City City Bang Bang, Columns

Divorcing our streets?

The streets have invaded the restaurants. Chinese Bhel, Wada Pav sliders, Pav Bhaji Fondue, College Van Spring Rolls, Bread Pakoda with Teriyaki glaze & Potato Sphere Galangal Chaat- these are just a few of the menu options that are we are likely to find today. The new kind of Indian eatery seems to revel in a playful take on the foods that the streets have made famous.

It is perhaps just a passing fad, a new distraction that will enthrall us for a while before quietly expiring. Or it could be a sign that we are beginning to integrate our influences with a new confidence. We own our past, without becoming beholden to it, while at the same time feeling confident enough in our grasp of the global to be able to play with it. Think of it as a double subversion- with our primary allegiance being to our taste buds. We pick and choose the best parts of all our options and mash it together without embarrassment.

Fusion food extracts the street from our lives and relocates it in an exotic form of play. The city becomes an affectionate joke, to be consumed with a wink, between taco shells. The menus of these restaurants burst with a particular kind of creativity as our uncapitalised past, our little sins of the tongue, gets a coating of our newly discovered global selves. We sneak in the pleasures we have grown up with into the pleasures we have learned to enjoy.

However we read this new burst of creative energy, it seems quite clear that the street is beginning to recede from our lives, particularly in our larger cities. Not just in terms of food, but even as an essential part of our experience of urban living, the street is no longer as central to large cities. The coming of malls, the growing incidence of gated communities where ‘the hawker menace’ is controlled, the rise in personal vehicle ownership, and our new imagination of what public spaces should look and feel like are some of the reasons why this is happening.

A recent visit to Karol Bagh, one of Delhi’s premier markets, and the place where much of my adolescence was spent, was a deeply dispiriting experience. The once bustling streets carry more memory than energy. There are still shoppers around, but the awareness that this is no longer the place to be infects everyone. And this is true of many other traditional bazaars in the larger cities, which have begun to sag with a lack of self-belief, even as the modern malls bazaarify.

A sanitized form of the street and bazaar is being made available to us. We can sit in fancy restaurants and eat a cool version of a street food instead of standing in a street rubbing elbows with strangers or while sitting in a ‘sweet shop’ and devouring samosas and chutney with a battered steel spoon. We can shop in air-conditioned comfort at a mall, but feel more comfortable if it is noisy, crowded and appears to be ‘filled up’. We cannot escape the street, for it stirs our blood like nothing else can, but we can tame it.

To be sure, some traditional street spots become nostalgic monuments, must-dos on a list of a city’s hot spots. This is an exaggerated homage to the past, a very conscious act of consuming with great care a replica of a cherished experience. Every city has its appointed places of pilgrimage, but this is no longer a natural way of life. We now act as tourists in our own home, as we look upon these as artifacts to be marveled at.

Nothing underlines the drying up of cities as much as the gradual decline in the number of neighbourhood street vendors. The neighbourhood hawkers, advertising their merchandise or services with a distinctive aural signature are harder to come by. Of the range of services available at one’s doorstep which included the locksmith, cobbler, knife sharpener, raddi wala, kalai-wala (re-tinner of brass utensils), pillow and mattress fluffer, carpet seller, vegetable and fruit walla, among many others, only a few survive. The city rarely comes visiting any more.

The street vendors were the rivers of a city, flowing with services and merchandise. Seasons came to us through these daily messengers of merchandise. They brought to our lives flavours from the city and beyond, and made us all citizens bound in trade. They represented the aggregate collective memory and stored wisdom of the city, a moving map of its desires and tastes. As a fluid, fluent, time and market-tested chronicle of a city, street vending operated as an organic document of a lived reality.

A city starts dying when its streets lose meaning. It becomes a shell of functionality, a discrete collection of commercial and residential quarters without any dialogue between its parts. In effect the city secedes from itself in little islets, choosing to trade its specific character for a homogenous form of modernity. It now belongs to its users, who reconfigure it according to their needs rather than to its residents who worked with and added to what the city had to offer. It disowns what got it here and borrows a destination that it envies. The past, other people, other modes of living become unfamiliar exotic objects to be briefly cooed at admiringly but otherwise to be pushed away to the periphery.

The balance between the old and the new, the raw and the ordered, the artisanal and the manufactured, the small and the large, the real and the simulated- this is what will determine the true health of a city. The city must gather its past, and all the people and the ideas that have made it what it is, and integrate this into its vision for the future. The street which is the city’s most accomplished theatre of change, needs to be a central part of a city’s future.