, too complex, too silly. There is no land to give and take. Everything is already transacted. Unless the government seeks to flatten another forest. Land is assembled by real estate, by law, by settlement, by business, by the bureaucrat, minister, broker, resident, worker, shopkeeper, caretaker, priest and peddler. No one knows if someone else owns a plot, yet everyone continues to own more. When my home grew old, many people started pouring in to see if in fact they were the ones who owned it all along. Or if they could. Or if they couldn’t but wanted to. When my home grew old it became a thing to be cross-checked with our older memories, to see if it had been there at all. The second-guessing might prove too much for us.
Jayat Joshi is a researcher of urbanisation, especially the politics of land in India. He is pursuing a Master’s in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.
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