If you travel by foot on the streets of any of the old cities of India, say Varanasi or Old Delhi, you might feel claustrophobic because of the narrow roads, with houses standing tall on either side as if they are people watching your every movement. If you look a little further along the road, you might see those houses closing in on you. You might feel flabbergasted and to some extent frustrated by the twists, turns, and abrupt endings of the roads. Roads in these places are not named or paved, sidewalks, if they exist, end into surprise potholes, neighbourhoods are not clearly marked, and there is no logic behind the house numbers.
Postal addresses usually consist of the name of the addresses, care of (C/O) some prominent person in the household (who has lived there for such a long time that the postal worker or neighbours can easily recognize the name), house number, name of the house (yes, houses in India usually have names), cross and main (if it exists), a landmark close to the house (mostly in the same lane), a temple, mosque, church or other landmark in the neighbourhood, name of the neighbour hood, Stage / Phase or Block number, name of the city, state, and a PIN. Some addresses may need two envelopes to write them fully 🙂 In few cases, number of words in the “from” and “to” addresses written on the envelope might exceed the words the in letter the envelope is carrying!
Asian cities have survived because of the long-standing co-operation among its people. The human interactions built these cities and now these cities are in turn facilitating those interactions further. The lifestyle is built upon the personal connections between people – the grocer, the milk man, the vegetable vendor, the rickshawwallah, the neighbours… I remember the days when we shared newspapers and magazines, we used our neighbours fridge to make ice-creams, watched Ramayan and other mega tele-serials with everyone on our street on one and the only colour television in the street, learnt to ride a bicycle and motorcycle from our uncles, borrowed bicycles from not so well acquainted people!
I like the way my friend Ayan Ghosh puts it:
I think the reason I love old cities is they have more crosswords. Each crossroad asks questions, makes you stop, take a decision and stick by it. In every lane we discover new things and think what did I miss on the other lanes? I must come back. I must give more time. This is why I have never enjoyed planned cities. They are too linear, too defined. You just walk from one end to the other and you have seen it all. But life is more like an old city than a highway.
In 2008 I travelled around India for 12,000 miles on a motorcycle without a GPS, just a road atlas. I had to stop at major intersections, talk to people, watch out for diversions. It made me develop a deeper temporal and spatial awareness. In US I travelled with my parents for 9,000 miles without asking for any directions, without speaking to a single human. I never had to bother about the surrounding. Technology disconnected me from my surroundings. Of course, nobody forced me to use the GPS, but sadly there will not be any human soul around to give me directions if I get lost! Today’s technology can easily isolate people if we don’t know how to wield it properly and fall head over heels in the name of individuality. We like the pictures and status updates of our friends instead of having a chat with our family members who are right next to us. The age is of video games and not of the games that teach us to interact with real humans and build sportmanship!
Roads don’t have to be wide if all can walk to our workplace, to our schools, and to the market. Roads don’t have to be linear,if the towns are small enough! Roads don’t have to connect every place on earth if we don’t develop the greed to over consume – everything needs to be big – airports, roads, hospitals, schools, and office spaces, when we lose track of life and indulge in a lifestyle that focuses on money and exotic and extravagant consumption! We have fallen for the definition of development which epitomized – concrete roads. Concrete or asphalt roads don’t have character – one doesn’t see the colour of the earth beneath, smell the soil when it rains, feel how slushy the road gets when it absorbs water, experience the crumbly nature of the road when it dries up! Paved roads, when badly designed, which they usually are, reduce water percolation and thereby deplete groundwater reserves. Wide roads are for a society where a huge SUV is occupied by just one person, linear roads are for people who are not interested in talking to other people in the society, door numbers is for a society where people don’t want to spare time for each other! Wide roads are for people who are in a hurry to reach the workplaces where they don’t want to be, to do the work they don’t like to buy the stuff they don’t need!
Small is beautiful!
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