PUNE—A Dweller’s View*
Pune—On the March
Introduction—A civic & socio-historical panorama
Glorious past to a dynamic present to a rarefied future?
by Jayant Deshpande
or years the word ‘Peshwa’ was synonymous with Pune, or Poona as the British called it. The association still persists to a degree. The Peshwas, after all, ruled Maharashtra from Poona for more than a century until 1818. The Peshwas were like the core memory of a computer’s processor. Their role in the deep recesses of history cannot be interfered with or denied, but they have no immediate impact on Pune’s dynamic present either. The raison d’etre of a town or city can be traced to its origins. Pune supposedly began with the Bhonsles of Shivaji fame, the Peshwas then followed on their heels, and finally the British made their mark until 1947. Each added their own layer to Pune’s history and what we get is a palimpsest: nothing is completely erased; remnants of the old are still visible. Isn’t our life, our personality, our understanding of the world a kind of palimpsest, where remnants of the past peek through the present? Like a patchwork quilt in time and space?
But Pune has forged ahead, metamorphosing into a host of raisons d’etre: colleges and universities, health centers, the defence establishment of the Southern Command, laboratories and scientific research institutes, computer training schools and cyber cafés, vocational schools, centers and institutes of art and culture, theatres, museums, booksellers, publishers, printing presses, heavy industries, a stock exchange, national banks, head offices of domestic and multinational companies, fast food outlets, plazas, American-style mega malls, hotels, restaurants and boarding houses, a red light district. The list goes on, with hi-tech parks now home to Indian and foreign software firms, BPO(business process outsourcing) outfits and R&D centers of multinationals. These form the cosmopolitan face of the city.
Indeed, if Pune is viewed as a microcosm of planet earth, the modern, high-tech cosmopolitan face of the upper and middle classes forms the crust, the prevailing Maratha culture the mantle, and the Brahmins descended from the Peshwas the core.
In spite of its conservative ways, and the weight of its tradition, Pune has never practiced civic exclusion of any kind. Migrants have been welcome all along, and they form the fourth, atmospheric layer that gives the city a kind of buoyancy. Migrants have come here from virtually every corner of India. They have changed the very face of this city and vitalized it.
Marathi may be the city’s mother tongue, but it is their ethnic mix—Parsees, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Gujaratis, South Indians, Bengalis, Punjabis, Sindhis and rural folk from the Hindi belt, to name just some of the groups—that has enriched the city beyond measure, giving it a warmth and vibrancy, even a certain cosmopolitan feel. These diverse communities have thrown up a riotous variety we can all celebrate. Their social worlds, colliding and intersecting, each different from the other, give Pune its colorful character.
Pune still wears the look of an overgrown village, each community merging with the others until their tentacles spread and reach into every available piece of land that can conceivably be settled. The urban sprawl is unavoidable, as is the unchecked growth that has added new life to the city and the trappings of modern life. Despite this, and despite some indolent ways it has inherited, Pune is on the whole a reasonably disciplined and industrious city. It hums along. And it works.
* Revised & updated—first appeared in City Beat (a Pune weekly) during 1999-2000
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