The only session I’ve attended of Literature Live! was yesterday’s chit-chat session with Charles Correa, possibly India’s most famous architect. Some Parsi-looking gents with quivering wrinkles were saying he’s also the only architect India’s produced and I’m inclined to agree with them but then, my knowledge of architecture is limited to being able to identify a Hafeez Contractor creation by sight and to feel nauseous immediately. I’m no expert but I do have a modicum of sensibility, is what I’m saying.
Now, it isn’t ridiculous for Charles Correa to be part of a literature festival. He’s been the subject of some fantastic books and he’s written one, as far as I know. When I rushed in ten minutes into the session, extracts from Correa’s “A Place in the Shade” were being read by Gerson da Cunha (who despite his white kurta-pyjama always looks to me like he’s auditioning for the part of Jehovah in a play to be held at NCPA; not only does he look like the bearded god of Renaissance paintings, he’s got the booming voice too. And the British accent. If there is a God, he just must have a British accent).
So Gerson read, and read well. Once you got past the idea that God was talking to you about city planning and being a student in MIT, the selected extracts from Correa’s “A Place in the Shade” were curious. For example, Correa writes that there are no poor people in New Delhi, that all the poor have been shoved into old Delhi. He points out Mumbai as a contrast. Here, he says, “the borders are distributed”. Except I’d argue that you’ll see as many of the wretched poor on Peddar Road as you would in Khan Market. There was also wonderfully macabre passage where Correa likened a changing city to a frog in a pan of boiling water. Unsurprisingly, if a frog is plunged in boiling water, it flails desperately in painful reaction to the changed circumstances. However, apparently if you plonk a frog in water and raise the temperature little by little, then in the moment before the water is going to scald/broil/poach the animal, said frog will relax and settle into imminent death. I’ve no idea how true this is but from now on, whenever I hear Correa’s name, I’m going to imagine the beak-nosed, white-haired gent standing over a stove, cooking a frog. The last bit that Gerson read ended with a beautiful line that said, every day Mumbai was becoming “more and more of a great city, and a terrible place”.
In conversation with Correa was Sen Kapadia, who is apparently an architect and planner. For the entire time that Kapadia put questions to Correa, it looked like Correa was more interested in strangling Kapadia than answering his questions. Every couple of minutes, Correa would rub his hands over his eyes and look like he was having to explain things to a particularly slow toddler. I don’t know what Kapadia’s vision of Mumbai is but it seems to be very different from Correa’s. For one thing, Kapadia is clearly a champion of multistoreyed buildings, which Correa doesn’t think is a pragmatic solution even for a city of 16 million. Correa kept saying that the city needs to expand, that the city’s public transport needs to expand, and to buttress his point, he gave the examples of cities like Paris, London and New York. Listening to Correa talk about how a city should develop, and hearing the bitterness in his voice when he spoke about his Mumbai projects like Vashi was sad. He’s still not settled his scores with his failures in this city. He kept coming back to the lack of planning in public transport, the short-sightedness of high-rises, the corruption in politics, and how politicians use real estate as funds. At 80, Correa doesn’t feel the need to be diplomatic. Plus in NCPA’s Experimental Theatre, where it’s almost like preaching to the choir, he didn’t need diplomacy. Here are some of my favourite quotes from Correa:
“Did you know India has the largest number of NGOs in the world? … NGOs are just cabaret acts?” (I’m now seeing Medha Patkar and Vandana Shiva doing the can-can.)
“You can open up land with public transport. Bombay worked in the last 100 years because land was opened up by public transport. … The idea (with Navi Mumbai and eastern expansion) was to open up land on the edge of the harbour. … It would have been so beautiful.”
“Earlier, industrialists used to bankroll politicians, like the Birlas effectively sponsoring Gandhi. It’s well-documented. Industrialists were squealing because of what politicians got out of them. Then Sanjay Gandhi discovered defence contracts and industrialists stopped squealing.”
“Our cities are engines of social change. What I want is better management of these cities. It needs to be run by a politician with a technical team. … The real power is with the Cabinet and the cities are run by dummies who follow orders.” (Correa recommends a system similar to how Union Territories are run in India where the Chief Minister is directly accountable to the electorate. He believes it makes for a far more efficient and potentially less corrupt system of governance. Repeatedly, he made an example of how Sheila Dixit has had to act in order to retain her post.)
“Goa was corrupted by Delhi. The corruption happened over the last seven or eight years, thanks to the suitcases that came from Delhi. It wasn’t corrupted by itself. For a place to corrupt itself, it takes generations. The corruption can’t happen as fast as it did in Goa if it isn’t being brought in.”
“The acquisition of Nariman Point happened because Indira Gandhi demanded it.” (For financial reasons)
“Most people feel disempowered in Bombay. That’s what’s sad about this city.”
“India gives you a chance to grow. … Life can be very myopic in the West. … I’ve not made any sacrifice by being here. It’s a wonderful place to know growth. It’s a place where a difference can be named.”
“The new Chief Minister of Maharashtra is our one hope. He’s a very good man.”
“Just think of what we’ve created in Bombay. We don’t even know there are drug lords in the city because their profile is so low. But everyone knows about builders.”
“I think Jayalalitha is very clever. She had just a fuddy-duddy of a city (Chennai) and look how much money she made. Can you imagine what she would have done in Mumbai?”
“The problem is that we inherited and continued a British system of administration and now dummies are in key positions. The British did better because the administrators didn’t collect money. They had their faults but they did stick to an agenda that wasn’t personal.”
Some of my favourite moments, were from the q & a part, as usual. One guy had his knuckles rapped by Correa because he raised some questions about Goa and Correa bluntly said, “I’m sorry to put it like this but sir, you’re completely wrong and don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then there was an old man who said he was an NRI and had been in Correa’s class in school and was meeting the architect after some 64 years. “Architecturally and economically, you’re putting me off,” he told Correa, “of Mumbai, I mean. What advice do you have or what do you have to say to those living abroad who want to come back to India?” Because, of course, the thing to do in a literature festival is to ask an architect for repatriation advice.
The gold star question of the session, however, came from a chap called Akhtar. “Considering what you have said truly about politicians and corruption, I have a question which is not directly about what you have said but is connected by a tangent. Can we rewrite the constitution of India?”
For a good five seconds, Charles Correa just gaped like a goldfish. Then Gerson picked up the mic and said, “No, we can’t.”