Bright city, bright lights
My introduction to Chandigarh, that fabled city of Le Corbusier’s indulgences and Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernist dream, happened in rather unusual circumstances one summer night some 26 years ago.
Stepping off the air-conditioned bus from Delhi, I hailed a cycle-rickshaw to take me to the hotel where I had a booking. The rickshaw-wallah pedalled his way past long and deserted roads — the Punjab militancy was at its height — and delivered me to a modern building with a long driveway. “This is not the hotel”, I remarked to the man in my somewhat imperfect Hindi. “It is a guest house, Sir”, he retorted. “But I want to go to the hotel”, I protested. “No sahib, you should stay at this guest house.”
I was somewhat aghast at the man’s presumptuousness and repeated my instruction to take me to the hotel. The rickshaw-wallah became a little Bolshie. “I have been instructed to bring all passengers to this guest house. It belongs to a senior police officer”, he added by way of enlightenment.
The raised voices brought a gentleman from the guest house to the gate, and he attempted to grab my suitcase. “We have all the comforts of a hotel”, he assured me in a voice that had a discernible menacing undertone. “But I want to go to the hotel”, I kept on protesting. Then, when the whole thing threatened to get out of hand, I produced my trump card. “Listen, I am a press reporter.”
The pronouncement had a magical effect. “You must not take offence”, the man from the guest house assured me, “the rickshaw-wallah was just trying to help. He will, of course, take you to the hotel you want to go to.” And that was that.
Whenever I think of Chandigarh, I cannot but recall my somewhat harrowing initiation into this showpiece city. When India’s first prime minister chose Le Corbusier — a man with a reputation for architectural wackiness and whose plans for a new Paris is said to have “defied all existing social, cultural, economic, political, historical, architectural, anthropological, even ecclesiastical norms” — to build a new capital for Punjab, he was of course being unilateral. It was not for the imperious Nehru to actually explain why this particular Frenchman, whose earlier works had left people underwhelmed, was chosen. Those were the days when there was no comptroller and auditor general to ask if there had been a semblance of a competitive tender. Nehru had chosen and in these matters only he knew best.
Historians have subsequently tried to detect a method in Nehru’s unilateralism. To Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India, “The design of Chandigarh expressed one aspect of Nehru’s idea of a modern India: the sense that India must free itself of both the contradictory modernity of the Raj and nostalgia for its imperial past. It had to move forward by one decisive act that broke both with its ancient and its more recent history…Chandigarh boldly divested itself of history, rejecting both colonial imagery and nationalist sentimentalism or ornament…. It refused to concede anything to its location.”
The virtues of aesthetic deracination were driven home by Nehru in an astonishing speech at the inauguration of the high court in Chandigarh: “I am very happy that the people of Punjab did not make the mistake of putting some old city as their new capital. It is not merely a question of buildings. If you had chosen an old city as the capital, Punjab would have become a mentally stagnant, backward state. It may have made some progress, with great effort, but it could not have taken a grand step forward.”
Sir Edwin Lutyens, the man who designed the new imperial capital of the Raj, believed he was there to “express modern India in stone”; Nehru planned Chandigarh to extricate India from itself.
This audacious exercise in rootless modernity acquires a measure of relevance in the light of contemporary happenings. Over the past few years, the grapevine in Lutyens’ Delhi has been abuzz with suggestions of a ‘Chandigarh Club’ that wields considerable influence over the feeble power centre in Race Course Road. The nomenclature of the group the prime minister feels most comfortable with may be bound in a degree of geographical inexactitude. But what is undeniable is that a sharp distinction has been made between, say, Subodh Kant Sahay, the member of parliament from Jharkhand who was sacked from the council of ministers for the allotment of a coal block to his brother, and Pawan Kumar Bansal, who continues as the railways minister in the cabinet despite damaging evidence to link him with a nephew who was caught receiving an instalment of Rs 90 lakh from a member of the railway board. The difference, it is said, is the difference between Ranchi and Chandigarh.
Nor is Bansal the only beneficiary of the Le Corbusier link. There is considerable bewilderment over Manmohan Singh’s decision to stand firmly with his law minister, Ashwani Kumar, despite irrefutable evidence of the minister’s act of grave impropriety and his brazen subversion of a Supreme Court order. The issue, as has been repeatedly pointed out by a galaxy of luminaries, is not whether Kumar merely undertook to give the Central Bureau of Investigation a linguistic polish or whether he made ‘minor’ changes that didn’t affect the substance of the investigation into the irregular allotment of coal blocks. In other countries, ministers have had to pay a heavy price for minor transgressions. John Profumo was drummed out in disgrace from both the cabinet and public not because he had an extra-marital affair, but because he lied to parliament. By that logic, Kumar’s political career ought to come to an inglorious end because, as law minister, he violated the trust reposed by the judiciary on the executive.
Instead, the prime minister has stood by Kumar, even — reportedly — going to the extent of linking his own future with that of his law minister. The defence of a loyalist is touching and may even prompt those with a long memory to compare Singh’s apparent resoluteness to Nehru’s reluctance to part with V.K. Krishna Menon after the 1962 debacle in the Sino-Indian conflict. At the same time, however, the wicked people are questioning the bonds between the prime minister and his law minister. And the conclusion points in only one direction: Chandigarh.
In 50 years, Chandigarh has come a long way. The citadel of cosmopolitan modernity bound in concrete has indeed become a symbol of a historical rupture. But the rupture, unfortunately, is not with India but from Nehru, who sought to disentangle India from its history, its aesthetics and even its geography. India, it would seem, has remarkable adhesive qualities: it sticks to men, to politics, to institutions and even to those who otherwise shun all suggestions of disrepute. There is a dharma that moulds the Indian mentality and which governs critical choices between right and wrong, between continuity and change. Paradoxically, what has made this dharma enduring is its astonishing flexibility: the right to exercise discretion, the separation of the private from the public, the primacy of connections over principles, and the subordination of the nation to the clan.
In all innocence, Nehru believed that recreating the urban space would reshape modern India. Chandigarh has proved him wrong. The dreamland of Le Corbusier has been effortlessly subsumed by the replication of the age of the decrepit later Moghuls amid the energy of globalization. The Chandigarh Club is shorthand for the new India: brazen and unscrupulous.
Just as I discovered to my unease in the summer of 1987.