Cairo’s crows

If you want to get a feel for a Southasian metropolis, you could not do better than land up in Cairo – al-Kahira, capital of al-Misr, or Misradesh. The latitude and temperatures are comparable; the garbage collected along the Nile has the same mix of polythene bags amidst the muck. Like here, the stale haze smells of a combination of sewage, dust, diesel fumes and burning coal. This could be Karachi, Dhaka, Madras, Bombay.   Cairo's crows (jackdaws) are near-identical cousins of Southasia's urban crows. They croak and holler just as much. Perhaps the only difference is that while the Southasians have a loose grey band across the nape of the neck, the grey bands of those in the Lower Nile are more of a jagged sort.   Cairo's citizens shun overhead pedestrian walkways just as do their counterparts in Calcutta or Kathmandu. Like here, they exhibit enormous daring to cross thoroughfares amidst whizzing cars and buses. The Cairo-wallahs, too, walk confidently across busy two-way boulevards, while their hard disks simultaneously calculate the speed of several oncoming vehicles as against their own diagonal traverse. It is same to same, here and there.   Ah, then there are the enclaves. After miles and miles of tenements, you leave the city suburbs to enter the desert. Suddenly, there is a vast green oasis covering hundreds of acres, with individualised housing semi-standardised to some rough Greek design – but all posh, very posh. There are lakes, fountains and a manmade forest in the middle of the desert. Every tree and bush is individually watered with miles of underground piping. In this tiny corner of over-populated lower Egypt, no one walks – everyone drives to do their groceries, to get to the malls and the multiplex cinemas.   This, too, is the way of Southasia Shining. A distancing between the upper- and the under-classes, one that is just beginning to kick in along the Indus-Ganga-Jamuna basin. (That's Jamuna, by the way, as in the Brahmaputra, and not the eviscerated western watercourse.) When the middle class gets too rarefied to join with the rest of the populace, they will eject themselves out of the teeming cities. They will create bubbles for themselves – enclaves that will become neutered, a-cultural havens, where they can partake in idealised forms of suburban American bungalow living.   Someone needs to tell our middle classes that this is not necessarily the way of the West – that the upper classes of old Europe are doing just fine living amidst real places, not make-believe bazaars and marketplaces. What we are doing in the cities of Southasia instead is creating a stifling, faux atmosphere, complete with artificial and invented cafes, promenades and lakefronts. The socio-political phenomena of such a distancing can only be imagined, and it will doubtless be horrific in a region where the upper crust will want to flee the muck and stench of the marketplace. On the whole, the creation of the Southasian Class Bubble will guarantee the placement of autocratic regimes in the capitals of our countries, states and provinces. And that eventually must give way to … what?   The process has begun in India in particular, but also in the rest of Southasia. As yet, the enclaves of the regional elites are still connected to the rest of society. They still call out to the vegetable vendor, who continues to wander the neighbourhoods; they still rely on the service providers of the poor, such as the bicycle-repair family at the curb or the paan-masala guy across the street. For now, the enclaves are not completely cut off. But it will happen, and the process is already well underway, with the malls, the exclusive multiplexes, the toll highways and air-conditioned cars, trains, buses, lobbies, offices and toilets.   The definitive distancing of the rich from the masses began in India during the 1970s, when Air-Conditioned II-Class seaters and sleepers invaded the Indian Railways. The windows became sealed with tinted glass, and you could no longer hear the chai-wallah quickly enough to holler at him to rush over. The best you could do now was to cup your hands against your own reflection on the glass, and gesticulate to him. And then, your chai came not in an earthen cup, but a brittle plastic one.   Is this the way we want to go? Because if it is, there is no way everyone can come along for the ride.

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Himal Southasian