SUNDAY READ – Through my eyes: A city at the cusp of change

If I can correctly recall the first memory that I have of Chandigarh as a preschooler, it would be watching a centipede creeping up one of the pillars at the Rock Garden’s main entrance. Somebody from the family turned around and warned me, “Stay away!  It bites its way into the body through the skin”. That is it. I do not remember marveling at anything else for the rest of the day ; walking around the garden, I was just looking out for any centipedes. Besides, I also have a vivid but somewhat compact memory of sector 17 market plaza. Vast.  All concrete. Only a handful people walking around. A softy corner. Pink scoop of ice cream on an orange cone.

Fading Frames of Sepia

As I grew in years, so did Chandigarh. By the time I was a teenager it had transformed into a completely different city. I would sometimes visit my cousin in this city during my vacations and the impressions made were different now. Straight roads. Rows of trees that looked like big green umbrellas. Art deco houses. Stucco wall at the façade of some. Books and art for evening conversations. Accompanied by tad bit small talk for some refreshment. Us cousins giggling somewhere in the corner.

 Surely, it was a sophisticated, progressive and slow lifethat most led living in Chandigarh, which was being shaped and altered by the presence of some of the top educational institutes of the region.  Although I sometimes think that running and streamlining the economics of the city must have been a major labor in its initial years. But then it was the capital city of two states and the government, the main employer, served as a form of back up from an economic perspective. Having said that, I know some of the families who settled here in the city’s nascency, who would often tell that their private investments were one of the biggest risks they took in their lifetime; for no one believed how businesses would thrive in the vast emptiness here that was mostly covered with mango orchards.

 Little did they know that this risk and uncertainty would turn out to be the best decision of their life. Over the years, the small sleepy town had turned into a major city, an urban agglomerate that is now at the cusp of being a metropolitan.

A Perfect City?

In 2015, architectural critic and writer Jonathan Glancey declared in an article for BBC that “Chandigarh is the only successful perfect city in the world.” But with greater recognition, if I may say so, comes even greater responsibility, right?

Now that the preschooler has grown into an adult and this urban agglomerate has become a home, I get to witness and feel this same city in a different way. Perhaps like any other city in its rapid strides would feel like. So, I see the same big green umbrella trees, but now they shade massive traffic jams underneath. There are fewer tete – a – tete at home and more ‘catch ups over coffee’ and mummy- papa turning 40 birthday bashes outdoors. It is not merely a ‘pensioner’s paradise’ anymore. The population is much diverse, on professional as well as cultural front. Art deco houses are now renovated into French maison de maitre or modern cubist residences. There are now beautiful stretches of scaling skyscrapers, but sadly, they stand next to huge garbage landfills. Some of the city’s waste disposal plants are lying defunct. According to Swachh Survekshan 2022, Chandigarh has come down to 12th position in matters of cleanliness and efficient waste disposal.  The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, meanwhile, showed a 23% rise in rape cases, and a 10.68% in crime against kids between 2021 and 2022.

The truth is that every emerging metropolitan faces such set of challenges but there is always a solution. The need of the hour is a collective effort towards making the city great again from administration and the city’s own. Chandigarh has always been clean, green, well organized, we just need to go back to the roots. The vibe of the city has always been a strong stimulant for the people here. And I hope it continues to be so.

Published in Hindustan Times on 19.03.2023