Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 16, 2011

First published August 15, 2011

 in Hindustan Times

The Flawed Gaze

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.

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