fiction or fact

How Mamata Banerjee unwittingly sparked the idea of smart, book-reading cities

The West Bengal chief minister’s decision to name two new smart townships after well-known books got some enterprising Bengalis thinking today on behalf of India tomorrow.

Over the last two days, resident and non-resident Paschimbangites have been found fulminating on social media over the proposed renaming of six townships in their state. With just cause too, because there seemed something profoundly odd about suddenly calling Siliguri, Teesta, and Kalyani, Samriddhi (though, personally, I can’t see the natives of Gajoldoba complaining too much about Mukta Tirtha).

To be fair, though, to the nomenklatura of Paschimbanga who possibly came up with the names, they are not any more or less profoundly odd than the new names that have been foisted upon cities in other parts of the country. (Renaming, I’ll have you know, has emerged as the new it-subject for PhD dissertations; it is being rigorously studied under post-modern ritual theatre, post-colonialism, regionalism, revivalism, radicalism, legalism, economics of renaming, and sundry other subject-heads.)

So, to return to the morning of April 24, social media was buzzing with quotes from Sukumar Ray (‘There was a person who was batty; he used to give names to everything,’ from Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La was trending). Whatsapp jokes were being composed for circulation.

The Smart City Angle

Then, all of a sudden, it emerged that it was not so much a renaming of existing townships – everybody calm down! – as it was a naamkarana of proposed smart cities. Delhi has apparently cleared the proposal too. Bengal will now have seven spanking new smart cities. ‘Oh-okay,’ I said to myself.

I mean, I might not be wild about the idea of smart cities (what we need are smart villages, the husband hammers on day and night), but the notion of naming not one but two smart cities after literary works, Gitabitan and Agnibina, seem like a great idea. (While Gitabitan, a popular collection of the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, is a must-have in every Bengali household and still a popular wedding present, Agnibina is a collection of poems by Kazi Nazrul Islam.) ‘Where on earth is my copy of Gitabitan, the one we got in our wedding…?’ is what I was thinking, allowing my mind to wander from the naming fetish, when my friend Jolly called. In a state of great hysteria.

A word about Jolly

This is the point where I tell you a little about my – our – friend Jolly. A batch-mate of my brother-in-law at Presidency College, Jolly is about seven or eight years senior to us and is mysteriously well-connected. At one time, he’d lived in Brazil. At one time, he was an IT genius. At one time, he’d sold his start-up for a massive sum of money. At one time, he’d bought a huge penthouse in Gurgaon for peanuts. At one time, he’d been married to a woman from Andalusia.

Now, the thing about Jolly is that all these things are only rumoured about him, nobody knows anything for sure, and nobody’s ever visited him home. But everybody believes eighty per cent of the rumours that float about his person. As do we. All said, Jolly is funny, generous, and always on the lookout for the Next Big Idea. He disappears from our lives – and reappears – with a seasonal irregularity. The phone call announced his arrival.

The phone call

“Did you see the thing about the smart city called Gitabitan?” he opened.

“Umm, yes,” I said. “I did.”

“Do you realise this is a goldmine?”

“Umm, yes,” I said, “but only if you are a real estate person or an IT company or sell surveillance cameras for safe cities or something. No?”

“No, you fool,” he said emphatically, “a goldmine for writers. That is why I’m calling you.”

I gulped.

Jolly carried on, “Writers, mainly, but other publishing people. Readers, too, who can afford to live in smart cities. Anyway, I’ll explain all this in person. But for good measure I have invited ten representative people to your terrace this evening.”

“What?” I stammered.

“Just invite one or two people from the publishing industry and arrange for snacks. Don’t worry, you can bill it to my company.”

I didn’t know he still had a company. “I don’t have enough chairs,” I said lamely.

“I’ll be there early with a carpet. It’s a genuine Afghan. People can sit on the carpet. Understand this: it is The Biggest Literary Idea since the Jaipur Lit Fest. Haven’t you heard the old saying, ‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow?’ Bengal has thought.”

Before I could come up with a fitting response to that, he hung up. I went to break the news to the husband. We were to have ten guests. Oh crap, the house would need to be cleaned. Writers can be very passive aggressive about these things.

Scenes From A Mad Tea Party #1

It was 6 PM. The terrace was still baking. I found chairs and threw buckets of water all around to cool the place. Birds chattered; the kettle screeched; I bumbled around vaguely. Among the ten assembled authors, two were writers of literary fiction (in English), two were journalists who had written non-fiction, one was a famous Kannada playwright, one was a Marathi novelist en route to Auckland, one was a famous translator who did Bengali to English, one was somebody or other’s Spanish wife who was a photographer of nudes and had just given herself an Indian name – Akaaladarshini – and the remaining two had MBA degrees, corporate jobs, black belts and bestsellers.

They were a robust mix of Internet Hindus and Adarsh Liberals. The twelve people gathered – I had managed to inveigle two editor friends – were beginning to disagree hotly already. The husband, a most immoderate moderator, was beginning to enjoy himself. Jolly arrived last. (There was no Afghan.) He seemed to be everybody’s best friend. People became all jokey and backslapping and comradely at once.

Scenes From A Mad Tea Party #2

Jolly outlined his audacious vision.

A new game-changing idea that would make money and revitalise the world of letters. Literary festivals were so commonplace now that if you threw a stone in winter, it would likely scrape a writer’s bobbing head as it nodded in agreement with a moderator on a dodgy stage. This was something deeper, more long-term and sustaining. Something that would start a global trend. Something that would disseminate the liberal humane values that the literary fraternity stood for in the cut-throat world of commerce. After all, in this day and age: Everything was real estate.

Jolly’s company would float a proposal to the GOI under PPP (he had extremely good connections in certain departments) to the effect that each state should become honour-bound to declare one or two smart cities as genuinely “smart”. This meant that these smart cities would be bookish cities. Knowledge hubs.

Think College Street. Think Daryaganj. Then imagine places like this – old-fashioned architecture, a sepia feel – but with all manner of mod con that technology has come up with. Little street-side cafes and pubs, book stores and farmer markets, common studios for writers and libraries. But behind all these, discreetly, 24-hour high speed Internet, exquisite plumbing and centralised weather control. Tourism revenue would be huge. Publishers would begin to move there. Ancillary industries, like online magazines, counseling clinics and FabIndia stores, would come together to make the place a TTH – Total Technology Hub. Imagine the possibilities.

Readers (with top drawer day-jobs) would be encouraged to buy flats there. The flats would be expensive, of course, in order to provide a substantial discount to writers. Writers would also be provided social housing, since no banks in their right minds would give them house loans. But the scheme would, of course, fail without writers. So the builders and developers would be educated with free literary appreciation classes. The children of the builders, developers and the rich reader residents would also avail of writerly influences while drafting their college applications to America.

A movement would be launched to take the idea of Gitabitan and Agnibina to other states.  For example, why not name a smart city in Noida The Suitable Boy? After all, by choosing to live there, Vikram Seth had single-handedly transformed the cultural landscape of the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority.

Scenes from A Mad Tea Party #3

Literary Fiction Writer (in English) 1: Can this be part of some giant nationwide bookish corridor? Like the red corridor the Maoists dreamt of?

Literary Fiction Writer (in English) 2: Please don’t joke about the red corridor.

MBA Writer: But what is the business model of this venture? I mean, we need a far more detailed plan for VCs or angel investors to even be interested.

Marathi writer: I am deeply offended that you gave the example of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. English, as you know, is not anybody’s mother tongue. So by lionising a writer who chooses not to write in an Indian language, you are setting a very bad precedent.

Scenes from A Mad Tea Party #4

Host 2 (Saurav Jha, also known as “the husband”): Where is the food going to come from? You do know, right, that the nexus between energy, food and water pushes economies into recession?

(He’s the only one I could kick into silence.)

Scenes from A Mad Tea Party #5

MBA Writer 1: Can I pick the smart city in Gurgaon for my outrage? We could call it One Night at the Call Centre. It’s close to my office. As you know, I am married to my boss. That is the only reason I can travel so much and take leave to promote my writing. And without the job, I can’t possibly spend lakhs to promote my books. It’s a vicious circle.

Kannada Playwright: I think the naming should be a-regional. So Gitabitan should be in Gujarat; Saraswatichandra should be in Nagaland; and Satanic Verses in Kerala.

Famous Translator: But are these smart cities going to be ban-free zones?

Spanish photographer aka Akaaladarshini: I read that these smart cities are going to have lots of cameras for security reasons. I am against this kind of Big Brother attitude. Only breeds voyeurism.

Scenes from A Mad Tea Party #6

Host 2 (Saurav Jha, also known as “the husband”): Do you know how much water such a smart city will end up using? Everyone’s going to be looking for greenfield sites with ground water. Prime agricultural land. Sigh.

(This time he was, slyly, standing too far away to be kicked.)

Scenes from A Mad Tea Party #7

Editor 1: Look, I don’t see why book editors should also not be eligible for discounts in case we want to buy property in these literary smart cities. We are paid peanuts for the amount of work we do.

Editor 2 (to Editor 1): Hang on. Do you really want to live in such proximity to your writers? I think it’s a huge hazard. At least seven of my writers have stalked me.

Journalist 1: Can newspaper offices be convinced to move? TV channels? They’ll bring a lot of revenue.

Journalist 2: Look, I’ve just quit this TV news business for peace and quiet. (To others) No, no, I was not fired. Of course not. Let’s keep visual media out, please.

MBA writers 1 and 2 (together): That is a very bad idea. We must network with TV anchors. How else can authors get some primetime juice? It’s not fair of you to suggest this at all.

Scenes from A Mad Tea Party #8

Host 2 (Saurav Jha, also known as “the husband”): We need smart villages, for crying out loud!

Darkness had fallen. I was locked up in my bedroom. I did hear a fight break out somewhere, but it may not have been the terrace. I was mailing people to check whether Jolly did have a company or was, simply, a garden-variety Bong who spun tall tales. Either way, I was sure nobody was going to reimburse the bill for snacks. Though I did manage to get the two editors to promise to pre-order my book.

Devapriya Roy’s new book, The Heat and Dust Project, co-written with husband Saurav Jha, is due on May 15. It is the story of an eccentric journey across India, on a very very tight budget.

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