The Flawed Gaze

Indian Mythology, World Mythology 10 Comments

Published in Hindustan Times, June, 2011


Both Indian mythology and Greek mythology refer to creatures who are composites of other creatures. There is the Nava-gunjara of India and there is the Chimera of Greece. But while Nava-gunjara represents divinity, Chimera represents chaos. The one is celebrated, the other needs to be tamed or killed. Increasingly, India’s chaos is being feared and there is a gnawing sense amongst the educated that it will collapse if not tamed, ordered and organized. Is the problem with the beast or the gaze? I am convinced it is the gaze.

I recently visited the city of Nathdvara, an old temple city in Rajasthan. The roads are narrow and they wind into a labyrinth lined with shops that have served customers for hundreds of years. Money is exchanged, value is generated. Yet, this is dismissed as the ‘unorganized’ sector. Every shop looks very well organized though the bazaar with its sounds and shapes looks rather chaotic. There is microcosmic order in macrocosmic chaos. Why then is it deemed unorganized? Is it because our educated gaze compares it with the malls of cities, especially Western cities?

Could it be that ‘organized’ means not under central command? A monotheistic view of things. When things are not under one command, then different people think differently and this is seen as anarchy in the west. Conditioned to think monotheistically, we see one right way of doing things. God here being the logical authority. In India, where polytheism flourished, everyone thinking did not create chaos. At the boundary between ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ negotiations took place and order emerged as everyone balanced their need with that of their neighbor. There was no need for one almighty God – everyone was a God, capable of being benevolent to the other. The result is an effective system, though not the most efficient one.

Polytheism is messy and can never be efficient but it accommodates every one. Monotheism is highly efficient but demands alignment to one way of thinking. It is this gaze that looks down upon cities like Nathdvara and seeks perfect urban planning.

So you build a planned city! For whom is this planned city built? The rich and educated India or the aspirational India or the surviving India or the below the poverty line India. How will the poor be stopped from entering these cities and living on the pavements and setting up slums? Should we stop them? Can the gaze of the urban planner accommodate the poor? But he assumes a system where one has to pay for water and electricity and services of the city. The poor cannot pay for it, that is why they are poor. So we will subsidize it – but who will stop the rich and the powerful from exploiting this subsidy? Lokpal? So we create laws after laws after laws, to create the perfect cityscape, and no one looks at the flaw in the gaze.

The notion of ‘context’ does not exist in modern thought. The word exists because it is politically correct. If there were a genuine acceptance of the idea of ‘context’ then few would be obsessed with planning and laws. Planning demands knowledge of most, if not all, variables as it aims to create a predictable space.

But in a country like India, with a diverse population, not just economically, but also linguistically, and culturally, there are too many variables to predict. The context is dramatically different. Yet we strive to plan – go after ‘5-year plans’ and blue prints for fancy offices and cities, and wonder why everything collapses. It is not about problems with implementation, it is the stubborn refusal to believe in the possibility that Chimera is actually Nava-gunjara.

  • shivram

    That’s a pretty interesting perspective. In the case of India the gaze that your are probably referring to being organised in the western sense. But even if we are look at it from the basic principle and Social justice and equality we are far behind in all spheres. The outcome is not the question. The question is whether everyone has been given equal opportunities in the given set of circumstances.

  • Balsu

    Dear Dutt Sahab

    Perfect whipping on the mediocre outlook.

    “So we create laws after laws after laws, to create the perfect cityscape, and no one looks at the flaw in the gaze.”

  • Deep

    Totally agree with u..

    Been to nathdwara for so many times, and as a person who now lives in US..can compare and contrast the way people think in different parts of the world.

    for some people,appearance and first glance of simplicity is all that matters.

    but when one peels the layers of chaos at a place like nathdwara, u really get the sense of what above article says.

    the whole place works on faith among fellow humans,while in west everything has to be defined before central authority,before faith among fellow humans can work…

  • Sunil Kavishwar

    OK. Order to Chaos! I first read the concept in Dan Brown’s 2009 novel “The Lost Symbol”. It spoke about cosmic effect when instead of millions of minds thinking over millions of different thoughts, contribute to a specific thought. It is certainly a thought provoking theory but yours is indeed a teaser when applied to Indian scenario. But I would urge for a detailed piece of analysis and a tangible proposed solution.

  • Devduttji

    Wonderful as usual!

    Could you please write an article on Nava-Gunjara. This is the first time I have heard of such a creature though I am not surprised that we should have conceived of one such…


  • Basudev

    Very interesting insights!

    Talking of how societies organize themselves, I would like to share an article of mine, though I am not a good writer


  • jc moola

    very good article

  • jack robinson

    You should check http://kanagasabapathi.blogspot.com/
    Completely against the grain of the political class, the elite ‘economics’ wizards, popular discourse, B school understandings, and definitely the pink papers evaluation or presentation of the drivers of modern (they were always way-off on ancient) Indian economy.

  • shivram phalke

    the logic of how things are organized though they seem not to be is very convincing, our educated city planners should learn from it.
    your articles in “speaking tree” are really good and they give a different insight to the reader.
    thanks for the articles.

  • Sudip

    Being trained as an architect, it is expected of us to foresee human behaviour and put in place designs today for behaviour of tomorrow (make laws in some way of speaking).
    Yes most urban planning initiatives appear to fail or do fail over time simply because the exercise (the gaze) is predominately exclusive rather than inclusive.
    I for one to understand the flaws in the gaze and I try my level best to only lay down some guidelines and parameters rest I leave it to those who are being affected by these guidelines (others behave as gods). In any negotiation a transaction takes place which is not always fair because of the context under which the negotiations are being done and the prevailing situation of the negotiators. In my opinion one should not gaze too deeply have a broad perspective and let the players play their roles in an impromptu fashion. They will eventually figure out what is best for them – it may not be perfect but than it works for them.