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Of property, claimed spaces and accessing the city

It is strange to feel a sense of communion with Bangalore city. In recent times, someone mentioned how he found Bangalore to be a flat city while Bombay was a city thick with stories. Perhaps those stories abound in Bangalore too, but I have isolated myself enough not to recognize them. One such story has been surfacing since the last two days and has gotten me thinking, once again, about space, about accessing the city, about urban land, and about the notions and practices of property.

It is indeed strange to feel a sense of communion with this city, this city which has since sometime been labeled as the epitome of fast paced and messy growth. “It is S. M. Krishna’s fault,” I am told, “He has brought the city to be the way it is today. He sold it to the real estate sharks and to the global land developers.” I wonder whether the story of today’s Bangalore is as simple as this. It is rhetorical to even make such a statement, but what needs to be stated is the fact that the story of this city is yet to be told, in all its thickness and richness. The story of this city is not all flat; it is the story of our times. I will try a little now …

So, it is absolutely strange to feel a sense of communion with this mad city called Bangalore. The airport has moved to 40 kms away from the city. The traffic is as bad as it could be. The city’s drains are already overflowing even with the wee bit of heavy showers. What is becoming of this city? That is the plaint with which civil society movements and organizations started in Bangalore, the city which is overflowing and teeming with the good governance and fight-corruption organizations. But that indeed is a flat paradigm of the city. I am confronted with the question of how do I understand and frame the notion and process of change?

Yes, it is indeed strange to feel one with this city, this city that is usually seen as a flat and a doomed-to-fail city. But it is not. It is a city which is at the crossroads of very important trajectories and what defines these trajectories are the contests and conflicts over accessing urban space. I was watching the Majestic area through the windows of the BMTC bus – every nook and corner of Majestic is occupied, legally and illegally. Sometimes, the illegal don’t even know that what they are engaging in is deemed illegal by law and planning. Everyone needs access to space – space, both metaphorically and physically. Booksellers on the footpath, pirated VCDs and pornographic material, bags, shoes, clothes, security services, banking services, pawnbrokers, jewellers, restaurants, hotels, malls at the side of the roadside messiness and occupied spaces – in Bombay they call this cheek by jowl. In Bangalore, I would say that the different times of the city co-exist in Majestic area and beyond. Different groups of people and individuals have occupied space, some nook, some corner, some cranny. And there are occupations and professions that exist in this area which are hidden from the eye but very much located in this geography. Majestic reminds me of a different time in the city. Yes, there are plots on which malls are being constructed in Majestic too and in a few years, the malls will be there unless something drastic happens. But what you see in Majestic is the existence of all kinds of time streams – yesterday, today and tomorrow. That yesterday is not disintegrated from today and tomorrow; it is intimately connected. And that yesterday will be shaped by today and tomorrow just as much as today and tomorrow will be shaped by yesterday. The physicality and the mortality of yesterday may disappear, but yesterday itself cannot disappear. Majestic says this to me as I observe the hectic and frenzied pace of urban space in this part of Bangalore.

As I move from Majestic into Rajajinagar, I am further surprised. Rajajinagar appears much more insular than the Richmond Town area that I live in. It appears that Rajajinagar is living in a time of its own. Photographs of Dr. Rajkumar, the famous cinestar whose death rocked the city, abound in this area. Rajkumar seems absolutely alive and kicking in the spirit of Rajajinagar. Perhaps, his presence even defines the locality of Rajajinagar and marks this space as distinct from other parts of the city. A strong feeling of Kannadiga-ness envelops you if you walk carefully through the area – the sounds, sights, smells, scenes- they strongly remind you that you are in the state of Karnataka of which Bangalore is an important geographical party and symbolic aspect. A subtle sense of the Kannada nation grips you as you walk preceptively, a feeling that is distinct and particular to this area. Now, with the Bangalore Metro expected to run through this area, one will have to wait and watch to see what processes the notions and practices of modernity, locality, community, urbanity, nation and globalization will generate.

Clearly, what has been most interesting about this form of participant observation across the Western parts of the city is the ways by which people have occupied urban space. At Magadi, as we see the hectic and frenetic construction of an underpass, we also simulataneously note that under the trees, there are people who are making and selling bamboo curtains. At Majestic, one notices fruit-cake kind of constructions that were certainly not planned, but created over time, through various networks of politics, graft, deception, illegality, identity and finance. Rajajinagar abounds with spaces that are known in our parlance as “neeche dukan, upar makaan”, again a form od practice that planning defies as illegal and that is increasingly coming under scrutiny with the construction of the Metro Rail. These are spaces which are being practiced variously and in ways that may not be recognnized by urban planning and law. They exist and yet, there is a strong feeling that runs through a large number of us that eventually, these spaces may be destroyed, taken over, annihilated and subsumed. Urbanity is being conceived as this process of the big fish eating the small and the small eating the smaller. The question is whether the current stream of urbanization requires much more intense attention to the processes that are taking place, irrespective of outcomes, if we are to nuance our understanding of change, growth, future, ‘development’?

As I moved into Nagarbhavi, I noticed that virgin properties which were once rocky lands, are now being constructed over. The pace of construction in the area is tremendous. I realized that the potential construction of the Bangalore Metro Rail around Vijaynagar will lead to property prices rising in and around the interiors of West Bangalore. I recognize that this is one of the ways in which property markets develop. The question that arises is whether the growth of property markets, the conversion of multiply claimed spaces into single ownership and title deeds that can be traded between people ‘legally’, is an irreversible process? Are the trajectories of cities defined? How do we conceive of the future? How does one draw on the past to understand and conceive the future? I begin with these questions and many more …

It is absolutely strange, yet wonderful, to feel a sense of communion with the city. It is an enabler, one that allows you to see the city as an organic entity that has life and is not a determined/controlled mass of space …

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