Yesterday afternoon the sky filled with clouds. The afternoon turned darker, and the wind began to pull at palm fronds as kites banked and turned in the swirling air. The power had been off since eleven-apparently the first day of load shedding. Walking home from the pool in the afternoon, the sound of generators humming under most of the larger buildings, to a darkening apartment, there are no drops of rain. Though we hear thunder in the east and the smell of moisture is in the air.
As the weather marks the coming of the Indian summer I have been exploring the streets of Korageon Park and Kalyani Nagar,. My walks through the neighborhoods of Pune remind me how different the experience of living in this city can be. Our neighborhood is mostly tightly-packed, four-to-five floor apartment buildings built up around beautiful and in most cases neglected bungalows with dirt yards and gardens. But in Korageon Park, off the busy main streets, estate-like homes behind high walls and gates have the affluent and manicured feel of cities like La Jolla, or the new Del Mar, in the North County of San Diego. Behind the high walls of these estates lie beautiful gardens, sports courts for the kids, and a small community of servants. In Kalyani Nagar, however, huge villa-apartment complexes are filled with the educated and affluent people who can afford to pay for the experience of living in an enclosed community with clean streets and grass, and of course no garbage piles, food vendors, stray dogs, or people living on the street. These are really remarkable places-though I have an instinctive aversion to these planned communities. The newspaper is full of advertising for the lifestyle of these complexes. “It’s natural. And that’s how we planned it,” says the full-page color advertisement for the Latis lakeside villa-apartments. Latis, the ad reminds the reader, is the Celtic goddess of water, and indeed the “picturesque lake views, 24/7 security, and children’s park” are offered alongside “the feeling of living in your personal kingdom of luxury and comfort.” And then, they conclude, “It’s dreamlike. And that’s a concrete reality.” Part of the fascination of all of this for me, of course, is the language. That nature’s dream is a concrete reality is really too much.
1.1 billion people live in this country, about seventeen percent of the world’s population, and more and more of them are being pulled into the urban centers. And who would blame them? Economically, the cities offer much. But the boomtown has its costs. No matter how many dream complexes are built, the concrete reality remains. A recent editorial in The Times of India with the headline “Cities of Despair” calls attention to the progressive decline in the living conditions in the city. They acknowledge the real benefits of the sustained economic boom but focus their attention on the failure of the city planners. The rise in production and consumption, the increase in industrial waste, and the dismal health and sanitation conditions on the streets need to be addressed, they argue, not only by imaginative solutions by the planners, and an infusion of technology and innovation, but by educating citizens how to lead urban lives.
Still, life goes on-an energetic and vibrant life as anyone who spends some time here will come to see. The harshness of the city, though inescapable, softens over time, as one comes closer to the lives of the people who make Pune their home. I’m grateful to be here, for now, building an appreciation for this place and the people here.