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The notion of a nation

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It’s a widely acknowledged fact that after flying our kites into the rain-laden skies of Independence Day, insisting our children watch the proverbial film on Gandhi, singing our national anthem with unusual patriotic fervour, and then donning fashion statements that compete with the tricolour, we will go back to our disjointed daily mundane. Disconnected from north to south and east to west.

More than an it is the quest for a collective Indian identity that remains the subject of tireless striving. Likened more to a notion rather than a nation, every additional candle on the birthday cake of India as we know it, is marked by further complexity and more anxiety.

Yet on a monsoon day much like this sixty five years ago, we were bound together by a common destiny it would seem. One that appeared unpredictable but one that was dreamt years before Nehru redeemed India’s pledge not (as he claimed) in full measure, but substantially. It was the pursuit of this dream that gave India its present shape. Uniting the dissimilar and peculiar into a single country. Its cities were mostly erstwhile capitals or even kingdoms — Hyderabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Mysore, Kochi to name a few. Each a fiefdom, yet, each agreed to become parts of a greater whole. Unified under an umbrella of a distant dream. A dream not to consolidate a landmass for the sake of power and size but one that envisioned a future based on common human ideals of peace and freedom.

Ironically at a microscopic level, it is this convergence that further convoluted the complexities of our identities. Diversity that inhabits the gallis of Indian cities to say the least is confusing. It refuses to be typecast, is constantly changing. Making what we need to reinforce the ingredients of the batter that binds the urban together even more perplexing. For instance, it’s hard to pinpoint what makes Bombay Mumbai and Calcutta Kolkata? And how long will that definition hold?

The Indian city today is a phenomenon like no other. Never still, it moves dynamically into what is best described as a growing urban amalgam. Unbound and unfettered. Its relentless pace of upward and outward expansion infested with paradoxes that are less often seen but most often felt. So how can we use the foundations of a distant and diverse past or a very short-lived, myopic and incremental present, to define it? The former often lapses into the nostalgia of history, obsolete and invalid today. And the latter is so infested with the cynicism of reality that it is more depressing than hopeful.

That leaves us with the future. A reasonably distant one. Distant enough to be a dream. For in dreams we may finally build hope. And in hope maybe a collective identity. It will take the power of a dream to unite any physical fabric with the image of our cities. Just as London did after the fire in the 17th century or San Francisco after its devastating earthquake over two decades ago. It took more than mere resources but a vision to re-plan these now iconic cities, not as they were, but as they should be. The destruction was seen as an opportunity to dream a new future.

Our cities cannot be un-built and nor are we being presented with an erased slate to write a new script. Yet nothing stops us from envisioning a new layer that combines a desirable identity built on equally desirable values. For all dreams are but imagined realities.

The real question here is not the ability of our planners, policy makers and architects to imagine, but the content of these imaginings. Contents that are ideals — some borrowed, some deliberated, some chosen and most new. Yet all determinants of our combined urban destiny, are chosen by us only if we dare to dream. In the profound words of Nehru on the first day of our independence: “The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour?”


Suparna Bhalla is a Delhi-based architect

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