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The Lure of Places

August 2009
The Lure of Places

Strictly from an objective stance, there is no risk that Mumbai would, anytime soon, make it to any list of the “Top 10 Most Livable Cities.” The megapolis is extremely congested, frighteningly overcrowded, polluted, dirty, and maddeningly nonnegotiable. Dug up ditches, slums, and open gutters are not too uncommon.

And yet Mumbai is endlessly serenaded in books, films, and odes—perhaps to a greater extent than many eminently more livable cities around the world.

As for me, I may roll my eyes in exasperation when visiting the city, but I love every minute of being there. Why? How is it that a place that stinks ? also beckons? Sure, there are attributes such as culture and charisma that cities like Mumbai like to stake a claim to. But so is Paris similarly endowed with culture and charisma—without the Slumdog vibes. And while I may love travelling to Paris, it is Mumbai that claims a part of me.

Is it simply because it is my hometown? But then haven’t we known of characters that have migrated out of their hometowns in, say, the American Midwest to settle in New York, Chicago or elsewhere—never to look back upon where they came from? Their dread, if not disdain, for the place they left behind is often well-documented in both fiction and nonfiction.

So this intense lure (or the lack thereof) of certain places in people’s personal lives—is it an Eastern or Western phenomenon? A rural or urban one? Or a randomly personal one? Or could it have something to do with the place itself? Is it simply that some places cast a spell and some don’t?

While it is true that human beings are extremely adaptive and resilient, and that the core of a person doesn’t change whether he resides in Allahabad or Atlanta, it is also true that some places shape the collective culture of their residents, and in turn, deeply impact individuals.

Take Mumbai, for example. It casts a spell because, thankfully, it is much more than its long litany of liabilities. It is also dynamic, energetic, versatile, cosmopolitan, unpredictable, and, quite simply, sensational. Perhaps the most energizing aspect of the city is that its representative class—the one that shapes conversations and impacts the culture and the media—manages to live in a cutting-edge, First World mindset, smack in the middle of Third World realities. Thus, they are a brand conscious, literati bunch with truly global and modern outlooks, mannerisms, and buying power. It is this dynamic, more than any, which creates the potency of this place. The contrast is simply too rich.

And yet, ultimately, the lure of places is also not about standards, First World or Third World, and the contrasts they create. Why a certain place is potent and others not, may be a combination of too many complex factors. For us, the immigrants, the dislocation to a dramatically different place may be yet another factor that adds potency to the places left behind.

In sync with some of the aspects discussed here about places and their impact, we bring to you two endearing articles in this issue on two diverse places—Meghalaya and Bangalore—that evoke similar feelings. The authors’ intimate relationship to the places they have left behind shines through in these otherwise dissimilar narratives.

-- Parthiv N. Parekh

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