Category Archives: cities

Generation ‘W’

Shiva had to find Kailasa, Jesus had to spend 40 days without food or water in the desert, Shankaracharya had to climb Kodachadri without a jeep. The things Gods and men have done to find a peaceful place (and then, find themselves) has been quite remarkable. The basic premise of the ascetic way of life is that reduction of sensory inputs helps us focus on ‘inner reality’,  and help us to ‘realise’ ourselves.

But if any of the above mentioned are looking down at today’s world, they would feel somewhat short-changed at the options they had to isolate themselves from the rest of the universe. Our extremely innovative generation has revolutionised the concept of asceticism by turning its basic premise on its head. The Generation of the Walkman (or Generation ‘W’ in my terminology) has completely rethought the way to isolation by realising that an overload of sensory inputs helps us break away from the world, rather than the other way round.

For most of human existence, sound and light have been media for communication between individuals: language, smoke signals, and so on. It seems that using sound and light to achieve the complete opposite — a breakdown of communication — is quite a recent achievement. If one must attribute this to any one artefact, it must be the Walkman. Leisure and entertainment had until then been largely a non-individual activity: you could not play a tape/radio without everyone else listening, and TV time was also a family affair. The earliest form of personal entertainment was probably the boom box:

not very personal, and not very convenient either. Sound and light still played the role evolution had anointed them to play — bringing like minded people together.

With the advent of the enormously successful Walkman and other portable devices like small TVs and ‘transistors’, all this changed. Leisure and entertainment has now become a highly personalised activity. However, Generation ‘W’ has truly matured only in the past half a decade or so. The near universal penetration of the mobile phone and the near universal conversion of mobile phones into miniature boom boxes of the sort above has created a profusion of sound everywhere you go: those who spoke about cacophony and the Tower of Babel ten years ago had no idea what they were talking about. Travel by a night bus or train or sit in a movie theatre, and you will see what a profusion of light means: the advent of super-bright LCD displays has obviated the need to install lighting in most places Gen W frequents.

The sensory load due to listening to four songs and five heated conversations in six languages and the glare from your neighbour’s gigantic LCD display is simply too much for our primitive minds to bear, and they promptly start blocking everything and trying to focus on something inward. And voila, instant nirvana! Whether you want it or not, you will be as disconnected from the rest of the people as they are from you. Of course, then you have the more refined members of Gen W who keep everyone out by using superbly crafted earphones. It removes the necessity of wearing a ‘Don’t disturb’ sign around your neck (or wearing a stern look on your face) while serving the same purpose and informing you about the latest Bollywood hits. And you still have your fingers and eyes to play Angry Birds! The possibility of any sort of conversation with co-travellers who cannot SMS you is gone, and you are in a world of your own. Take that, ascetics who had to struggle in forests without Lays and popcorn!

The most innovative use of this sensory overload, however, is to use them to create virtual islands within larger public spaces. The idea is simple: In the days before the Walkman, if you wanted to have a discreet conversation, you needed to speak into someone’e ear or signal using a predefined code or use Pig Latin. Now, each boom box creates a radius beyond which you are not heard (or so you think), and there seems to be no need to be discreet anymore. You will see this everywhere: Go into the nearest Coffee Day and people seem to be speaking as freely as they would at their homes and, wonder of wonders, you cannot hear a thing. The back seats in a bus are occupied by students who play loud music (how long do their batteries last, really!) and hold even louder conversations, while whispering sweet nothings via SMS to their girlfriends sitting in the front of the same bus. This creation of private spaces amidst increasingly overcrowded public spaces seems to be a very interesting achievement of today’s technology.

The technology of today not only serves the purpose of ‘Disconnecting People’  from each other, but also from the social and natural environment they are a part of. With generous phone makers deciding to throw in a camera along with a phone (and a music player and a video game console and a …), and cameras which make it possible for complete ignoramuses (like yours truly) to take fantastic pictures, nature is no longer something to be savored and enjoyed but something to be pursued and captured in a JPG file. We seem to be taking every small pleasure in our lives and converting them to neuroses. This, of course, perfectly suits those selling these items of desire, but what does it say about us as a society and a culture?

Important cities in Mysore’s Past

Some of the important trade centres in Mysore region are in the map below. Google is tracing the paths on present roads. It is amazing how many of the important places of years gone by still lie by these modern highways. The past truly shapes the present.

Why is Mysore where it is?

would be a quintessential question that a geographer would ask. In the case of Mysore, it isn’t clear why this particular site was chosen. Sure, Chamundi is close by, holy site, but not many capitals are also religious centres in India. To make things clear, one must look at a topographical map of the area surrounding Mysore.

Let us take the possible reasons one by one.

A) Economic — not a chance. There is no product of great value other than sandalwood that the whole region produced, and it is more likely that more sandalwood would be harvested in the Ghats nearby, maybe near Periyapatna.

B) Geographic — i.e, it has some geographic features that make it advantageous, for military, trade or some other reasons. This reason also does not hold water. Mysore is quite insulated from the more important trade routes, its climate is not as good as anywhere north or north-west of it. It is not even on the banks of any river, which is always a Good Thing for a city.

C) Religious — Even to this day, Chamundi hills is not a very popular destination for pilgrims. The Dassera is popular, but only in the nearby regions. Nanjangud and Srirangapatnam with the Cauvery flowing by would be my choice if I was to setup a pilgrimage centre.

D) Strategic — Mysore does overlook the Gejjalahatti valley, a pass that leads directly to Coimbator and importantly in those days, to Dharapuram. Dharapuram sits strategically near the Palakkad Pass which would have been an important route between the east and west coasts. However, I would probably choose Chamarajanagar, which is much closer and also covers the other trade route I mapped here. Also, Chamarajanagar is much close to Santemarahalli, which was an important weekly village fair. Easier to get stuff.

For these reasons, I find it hard to believe that Mysore could reach its present state of (relative) importance by any organic means. It remains to be seen whether history validates my doubts. Turns out that it does. Firstly, a little bit about Mysore. Present day Mysore was previously called Puragadi (or Puragiri), and the region it was situated in was called Mahisuru Ashtagrama, consisting of the present Mysore-Hassan region. It was given by Chamaraja Wodeyar the Third to his third son Chamaraja Wodeyar the Fourth sometime in the 16th century. His two elder brothers died, and the whole region ruled by the Wodeyars thus came to be ruled by the person sitting in Puragiri.

However, it was not the seat of power as the region was ruled by the Vijayanagar Empire at the time, and its representative was positioned in Srirangapattana. Once the Empire fell apart, the then Wodeyar took over and shifted his capital to Srirangapattana. Obviously, Mysore was not very appealing to stay back. During the reign of Tippu Sultan, he went so far as to dismantle the fort that stood at the present day Mysore Palace and build a fort at nearby Nazarbad, which he hoped to make into a full-fledged city. So, again, Mysore was simply of no consequence to the people in power. It was only after Tippu was defeated and the Wodeyars reinstated that the fort was rebuilt (after dismantling the fort built at Nazarbad!). This was around 1800. So, for all practical purposes, the history of Mysore begins only 200 years ago.

Mysore did not remain the capital for long, as the British took over in 1831 due to (alleged) misrule by the ruler then, and Bangalore was made the capital, with its climate more suitable for the Europeans, and other things, to be mentioned in a later post. It again was given back to the Wodeyars in 1881, and Mysore again became the capital.

As you can see, Mysore, for most of its lifetime has been an ‘expendable’ city. This seems to be a feature of most Indian cities historically. They lived when they were under political patronage, and died as soon as it was taken away — they had no real base over which they could subsist. Exceptions were the trading ports along the Malabar and Coromandel. Mysore had to be ‘taken care of’ for nearly 50 years, and yet even to this day it is not the place to be if you are on the lookout for a job. Mysore developed in a much more saner and planned fashion due to this, which it will hopefully retain.

To trace Mysore’s trajectory is to trace the development of the Mysore region, which was reasonably isolated geographically by the Ghats on either side and the Krishna/ Tungabhadra on the northern side. That is for later.

Analyzing the City

Obviously, the previous two posts on trade routes from the Mysore State could not have been random posts, else they would have been posted under ‘Random’. They are part of an endeavour to understand Mysore city better, and in India (probably more than anywhere else), the past very strongly influences the present. However, the past here does not just mean political past, who was ruling and which war happened when, but also past climate, geography, customs and many other such factors.

Am on the verge of finishing the first volume of Fernand Braudel’s monumental series ‘Civilization and Capitalism’, which is called ‘The Structures of Everyday Life’. It is hard to recall when reading any history lit up so many bulbs in the head. The book is great not just because of his scholarship, nor his approach which is highly non-ideological, but also the fact that he holds a sympathetic view of all the objects of his study, unlike Eric Hobsbawm’s ill concealed distaste for the middle class that he describes with such erudition in his monumental series.

Anyways, Braudel’s deep insight into the development of capitalism is this: Capitalism was a product of certain cities of the West, which wielded sufficient political power to govern themselves without the interference of the royalty. This freedom allowed them to experiment, try out new things which finally ended up as the finished product we today call capitalism. Eventually, all these city-states — Venice, Florence, London — came under the State, but they were so influential by that time that the State modelled itself along their lines as opposed to suppressing them. The continental cities were suppressed more than London, since England has had a long tradition of being liberal, which gave it that extra boost.

One of the fundamental features of the urban (as opposed to the rural) is also one of its most obvious ones — movement. The frenetic, mind-numbing movement of people, things and ideas to and from the city is what distinguishes it from any village. Thus, it makes sense to classify settlements based not only number of households, but on `certain features’ that make it urban (as the 1881 census of the Mysore State tries to emphasize). Many features characteristic of any city can be derived from the fact that the city is all about movement — for example, the anonymity of city life, its complete dependence on a market for its survival, the ever-changing fashions and tastes, the relative homogeneity of ideas and culture in and among cities are more or less all consequences that can be arrived at with some thinking.

The more frenetic the pace, the more influential the city politically, economically and culturally. This is apparent from seeing yesterday’s Florence and Venice or today’s Bangalore. Any city that is allowed to grow without restraint has inevitably taken the path to increase this pace for reasons unknown. Examples will follow in a later post. One of the most crippling factors to movement is inhomogeneity — changing currencies, weights and measures or topography, all hinder free movement. Thus, it is inevitable that being in the vicinity of an influential city involves homogenisation of some form or the other.

An example from the history of commerce will best illustrate this issue — the idea of an imaginary currency. Previously, coins of any kind had to have value — they were made from gold, silver or something of known value. Consider the case where a merchant daily transacts X units of coins. If each coin weighed M kgs, this would physically imply moving MX kgs of metal everyday. Obviously, this is not good if you want to move really large amounts of anything. Simple solution — invent a currency that is not real, but whose exchange value with a real currency is fixed somehow. Complete all your transactions and finally convert only the resultant into real money. This was in vogue in all places where commerce had reached such a pace to make MX unwieldy. Erstwhile Mysore also had such instruments. Nowadays, in India this is commonly called the Rupee. In fact the promotion of electronic currencies is simply the next obvious step in this trend, which is why Credit/Debit cards are all the rage nowadays. Here is money at the height of being imaginary — bits on some hard disk somewhere.

The fact that movement is more important than what moves is also implicit in the axiom of infinite substitutability in economics, which is a hotly debated topic within the field. Fisher’s notion of the velocity of money is a formalisation of this notion, and heralded the grand age of the monetary theory of economics.

For Braudel, big cities implied a movement of things and people (commercial towns) or ideas and people (political/cultural centres, like capitals). The classification is mine and not very realistic, but it will serve the purpose. However, in India, movement also serves another purpose — religion. So, we must add pilgrimage centres to this classification to complete the picture of towns and cities in India. Braudel’s contention is that most eastern cities belonged to the latter two boxes, and those belonging to the first category were so firmly held by kings that they simply were not able to get the freedom that the Western cities got, and therefore it was unlikely that there would be anything resembling an Industrial Revolution in the East. Of course, he qualifies this statement well, and it seems to be a reasonable statement. Why did the States have a stronger hold in the East? That is something for a later post, when I illustrate it taking Mysore as an example. Was it good or bad that India/China did not have an Industrial Revolution? We will never know. Going by present environmental trends, I would place my bets on the latter.