City City Bang Bang, Columns

The limits of size

“With 48 boarding gates, 78 aerobridges, 168 check-in counters, 95 immigration counters and capacity to handle 34 million passengers per annum, there is no match for T3”, said a newspaper report heralding the arrival of Delhi’s spanking new airport on the global scene. The massive airport is the world’s eighth largest, and for all its size, this is just the beginning. A terminal of the same size is due to come up in a few years, doubling the capacity. Of course, after decades of making do with cramped, seedy and inefficient airports, T3 is understandably a source of pride for the country as it matches India’s burgeoning ambition.

There is a small catch, though. From a frequent user’s standpoint, the terminal is too large. Catching any flight takes a very long time, the travelators notwithstanding and getting out of the airport, particularly if you have your own vehicle, takes forever. In the case of international flights, one doesn’t mind spending the time and effort, but for short haul domestic flights, travel becomes more burdensome than easier. The terminal’s largeness becomes less a facility and more an imposition as we struggle from one part of the airport to another, lugging around what increasingly seems like quintals of baggage. It is possible of course, that these are teething troubles and that with time, things improve. Alternatively, we will get used to the new situation and stop noticing it. But it does raise an interesting question. Can things be too large? Does there come a point where size becomes dysfunctional?

The new Ambani home is another case in point. Why is the size of their residence such a talking point? Of course, a 27 storey building for a single family is extravagant, but if an Ambani cannot have a palatial home, who can? History is full of instances of powerful men using size, be it of their palaces, places of worship or empires to communicate their stature, so why should this come as a surprise? At a certain level, the extravagant display of wealth has a functionally useful role in a market economy in that it advertises the virtue of material success by creating a monument to it. And yet, there is something unsettling about the size of this home. Quite apart from the question of whether it is adequately sensitive to the context in which it exists, there is a deeper, more human question that lies within that needs to be explored.

The doubt comes , in part, because it is a home and homes serve a familiar human purpose. We cannot comprehend why a small family would need this kind of space. Nobody would bat an eyelid if this were an office, even if it were several times this size. But in our conception of the home, we recognise the need for warmth and intimacy and understand that size creates too much distance and is thus not always desirable. We like to huddle together for warmth and construct our homes accordingly. There is a reason why husbands and wives share a bed and it does not have to with necessity or even physical need. It is instructive to note that historically, cities have tended to be densely constructed, in spite of having enough room to spread themselves comfortably. At some level, we recognise that perhaps not everything in life needs to be taller, bigger or roomier.

The real question is not about the size of an airport or an industrialists home but one of size itself and the regard with which we hold it. We live in a world where size and its progeny, growth are valued without reservation. More is better and faster the better. We increasingly evaluate things by their size, be it that of the ratings for a news show, the market capitalisation of a company, the personal wealth of a tycoon or the box office collections of a film. An uncritical valorisation of size creates its own set of consequences. We focus only on the outcome of our efforts rather than the process. The occupation with size make us value only that which is measurable. Our ability to discriminate between things and value nuance diminishes as we equate the big with the better. Our role models become those that have more, and the fact that size does come with a cost tends to be ignored.

In a world where constraints are being dismantled daily, size may not be that uniformly desirable. The internet is a good example of the issues that come with size. Its boundless nature and continuous expansion make navigating it a nightmare. It is interesting that our primary concern with the internet is not how to expand our choices but how to whittle them down to what we really need. New content on the internet does not create any excitement, but a new way to search the vast space does. The emphasis is not on more, but less.

In a country brought up on constraints, the fascination with size is easy to understand. But development should translate into an ability to look beyond mere size for it is a crude, almost brutal measure of the world we create for ourselves. If all our imagination allows by way of ambition is an even bigger airport or even taller home, then the only thing greater affluence will make us is more poor