Gurgaon is apparently a city of black and white with grey spaces missing. By grey, I do not mean dark or bad spaces, but spaces where black and white meet in multiple ways to create interesting mosaics. In other words, the city has exclusive and protected spaces within enclaves and the no-man’s-land outside the enclaves.
It lacks different types of public places where these two worlds mix to form in-between spaces. The differences in the physical appearances of buildings between these two types of places are very much visible. The economic stratification of urban society is, therefore, obvious and imminent where spatial proximity of realities is often in-your-face, and hence, uncomfortable. The social divide, however, exists beneath the surface.
Villages like Chakkarpur, Nathupur, Wazirabad and others have plenty of rich people, agricultural landowners who decided to stay on their ancestral property. However, their way of living has changed in many ways. New luxury sedans and SUVs, BMWs and Audis are often seen parked in front of their houses, while one may find cattle in the backyard. Houses have been thoroughly refurbished with contemporary gadgets and high-end finishes.
At the same time, one may also notice cow-dung cakes adorning several village walls, with their broken plaster and brick masonry. So, it is not unusual to find an odd heap of cow dung dumped on the road on which a swanky Audi or a Toyota Fortuner would pass by, carefully dodging the muck on the path. About two decades back, a scooter or a television set indicated the financial comfort of the owner. Now, the situation is completely different.
Them and us
Bright sunlight beats down on the village street and bleaches the facades enclosing it, with sharp angles of shadows creating varied patterns on the ground. A retreating autorickshaw fills the frame and the apartment blocks of new Gurgaon loom over the skyline. Along the winding narrow street, wide junctions, or nodes, house spaces called chowks, a type of public square. A group of old men may be seen idling on a charpai (a traditional cot made of wood and cotton ropes), smoking their hookah, playing cards or gossiping. However, one must not miss the smartphones that they carry.
Farmers who sold their land at later dates made more money. By then, Gurgaon was well-established and urbanisation was at its peak. Wazirabad village near Sector 55-56 is one of those places. All these villages carry visible traces of money, yet that would not guarantee them entry to the elitist niches of Gurgaon. The ensuing anxiety simmers in more than one way in the city’s social spaces. Off and on, skirmishes surface.
In mid-2011, a group of village youth was reportedly refused entry into one of the pubs in Sahara Mall, resulting in a brawl. In response, villagers from Chakkarpur protested on MG Road and blocked entry to the Mall, demanding the arrest of the persons involved, as well as the closure of six pubs inside the mall. Indeed, this has not been a singular incident, many more have preceded and followed. Quite often, Sahara Mall happened to be the point of such conflicts.
In 2001, I conducted the first of many urban design studios with senior architecture students. The stretch of MG Road from Sikanderpur to IFFCO Chowk was chosen for a documentation, research and design proposal. Students came up with interesting urban design options. The making of public places was the central concern for them, which is quite different from what we see on the ground today.
The First India Place, JMD Tower, Metropolitan Mall and Beverly Park Housing blocks on either side of the road are prominent buildings on that stretch. Next to Sushant Lok, a large triangular chunk of land beside MG Road used to be vacant. Eventually, a couple of large buildings including MGF Metropolis and City Centre Mall have come up on that piece of land. The Bristol Hotel has been a witness to transformations around it. The space where the triangular block of Emaar MGF building stands now, had some low-rise buildings and sheds owned by locals.
From the Bristol till First India Place, there were no significant buildings on that side of the road. There were shacks, informal shops and vendors selling “ganne ka ras” (sugarcane juice). Sahara Mall had not yet been built. The edges of the road were muddy and full of dust. MG Road was waiting for construction spectacles to happen.
Sahara Mall was built later, on a linear site, straddling the two worlds of Gurgaon – rustic ethnicity on one side and cosmopolitan urbanity on the other. This locational confluence has not been at ease ever since the project’s realisation. Such an uncomfortable coexistence of overtly differential societies has been a typical juxtaposition visible in many parts of the city.
A tenuous balance
The way in which the people of these two contrasting worlds react to each other’s presence has been indicated in different observations. At times, the delicate balance of being is unsettled only to expose the schism. Stories of brawls and fights are often tagged with villagers reportedly flashing firearms. There is no doubt that similar instances have, indeed, occurred, but villages are painted as the sole source of law and order issues on the basis of hearsay. Many cosmopolitan residents might not have seen or experienced any such problem, yet they tend to avoid interacting with village people or going to places they fear are frequented by locals.
Security is also a big issue; either one secures oneself and one’s family or one feels that nobody cares about them. Here people prefer to live a self-centred life, which stands out as a common thread of an otherwise disparate urban existence. One has to survive on one’s own and hence, is forced to create notional, physical and social territories, each having its different limits, which often may or may not coincide. It almost sounds like a forest where inhabitants form herds and move around within certain unmarked, yet evident zones.
Insecurity is perceptual. For want of egalitarian public places, the confined spaces of malls, clubs, restaurants and pubs have become hang-out zones, expensive to visit and use. However, the youth of the villages who have seen money since their childhood, sometimes may not have easy access to these spots. The conflicts happen then.
Excerpted with permission from Gurgaon to Gurugram: A Short Biography, Suptendu P Biswas, Rupa Publications.