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Cities That Forgive For Us

Nilanjana Bhattacharjee from PRIA was invited to speak at the second Annual Meeting of Global Platform for Sustainable Cities through the vision of a young development practitioner. She presented her vision of a sustainable city as a slam poetry piece.

Through the years, intermittently, I have been asked if I like the sea better or the mountains. Every couple of years, like how old things from the past make a reappearance under the brand of ‘vintage’ like 16th century typewriters being sold in plush New York stores or living room couches made from the silk touched by Rajas and Raanis in Kolkata – the question of whether I’m a sea person or a mountain person reappears and slips away unnoticed in minor, benign conversations.

Every time, I’d pick the sea. I’d imagine deep waves rushing in and away so loudly as if leaving moisture in my earlobe through the simple act of listening, I’d imagine the thick of thinnest layers of sand settling like a riverbed inside my shoe, under my feet. I never picked the mountains. I never picked the mountains because I imagined them at the distance of my mind, silhouettes that ran up and dove down like a gallivanting horse chasing the land and sky all at once.

Perhaps amidst these decisions, what I forgot was how I took for granted my residence in a city. The sea and mountains were places of brief adventures or imagination – vivid with details of lived experiences or lengthy wonders – but, temporary. A fantasy. Some times a longing.

But my skin assumed the warmth of an air so populated, it had to be polluted to accommodate the sheer heterogeneity of its breathers. I never spoke of or even noticed the city for its beauty like I did the sea and mountains, but I was so aggressively aware of its character.

My understanding of my city, or a city is the constant dialogue it forms through its cable lines, its tall telephone towers, its smog sitting like a crown on the pinnacle of everything alive or decaying with the past – a dialogue with the past of what it used to be but can never be and only remember, the past that it slowly forgets with each morning started by alarm clocks in urban neighborhoods or shrieking roosters in the slums around it.
My understanding of a city is a sanctuary of hopes, dreams and desires that blurs the lines between migrants and locals because broken hearts from crushed dreams or exhilaration of hope don’t pick and choose based on those covered under Obamacare and those not, those living as closeted homosexuals and those not, those scavenging for excreta and bones as decided by their caste and those not, those voting for the President and those not. In our cities, sadness doesn’t know your name, caste, class, age or gender - however, happiness does. Happiness finds only those who can afford it.

As Calvino rightly said, there are no happy or sad cities – there are cities which give form and nourish hopes and desires and those where desires either erase the city or are erased by it. However what lies between this binary in our global village of a world today is the failure to recognize how physical spaces reinstate our history and therefore our culture, our present and therefore our governance and our future which constantly changes with each policy halted or passed like a butterfly effect in the concrete jungles of a lost land trying to remember its name.

My vision of sustainable cities of the future is urban settlements that realize that sustenance of any kind is birthed from a continued and continuing distance YET maintained contact with the past and a seemingly closer future that fiercely becomes our present with each second. Cities of the future will cultivate relationships that understand they survive among people due to the physical spaces, walls, mortar, concrete, iron, gates, hospitals and parliaments that extend the privilege of a TANGIBLE existence and appreciate the accountability that comes with privilege. Cities of the future will fight for the dignity of humans, animals, our riverbeds, our desserts our aged, our unborn to justify hosting double the globe’s urban population by 2050, realizing the gravity of being a part of the most transformational trend in the 21st century - urbanization.

Cities of the future where my generation will birth its girls and boys will not send away boats echoing crying babies, they will not only look at ‘women empowerment’ when speaking of gender but will also look at men and the prideful rainbow of gender and sexuality changing forms and colours as fluidly as the borders of our continents and oceans melt into each other. Cities of my future will form cities of ideology that fuel food security for all, a shelter for each head, rivers flowing with water without a trace of oil, lands not punctured with temperamental mines, schools without bullet holes in their black boards, jobs based on the merit of self and not surnames.

Cities of the future will be human settlements thriving in the poetry of differences and similarities; shedding the arrogance of believing our race is the only one in the cosmos. They will be moral ecosystems of children of resilience and empathy. There won’t be empty governments filled with bureaucrats but a perpetual session in motion including voices from all languages.

You see… All this while our cities have been fighting for us, perhaps the cities of the future will forgive for us.



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