Skylines = Attitudes

In today’s world, I believe it is safe to assume that a city is defined by its skyline (or the lack thereof). I was born and raised in New Delhi, where the sky was more prominent than the skyline. It is the city of grand Mughal mausoleums, Rashtrapati Bhavan and expansive parks for recreation. The capital sleeps early and takes its own sweet time to wake up in the morning. In 2008, I briefly moved to Madras (I refuse to call it Chennai). Much-larger-than-life hoardings of political leaders took the attention away from the empty-ish horizon dotted with an odd building here and there.

And now, I live in Mumbai. My first impression was that of utter chaos. It did not look neatly planned like New Delhi. And the sheer number of buildings in this metropolis amazed and overwhelmed me at the same time. Eventually I learnt the method in this madness. Whether it’s the million twinkling lights shining through the windows, or the expanse of a labyrinth of cardboard box-like zhopadpattis that have become an integral part of the cityscape, Mumbai is constantly abuzz and full to the brim — of people, buildings, life and powerful emotions.

I came to the conclusion that people are the exact reflection of their horizons. The busy skyline of Mumbai, arresting and obtrusive at the same time, is exactly like the people here, constantly at work and always everywhere. Similarly, the politically charged and erratic people in Madras, and the quintessentially laidback, poetic, paan-chewing and sun-soaking Dilliwalla are a mirror-image of the architecture of the city.

If I extend this (genius) hypothesis and think about all the cities I’ve visited, the same theory stands true. London basks in the glory of its past (abundantly clear in the way they have preserved their historic architecture), but never harps on it or lets it become an obstacle for progress. The mix of medieval, modern and contemporary architecture is so heady… it doesn’t take much to get lost in its sights and sounds. And while I’m on topic, it would be fair to mention the innumerable pubs there, a tradition that dates back several centuries but has been preserved with the same zest and fervour as other buildings.

Back home, if we head east, there’s Kolkata, another metro that boasts of a rich legacy. The old British architecture and the century old manicured botanical gardens, the big yellow taxis and the famous rickshaw-pullers… ten steps into the city and it feels like you’ve time travelled to the colonial era. This city is stuck in a time warp, its design, people and their aristocratic values (a hangover from the British era).

I may be wrong, but this is my observation so far. As I grow older and travel more, perhaps even live in other cities, I will first turn to the sky, for that’s where I’ll find my first cue to the land it shadows.