PUNE—A Dweller’s View*
Pune and Hinterland—1
by Jayant Deshpande
n the previous piece, I rhapsodized over this city’s magnificent surroundings. But can Pune’s inhabitants and their civic works match the grandeur of its setting? Squatters, zopadpattis and other assorted dwellings have already crept up the slopes of Parvati and will soon claim the summit. That’s one way of matching the grandeur of the landscape! Other hills and hillocks are under siege as well, some already being raped. And the distant ranges may be next in line to be deflowered. City folk who climb Parvati are treated to their distinct odor, which wraps the area like a blanket. If the visual doesn’t move you, the olfactory surely will. Wadarwadi, a sprawling slum at the foot of Hanuman Hill, teems with a life all its own. Though it is a small town in itself, it can hardly compare in size with Dharavi in Mumbai, a vast vibrant slum that is home to around a million people.
An incessant clamor animates these colonies as they go about the business of surviving from day to day. What have they got to look forward to? In spite of the squalor and filth, the festive spirit punctuates their drab existence a few times a year. We snub our noses in disgust at shanties, squatter colonies, slum dwellings and the like which dot the city, but who’s responsible for them? What have they done wrong? What have we done for them? It’s their city too; they are its life, raw and exposed. I enjoy chatting with the cobblers, plumbers, electricians, scrap dealers, fruit and vegetable vendors, waiters in restaurants, tailors, peons and other slum and shanty dwellers who ply their trade on Fergusson College Road, where I happen to live. I listen to their stories. There are aspects of city life I can learn about only from them; they keep me anchored to this country’s, and especially its urban, realities.
Pune draws its strength from its hinterland, from rural folk who’ve migrated to the urban cluster it represents. They are us. We are them. If the twain meet, it may be better for us all. Most Puneites have roots outside, in a small town or village somewhere, as do I. So is it surprising that it resembles an overgrown village? In a city like Pune the line between tribal and townsman, rural and urban is often blurred. The civic idea is a superimposed one that has to be learned. But a psychological urbanization has been going on; former villagers who visit their native places find themselves out of step: they can neither slow down, nor can they see clearly the beauty of nature all around them.
During the winters and scorching summers, the Deccan region reminds me so much of the American southwest: the Great Basin, the spine of the Sierras, the hot desert stretches of Southern California between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the mesas and buttes of Monument Valley, the renegade ranges that spill out all over the arid, stony landscape. How like Pune’s hinterland; how like Maharashtra’s barren, rocky interior. In a geographic sense, the Deccan has strong affinities with America’s southwest, where the land is harsh and the people hardy.
* Revised & updated—first appeared in City Beat (a Pune weekly) during 1999-2000
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