Pune shows how the drive towards globalisation can have a peculiarly Indian flavour. Residential complexes invoke images of foreign lands. They co-exist uneasily with uprooted rural communities on the city's margins.
November 22, 2011:
Driving down from Mumbai to Pune city some 180 km away over the Expressway one could get the illusion of cruising down a European autobahn or an American highway. The route has its own language of imperious communication signs — of speed limits; warnings against overtaking in tunnels; and advice on lane discipline, with heavy vehicles being sternly told to stay on the outer lane. But this is India; even in the most modernised State, the seductive power of speed is too tempting to resist. Life is dear but speed is so much more fun.
A sense of displacement gathers as one reaches the end of the expressway; at the Pune end, this merges with the bypass to NH4 to Bangalore, which skirts the city with various exits into it. The road surface is more silky-smooth than the expressway's. You look out the window at the scenery; rain-nourished verdant slopes of the Western Ghats occasionally marred by billboards now give way to huge hoardings that compound that sense of displacement.
‘Heights' of imagination
Unlike the American highways, hoardings along the bypass leading into Pune do not tempt you with hamburgers or drive-in motels. They offer fantasy, a promise to re-order your life by offering you a Swiss chalet, Spanish haciendas, Thai villas around the city of Pune.
Globalisation has wormed its way into the city, not just through malls and coffee cafes or multiplexes — transient experiences of globalised modernity at best — but through a fantasy of actually owning and therefore immersing yourself in it.
What helps fortify the fantasy, and for the sceptic a sense of disbelief, is the usage of language itself. Developers of residential complexes eating up rich farmlands for lifestyle homes have begun reinventing English.
One can still find residential complexes with indigenous names such as “Samarth Nagar” but the globalisation bug has bitten deep; developers cannot resist adding the suffix, “Heights” or “Residency”. But the more adventurous ones invent in a way that would have made Shakespeare, no mean coiner of new words, wince.
Hoardings beckon you to “Capriccio”, “Apostrophe”, “Mont Vert”. The developers of “Wisteriaa” are taking no chances with the name of a flower. The extra letter of the alphabet could change fortunes. The creator of “Euthania” stops short of mercy killing. If that phonetic resemblance rattles the sensitive home-buyer, “Invicta” should compensate.
At a surface level, this play with the English language appears crude and the work of demented builders. But it expresses the way globalisation transforms itself into a new creature of post-modernity that at first sight seems obviously syncretic.
This view of two worlds co-existing uneasily at best, and with tension at worst, is strengthened along the bypass. Behind the hoardings for Swiss villas lie vanishing farmlands and the first signs of shanty towns are appearing with garishly painted notices advertising roadside eateries, car repair garages, tyre treading and clumsily built two, three-storied buildings posing as office blocks.
Soon modern, glass-fronted buildings appear and now they express the city's new present and future: academic degrees.
Once again, as with real-estate, rich farmers have seized the opportunity to sell their lands to academic entrepreneurs or transform themselves into chairman and directors of business schools whose roof-topped neon flash grandiosely at you at night along the bypass.
Pune seems to parody the opening lines in T.S. Eliot's Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past/ are both perhaps present in time future/ and time future contained in time past.”
Pune has had a rich tradition of learning and scholarship: Fergusson College where D.D. Kosambi taught for a while, Deccan College for ancient Indian history, not to mention Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Gokhale Institute of Economics and Politics where the late V.M. Dandekar wrote the seminal Poverty in India in the mid-1960s.
It is still a place for higher education; but not of scholarship. Its innumerable business and media “study” centres are “degree shops” without the compensating attributes of reflective or critical study.
Globalisation has created a huge demand for skills of dubious value but no one's complaining, not the students who flock to this city from north and eastern India, not the IT personnel at its high tech parks and certainly not those kulak-turned academic entrepreneurs promising degrees and jobs for bloated fees.
In the bargain, Pune is losing its attribute of rootedness that may not be lamented.
As a place of learning it always had a shifting population; its small middle-class was anchored in a community that may have bred Nathuram Godse but that also gave the country D.R. Gadgil, B.G. Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
New gods of modernity
Now globalisation has created an urban sprawl and a rootless middle-class; conversely, globalisation has also uprooted rural communities on its extending margins, coaxing them into petty and large service trades.
But the city's transition is not painless: at the margins, violence against women is on the rise as are burglaries in those fancifully-named complexes.
At night, in the newer parts of the city along the bypass, village life still survives the relentless march of post-modernity and its new gods. At temple sites or under ancient trees, Vithoba, Khandoba and Masoba still reign and bhajans usher in the new morning.