Apparently, in Chandigarh, I’m only an hour & a half from the Himalayas. You’d never guess. The land around is flat, fertile farmland. The city itself, in architecture, layout and outlook is resolutely modern. Our hotel has abstract paintings all along the hall.
All the buildings I’ve seen are white (or mostly white) and block shaped. There is a mall in Chandigarh where, just as in the UK, young people mill around, shop for high street brands, pop into coffee bars, burger bars, whisky bars & beer bars. So, is this modern, modish manner of living the realisation of Le Corbusier’s Modernist manifesto?
Not quite. A house may well be “a machine for living in” but it’s a machine inhabited by defiantly organic entities – people. Wherever there is life there is warmth, and dirt, and humour, and these elements can be found in Chandigarh as much as anywhere else. Sleek cars slip down streets and then a tractor comes grunting after, dragging what could be half a farm behind it. More sleek cars, and then these:
The Mall, which could’ve been replicated from any other mall anywhere, has this intriguing sign at the entrance:
We don’t have a sign like that outside malls in London! Arguably though, with some justification, we might…
On Thursday I went to a school in a satellite town of Chandigarh. The driving was smooth, over excellent new roads. Then, again, we encountered more defiantly organic life. First, making its presence felt surprisingly within the air-conditioned capsule of our cab, there was, strong and sudden, the soft smell of coal smoke, and lots of it. People aren’t meant to cook on coal but here in the Punjab, in Delhi, in Kolkata, if they are poor, what else can they do? Seconds later we saw, sprawling, the shantytown settlement; MDF and wooden walls, salvaged roofs, doors hanging open. No clear, clean Modernist lines here. Suddenly cyclists as numerous as a flock of geese took possession of this major road. They were workers, commuting. More than that, they were a community working, as used to be the case in the UK. These bicycles weren’t flashy mountain bikes like the ones you see in London, festooned with cogs and gears and levers and dials, and neither were they new. They were old-fashioned vicar bikes, no gears, heavy frames. Perfect affordable transport. Faster than walking, cheaper than driving, never needs feeding. I was looking simultaneously, at the 2010’s & the 1930’s. I doubted that the children of these people would be the children I was just about to tell stories to.
Years back, in the 1920s, in England, a young woman called Annie used to cycle to work in the cotton mills north of Manchester, part of a community of working people. As they cycled the women would chat and smile. Little time for that later. Annie hadn’t had much education. She could read, but never fluently. She was clever though and, having deft fingers and small hands, had the job of tying on the threads when the cotton broke. You could lose a hand doing that. Annie didn’t – too quick, and lucky.
Later, in the 1930s, Annie rode one of these, a classic English bike still manufactured in India and, as you can see, proudly on sale in Chandigarh today.
All of five feet tall, she once rode her Enfield motorbike round a bend in a country road and slap bang into the front of an oncoming lorry. The bike was a wreck. She went through the windscreen and doctors had to pick the broken glass out of her eyes. By the late 1930’s she was living in Worcestershire in a home not unlike the ones we’d just flashed by. Her home was actually a disused cobbler’s workshop with wooden planking for walls, with a corrugated iron roof, no electricity or telephone, no plumbing or running water. Scarcely educated herself, she brought up two children there, both of who went to University. She had four grandchildren, all of whom went to University, one to Cambridge and two to Oxford. One of her grandchildren lost his sight in his twenties and became a storyteller and now contemplates people who are living now just like his own beloved grandmother did then.