Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Murals in Chennai

In Chennai, I recently came across a series of wonderfully rendered panoramic murals being painted while passing Anna Salai in the Nandanam area. Later, I read that these are part of an effort to replace unseemly posters (Chennai walls are full of about politicians, movies and computer classes) with artistic murals, with scenes from all around Tamil Nadu by different artists. One mural portraying the stone temple in Mamallapuram even has a meta component to it – the wall painting even shows a couple of foreign tourists shown admiring the temple.

Apparently, there will be more such murals added, especially with a ban on posters coming up soon. Personally, I feel that a visit to these murals is much better than some of the other stops on Chennai’s hop-on-hop-off sightseeing service.

Kudos to the Chennai Corporation for this effort to beautify the city.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Gated Communities: Us versus Them, Literally

For two weeks, we experienced living in a very upscale gated community in Bangalore. I won’t bore you with the details of all the facilities available, but it was comparable to the best communities in Europe or the US. Ours in Koramanala (a suburb of Bangalore) was called The Acropolis, and I am confident it was far more luxurious than its original namesake in Athens ever was.

The security procedure to enter the premises is very tight, and the label is very apt – a truly gated community. Even though I was a guest there, the daunting wrought-iron gates caused me some trepidation the first few times that I walked in.

An entire army of workers (security, maids, cooks, drivers, plumbers, electricians and the like) keep the owners and their families humming. Clearly, the over 200 families who live inside lead lives of great comfort.

And yet, there is another side to all this. I guess if you dig deep enough, there is always a flip side to everything apparently good.

Right from my balcony I could view the entrance to PVR Cinemas in Koramangala, which was right next door. There I could see a very young woman begging. I had seen her hanging around, outside our community gate almost every day. She didn’t quite look to be an adult, but she had not one but two kids – a toddler she carried on her hip, and a little girl who approached everyone with her hands outstretched perennially. Their livelihood depended on the handouts of those who live inside Acropolis.

While this gated community was created exclusively to keep the likes of this woman out, I worry that instead, it will create more of the likes of her. Lots and lots of opportunities for a select few, none for the rest.

The gated community’s Owners’ association (which I could see from the notice boards was extremely active) only focused on things inside the community to the exclusion of everything else. That is why the roads inside were so good, while it was nearly impossible to walk in the footpath right outside. (Textbook NIMBY.)

It is easy for me to say this (being an outsider) but I strongly feel that the owners’ associations need to include those living outside the gated communities as well. Not out of altruism, but because of enlightened self-interest, a term I learned from Paul Collier.

We don’t need a degree in Urban Development to envision the proliferation of gated colonies. Imagine a city that has become an archipelago of gated communities, which are all oases of luxury, connected to each other by guarded roads that serve as lifelines. But outside this system there would be just a miasma of debris and chaos. The inequality between those inside and outside will become unbridgeable and eventually untenable. That unstable equilibrium would collapse.

And surely, that can’t be a good thing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where to find good books

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

ne thing I really miss about not living in the US is access to new books. Thanks to the public library system there, I had access to lots and lots of books. And I used to bring home dozens and skim through many, since reading all of them was not physically possible.

Actually, right on the pavement outside our temporary apartment in Bangalore, tons of good books are being sold. And they are dirt cheap too. But there is one small catch. They are all pirated books.

In some ways, I admire whoever it is that prints these. They seem to be gauging the pulse of the reading audience very well. Tom Friedman, and Arvind Adiga and Paul Coelho are staples and most bestsellers make it here.

The quality of these books however, is pitiful – extremely light print on thin pulpy paper. I am even willing to overlook the lack of quality. But I am realizing that somewhere along the way copyrights and intellectual property have become meaningful to me. Or maybe all those movie DVD’s that started with the “Piracy is Stealing” ads have had an impact.

So I seek out second-hand bookshops or the Indian editions in real bookstores. But I have stayed away from the roadside vendors and their pirated books. For now.