Guwahati : Lost Geographies of Memory

The feeling sank into my stomach like a stone. This wasn’t the city of my childhood vacations anymore. Had I grown up so quickly as to quietly absorb this pinching away of the dearest part of my treasure of memories? Or was this gross erasure an external change taking everything and everyone over elsewhere as well as in the city? I wasn’t so corrupted with knowledge then as now. As any child of eleven, I too didn’t bother to explain or philosophise. I only felt the difference with my senses: the cattle-touched smell of earth was gone; and it had taken with it a school-ridden child’s hyacinth and vine-covered paradise of her imagination and escape. I had lost something irretrievably. And it wasn’t even my fault.

One of the most remarkable features of economic liberalisation in India, and indeed elsewhere in the world, has been the way it has revealed its deep links with the urban built environment. The economic mandate of the early 1990s was a clear resonance of the Washington Consensus and the country was on its way to witness a massive overhaul in the way cities were understood, built, marketed and more importantly, consumed. The concept of ‘development’ had been unhinged from its traditional moorings in agriculture and was now being tied to a new logic of an expressly urbanised national economy. Cities became the focus of this new imperative of liberalised development as they were now begun to be understood and valued as potentially the chief drivers of the economy. This enterprise became visible in mega-cities projects of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore, and of course the National Capital Region of Delhi, which enjoyed separate funds for urban development. The built environment changed almost overnight in these cities with the rapid emergence of guarded housing and office enclaves; flyovers catering to the growing ownership of personalised vehicles; malls, multiplexes and other high-end spaces of leisure and entertainment. In other words, the built environment had begun shifting to cater primarily to the high income groups. It was to capture certain aspects of this phenomenon that I began the Guwahati-phase of my PhD field-survey in August, 2009.

The largest urban centre in North-East India, Guwahati had entered a rather late phase in the wave of city-centric development, perhaps owing to the fact that the early 1990s were still politically troubled years. With the relative, yet precarious peace of the late 90s in Assam, the property market saw a phenomenal boom. With many private players in the housing market, it diversified enormously and the city’s skyline especially around the central trade axis of the G.S. Road, changed like never before. While the emergence of guarded residential spaces sifted out the older Assam-type housing iconography, the commercial-scape of the city began giving way to exclusively large and iconographic malls, specialised franchise stores of global brands, technodromes, trade centres, multi-functional halls and cineplexes, swiftly replacing the former landscape of single-storeyed shops and kirana stores. A drive through the city revealed how starkly the built environment was being graded, from the most expensive stretches of land (adjoining large motorable roads and flyovers) to the remote peripheral areas marked by ghettoised settlements of lower income groups—areas which made conspicuous the fault-lines along which the city was being ecologically fractured by this new entrepreneurial logic of development.

This event of intensified investment in the commercial areas over the years owed itself to a classic trend: the emergence of one or two high-end swanky spaces in up-market areas along axial roads which in time delivered their promise of developing the larger area into a ‘posh’ zone, thereby attracting further investment. The owners of the franchise outlet of Manyavar, one of the most eye-catching designer wedding-apparel outlets in Christianbasti, informed me with a touch of pride as to how their foresight in up-grading the visual aesthetics of the outlet (both the exterior and interiors) had led many others to do the same and how this ‘pioneer’ move was responsible for the remarkable change in the way Christianbasti was to appear in a span of one or two years. A stroll through the stretch of the Zoo Road from the bustling junction at Ganeshguri, exemplified this as well. The stretch had began ‘developing’ recently with an exclusive kids-wear outlet, a franchise outlet of an international salon brand coupled with a classy gym, a Baskin Robbins ice-cream parlour, a home-décor and KFC outlet, a specialised departmental store and a rather imposing college of architecture, to name just a few. The grandest and most indulgent of all these structures was and still is the Spanish Gardens, a luxury housing complex of at least 15000 sq. ft., standing high, mighty and pink in all its ‘Spanishness’, replete with a swimming pool (or so I heard) and a gym; and least surprisingly, a row of apparel outlets right at its entrance—all global brands—artfully aligned with the high, assuming gate which appeared to function as a moat to keep its occupants safe from the drudgery of the surrounding poor world. For all its exclusive grandness, Spanish Gardens felt like a baroque ghost from the past, with only a few out of the hundred odd units, being then occupied by living souls. Not many customers seem to be venturing into these shops. The relative quietness and absence of activity around the place made me curious; I asked some of the sales personnel from these outlets about the apparently sparse customer footfall in the area. The footfall, they said would soon improve as this was an ‘up-coming area.’ All it takes for an area to turn into a bustling shopping-hub is just one big mall, (granting it’s located along a major road) and a parking space. Currently, a huge multi-level parking facility has risen in the area—a fairly good indication of how investment tends to concentrate in an area, who the city was being built for primarily and who was building it. It is perhaps the continued effect of this process which has materially changed the skyline of the G. S. Road axis, gentrifying large road-frontage locations while gradually sifting out the lower income groups into the periphery.

My personal experiences of surveying guarded housing complexes, especially the high-rise apartments in central main-road sites, were fraught with unpleasant episodes; Julie Goswami, my survey-assistant, would be particularly anxious regarding the manner in which we would be greeted by the occupants of these units. Usually, visitors have to go through a round of scrutiny by uniformed security guards, understandably to ensure safety, but sometimes despite showing my university identity-card (which hung around my neck from an ID card-holder like some sort of talisman) and brandishing the duly signed (and stamped) forwarding letter from my supervisor, some occupants treated us with utmost suspicion, or an attitude verging on terror and at times, plain I-will-suffer-thee-not despise. Often, on being treated as a bothersome intruder, I got a glimpse of the environment of fear which the residents of these ‘guarded’ complexes suffered living in. I remembered our pāra or neighbourhood in Shillong and how theft was almost unheard of in the locality. Was it because of the absence of exclusive privacy, which kept us from isolating ourselves from each other by constructing high walls between our houses? I remembered Jane Jacobs’ espousal of the need for diversifying cities by blurring lines of economic differentiation to maintain safety in neighbourhoods, rather than creating or reiterating them via policy, investment and architecture. Jacobs’ idea of city planning was the very antithesis of the manner in which this city stood in the imagination of people who resided in the seclusion of such apartments. “The rich have a lot to hide from us,” Julie would declare conclusively, whenever we were shooed out by a potential respondent or when we were sure someone had understated their income.

As we wandered from house to house, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, I noticed other aspects of the changing city-scape, most of which would never qualify as subjects worthy of academic inquiry, not at least within the school of ‘scientific’ calculable reasoning we were being trained to follow as young practitioners of modern geography. The fate of the Assam-type architecture was an instance—once an icon of high aesthetic, social and economic placement, now retreated into a fable, a faded echo of former times, lingering now either as a symbol of dereliction in old commercial and depressed residential areas or a remembered relic—transformed and built over into three or four storeyed RCC structures to shelter families of tenants. At the end of a day’s survey, I would often find myself imagining a future where this built icon of our times, which has in so many ways given many of us a sense of place and continuity, would cease to exist except in memory. Many old respondents recounted the happy days of their former residence in Assam-type houses; and it wasn’t strange that so many of them rued their lack of contact with land, a flower-bed or a small kitchen garden, so basic to their imagination of home, in their current occupancy of a “pigeon-coop” or “shoe-box”.

During those months, there was some passionate talk about saving the Deepor beel, one of the most important wetlands and probably the last of the city, most of the rest having been covered and filled by builders’ guilds to erect the high rise monuments of contemporary housing. I do not remember what came of it ultimately. But I distinctly remember how within a month of its herculean and expensive cleaning by civic authorities, the Bharalu (a tributary to the Brahmaputra which runs through the heart of the city, serving as its most important drainage channel) was returned to its former putrid devastation. Having gathered prior secondary data on decadal investment on urban infrastructure, I was aware of the amount that had been spent on this project (about a hundred crore had been wasted as it now seemed, on this ambitious drainage project of de-silting the river). Was there a flaw in the participatory mechanism of policy-structure? Was the leisure culture to blame for this, making people look away from the more immediate and ugly reality? Or had life retreated so far away from its former proximity to nature that it didn’t matter what happens to our rivers and lakes? Two years since, Guwahati would face its worst floods.

At night, a look at the city from the terraces of any high rise apartment would show it as a bejewelled goddess: a creature breathing of light and sounds. I had been graciously accommodated by my aunt in one of these apartments in Xorumotoria where she lived with her family. From the balcony, one would get a view of the hills towards the north, an oasis of green cover which gave me a strange sense of assurance in the chaos, and which is perhaps why I was particularly happy to explore the poor, markedly greener quarters of the city which were warmly welcoming to us against the suspicion we met whenever we approached the well-to-do sections. The rich have a lot to hide from us. Julie would be oddly excited whenever we were scheduled to survey those remote parts of the city. One day, it seemed as though we had entered another world altogether: it was the farthest end of Hengrabari—the eponymous Lisu Bagan, dotted with lychee groves; the typical rurban periphery with its thatched houses, dung-wiped floors that felt refreshingly cool despite the bristling sun outside. A return to the village, I thought, remembering Ashis Nandy’s scholarly masterpiece[1] which addresses this subliminal and conflicting psychological journey we often undertake between the concrete privacy and individualistic freedoms of the city and the lulling green communitarian pastoral of our origins—the idyllic ‘village’ and the sense of a primal bond it holds. We had some of the most intimate conversations with the people living in such places regarding their everyday lives—personal accounts of how they map the city mentally, giving it a form completely their own, one almost wholly shaped by the limitations of income. I remember how none of them had ever been inside a mall, how their ‘shopping’ was entirely about foot-path stalls, flea-markets, kirana stores and other such spaces; and how leisure for most of them was something as simple as a stroll along the pavements of a market, a mere watching of a glittering, phantasmagorical space that was almost wholly inaccessible to them.

Other stories more intimate and lasting would relate to the lady who broke down inconsolably while I was entering general family statistics. On being asked about the number of children she had, she said, “Two” and then, after a silence of about many tearful seconds, corrected herself and said “No. One. I said two out of habit. The elder one died a week ago. He was run over by a truck.” I could see the glint of pride in Mohammad Rehman’s eyes, a widower who had severed all ties with his orthodox family in order to give his two daughters the best possible education and was still battling it out against his family’s repressive tradition. It was not uncommon for a rickshaw-wallah or a casual labourer living in an impossibly small shack, with his entire family of four people or more, amidst the deathly smell of an open drain nearby, to warmly offer a part of his day’s meal to us. It wasn’t that the better off were always unwelcoming; in some houses, we would be served tea and biscuits and pithas during the Bihu season, but these were instances of learned politeness and cordiality and seemed to pale against the earthy openness of those who gave without having enough for themselves. Every passing day, the city was appearing more visceral, a liminal space of many alluring projects, stark against their depressed corners. It was impossible to imagine a daily-wage labourer shopping or even strolling idly in an air-conditioned mall; a rickshaw-wallah peddling his way through the flyovers, expressly built to attend to those who have cars, and whose numbers seemed set to defy all kinds of projections. I found it difficult, rather impossible to connect the two disparate faces of the city. Every day, the filled-in questionnaires would pile a little higher, and the answers would magnify into a blurry wave, burying individual stories under it. By the time the Guwahati-phase of my survey came to a close, I realised, a bit painfully, that a thesis grounded on the pedagogy of ‘proper’ research-writing is by its very nature unequipped to capture these highly nuanced segregations—the affluent, glutting away indifferently on the artfully constructed delights of a mall, self-contained in their high-rises and the desperate, everyday struggles of the poor, who can at best only be a ‘problem’ in the eternal discourses of city planning. The prospect of submitting to these obtuse demands of writing a report weighing on me, I decided to complete my remaining work as quickly as possible.

Around the 15th of August that year, there was the usual air of high-alert, a palpable fear of a bomb going off somewhere. There were just about a few commercial establishments along the busiest roads that I had yet to cover; with these done, I would be prepared, or so I thought, to face the Board of Post Graduation Studies which evaluated our progress every six months. In spite of all my righteous humanistic concerns, somewhere I felt reassured with the data I had collected; it would surely give me something to process and pulp into an academic article—dear grade-points in the business. The lure of academia was only beginning to lull me back into its cut-throat world, when suddenly, while travelling to Jalukbari one of those days in an unusually empty bus, I realised I was feeling fear as never before; it was the fear of, simply, not being. This excruciating effort of seven months—with almost three hundred households and ninety commercial units covered—what would it all come to if I were to just be wiped off from the face of the earth? All those hopes of staking my claim (however feebly) for a place in the halls of knowledge, getting a job, supporting my family, settling down in life—everything that hinged on this thesis collapsed in a soundless, lightless, airless void of chance; and quite so, somewhere in my mind’s neo-Marxist haunt of those days, a pathway opened to Darwin and the great role of chance he had explained as being the most important factor in the saga of evolution. I was, and there was every possibility that I could cease to be (never mind whether the “ceasing to be” happened of natural causes or not). It wasn’t that I used this as a subconscious ‘apology’ of sorts for the irreconcilable geographies of difference I’d traversed in the city. The moment had rather reconnected me to a language I thought I had lost; perhaps the same, which had once, unawares, helped me absorb a sense of loss as a child; now decades later, life had truly dawned as a random play of chance and I was able to accommodate within it, that sinking thought of the human condition which is as sad as it is real and which perhaps means nothing in the grand time and scale of existence. The city had, by some strange alchemy, turned into an unexpected understanding of what it means to be alive and of myself. I had chanced upon the other lost end of a memory. And so, the two ends were tied…

 City of Beels[2]

 

In the New Year, numberless
like the beels lost under towering families,
I go hunting for my face,
walking the flyovers,
trampling the stomachs of rickshaw-pullers;
their resignation stalks me,
like a child’s eyes watch the world
from a cold plate.

I cannot cross the mighty river of wheels
without thinking of the fate of the bitch who
could not make it to the other side.
I must risk finding what will not matter
once I have found it.

Twice in a week, I have been to the movies
with an air of celebrating another year,
seamlessly stitched with the last with picnic deaths;
this time, at Sualkuchi.

Along the black, putrid Bharalumukh
I see my childhood vacations float like plastic tea-cups;
and once here, in the hyacinth’s irrepressible resistance
at Arya Path,
I saw thin, lemon coloured snakes, vibrant frogs
occasionally left marooned on the courtyards
by receded flood waters.

The lost geographies of memory
will not map this city
that now looks at me as though
I was its lone culprit.
I mustn’t remember so much.

I am wary of the time that it cannot spare for me.
There’s water to be supplied, shit to be cleansed,
things to be settled at the Kachari of crows and lawyers
where along-side lower courts
a barrage of quacks and con-men
sell amulets and strange herbs
for ‘all problems, bad-luck, litigation problems,
men’s reproductive and sex problems.’

I took the wrong way one day,
to be punished by an alley,
the last quaint iron gate,
where I gave my teething
fourteen-year-old love to a dentist.
That place robbed of gulmohurs,
clamped down on my heart
and I tried to swallow
what I am fated to remain chewing.

The indifferent terraces empty their days below
and they touch the roads raising the dust of a war.
A hero may emerge out of it,
a star, a voice.
Something may yet shatter that feeling
which plagues inexpressive eyes.

Just now, a bird has left the red shaft of the sun
for its home in some building’s ledge.
It cannot tell a bomb from its heart.

From the window of a sunless coop,
in what seems in this world the last green hill,
Beltola’s hunched-back evening
casts the smooth, round silhouette of a rock
that my aunt exclaims is an elephant.
I believe her only when
the thin black negative of its tail moves.

Under a sky ripped open,
a blue sound of death:
the insomniac ambulance.
And cowardice is a twirling red,
that screams from a zooming convoy,
making way for the civil burglar.

NOTES 

[1] An Ambiguous Journey to the City: The Village and Other Odd Ruins of the Self in the Indian Imagination – Asish Nandy

[2] Some parts of this poem have been changed slightly in this version; the poem was originally published in A Map of Ruins, Sahitya Akademi, 2014

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Nabanita Kanungo Written by:

Nabanita Kanungo hails from Shillong and presently teaches Geography in Assam University's Diphu Campus. Her poems have appeared in various anthologies and journals. A Map of Ruins, her first book of poems, was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2014

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