From New Delhi, writer Rana Dasgupta
All entries in this category: Progress
The beginning of a folktale, which all of us know:
A weary traveller arrives in a town at night. He is a stranger from afar, and he is alone. He knocks at doors, asking where he can stay, until he finds someone who has room to house him for the night. He is given food and lodging, and stories are exchanged: stories of here, and stories of there. The traveller leaves again in the morning to resume his journey.
Perhaps the traveller reveals himself to be a king, or a magician, and the host family receives an astonishing reward. Perhaps he is a figure of darkness, a disturbing new presence in the town's otherwise humdrum life. Either way, a tale can begin from there.
Contemporary, capitalist, society is conspicuous in its indifference to the virtue of hospitality, which has lain at the centre of most other cultures. Across history, and in many different places, the idea of providing food, shelter and cash to strangers in need has played an obvious and important economic role. More than this, it has brought together strangers in intimate settings, and provided a vital channel for news, culture and ideas to be exchanged.
The magnificence of many of the caravanserais built across the medieval Muslim empires lay not in the private quarters provided to travellers, but in the prominence of the poets, musicians and philosophers who congregated in the courtyards to talk to guests and provide entertainment. Through the sarais, musical styles travelled across enormous geographical zones, politics and new technology were transmitted and discussed, poems and stories were spread, and philosophical ideas were communicated.
The ethos of hospitality was considered to be central to those earlier forms of globalisation, not just because it made journeys economically viable for those who could not afford to pay for weeks or months of accommodation, but also because it demanded a certain openness of spirit, both in those who provided hospitality and in those who received it. It demanded that both parties expose themselves to the foreign and walk away, possibly, changed.
At a time when it seems impossible to escape Hollywood's nauseating 9/11 narcissism - Oliver Stone's film is out this weekend here in England, just after we've got over United 93 - I wanted to write a few thoughts about the relationship of an architect to terrorism.
The towers were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, an American architect born to Japanese parents in Seattle in 1912. His parents were poor, and could not afford to send him to university. Who knows if this is why he seemed to become so impressed by wealth and influence. He came to specialise in buildings symbolising total, impregnable power, and he liked to work with the people in charge of the world.
These buildings proved to be mouth-watering targets for terrorists.
I want to approach this question by thinking about a related, and in some ways opposite, one. "Are internment camps good for creativity?" In some respects, though not all, the internment camp can be seen as the opposite, the alter ego, of the city. We can think of Auschwitz and New York inhabiting opposite ends of the American moral-spatial spectrum in the second half of the twentieth century (which is partly why the events of 9/11 had such a profound resonance).
Yesterday my neighbour came to my door to show me the diary of one of his relatives, a Sikh fom Punjab who had fought in the British army in the second world war, and who was captured and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp. The man was a talented artist and draughtsman, and had filled his notebook with drawings of camp scenes. Men sunbathing in front of barracks, playing hockey, putting on theatrical performances. He wrote accounts of the camp's economy (with "one English cigarette" as the basic unit of currency) and stuck in newspaper clippings of Mussolini's death etc. His fellow camp inmates, among them Eric Newby, wrote poems and comments in the book, and painted pictures of "Jit Singh, the Indian painter" at his canvass. These comments bore witness to a deep intimacy and appreciation between the American, British, Canadian, French - and Indian - men who found themselves together.
In this blog I've written a number of pieces about the events and energies surrounding me here in this city of Delhi. In the comments I've received, a few people have expressed dismay at the idea that India might become overtaken by Western styles and values. In my last piece on the preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, for instance, "Ian" wrote the following:
"[The article] is not about the Commonwealth Games but about the culture clash between modern western ideas of what a city should be and traditional Indian values. Only if India is itself ashamed of the beggers and beasts should it remove them and it should do so without the spur of the Games."
In response, Fitz wrote:
"Yes we need a few more Ghandis back in the world!"
(Is there any great figure of the 20th century whose name is so consistently misspelt as Gandhi's?)
All of us Radio 3 bloggers began our ruminations with this same question. Some comments came back yesterday. Roberto C. Alvarez-Galloso commented on my post:
Modern people “know” that they live at the lucky end of a long line of progress. Their lives may be full of problems, but at least they don’t have to deal with being medieval – or worse. Modern people know (as many other societies have at different times in history) they are special, chosen, charmed.
On the face of it, this would be a claim of enormous arrogance. How do we “know” that it’s true?
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