‘A person does not end with the limits of his physical body or with the area to which his physical activity is immediately confined but embraces, rather, the totality of meaningful effects which emanates from him temporally and spatially. In the same way the city exists only in the totality of the effects which transcend their immediate sphere.’
—Georg Simmel, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903)
Cities are complex gigantic creatures, difficult to fathom and experience in their entirety. Yet they are amenable to being moulded in the imaginings of planners, policymakers, academics of different disciplines, city dwellers and ‘outsiders’ from the morals and aspirations of their locations. Every city is a unique character, shaped by the trajectories of its history, people, materiality, hierarchies, cultures and economic life, all of which are in continuous movement, even as that movement is sometimes of decay and destruction. But what is a city? Is there something that is common to all cities, apart from administrative benchmarks of size and population? This guest post by Nishpriha Thakur not only reveals certain unique quirks of the city of Surat, seen through its processes of morphing, but also opens out ways of seeing the relationship between growth and spatiality in cities. Her essay compels you to wonder whether the one trait that is common to all cities, across time and geography, is that of an identity crisis. Dissatisfied with what it is at any point, a city is forever looking backwards to a more pristine past and forward to a utopian future. Every city aspires to be a ‘real’ city but is never quite there, as the content and form of the measures of the ‘real’ keep shifting—well planned, cleanliness, aesthetics, abundance, well being, freedom, housing, livelihoods, infrastructures, culture. Dynamic extension, for Simmel, is what characterizes a big city, tangibly through its area and population but, more significantly, intangibly through what he refers to as the geometric progression of economic, personal and intellectual relations, wherein lie the possibility of expanding an individual’s horizons. Whether this extension brings cities closer to or further away from the ‘real’, dwelling in the city is impossible without believing in your own version of the real city and extending yourself to be in it, whether it is by wanting to own a house, make a living on the street or be able to love.
Ab uske shehar mein thehrein ki kooch kar jaayen
‘Faraz’ aao sitaare safar ke dekhte hain
Now, should we stay in her city or leave
Faraz, come let’s look at the stars of this journey
~ Ahmad Faraz
‘All the twelve gates of the city would be closed at all times. The wall was six feet thick, and it was very difficult for anyone to enter the city without permission. In those days, the nawab would issue a permission letter, and that is how people could enter. This Kot Vistaar [walled city area] has always been exclusive. Not everyone can live here. People may come and go, have a shop, but then living is different. When people now say “Surat”, they think of a very large city, which it is, but the asli [real] Surat is here. If you want to get anything Surti, you have to come to Kot Vistaar—you cannot find it anywhere else in the city.’
In his 100-year-old mithai shop, Kishorebhai would often share stories such as these in the course of the many discussions we had on how does one understand Surat or what does it mean to be Surti. The ‘constantly growing’ city appealed to him, but he would often refer to it as ‘extra’. ‘But the city has expanded. How can you say that the city is only here and is not in other spaces around?’ I asked Kishorebhai. ‘You know, sometimes, an organ of our body grows “extra”. It is not a great thing, but sometimes it is not a bad thing either. One does not care. If there are six fingers instead of five, it would never mean a hand should have six fingers. The one that grows is always extra,’ he explained. He never overtly criticized the much-discussed growth and development of the city. Yet it often seemed he did not care. Or perhaps he did. While he was happy that the city was growing, the fact that migrants now increasingly lived outside Kot Vistaar in ‘posher’ localities upset him. He would often grumble that the money is getting drained from ‘here’ to ‘that side’.
In the course of fieldwork, people would often tell me that Surat is growing. They would say it with a sense of pride. And that it is the city of flyovers, among the fastest-growing cities in the world and listed as one of the cleanest cities in India. This growth and urge to keep the city clean was apparently triggered after Commissioner Rao was posted in Surat in the wake of the deadly plague of 1994. People narrated how every morning at five he would start cleaning the streets on his own. These incidents embarrassed many residents, workers and traders, and they too joined him in cleaning the streets. His next step was the Inner City Revitalization Plan to be executed by the Surat Municipal Corporation in 1995 for making wider roads and organized spaces. By the late 1990s, Surat was sprawling, with town planning schemes incorporating the peripheries of the city into the map of Surat.
But do cities really grow? And is spatial growth a marker of development? I have ‘grown up’ in Surat and with Surat, if at all there has been a growth. And I have seen Surat changing, not growing. At Udhana Darwaza, one of the twelve gates in the city, there used to be Rajkumar Theatre. Located at the juncture of the sprawling powerloom workshops and lined-up residential clusters of the Surtis, the theatre used to attract people and groups of all kinds. Migrants would flock to the theatre, carefully rolling ten rupee notes while queuing at the ticket counter. They would giggle and chatter in their respective native languages. There would be conversations in Odia among workers from Orissa who had migrated in the 1960s for the job of twisting yarn, in Bhojpuri and Magahi among migrants from south Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who operated the powerloom machines with a swift back-and-forth movement of their limbs, and in Marathi among workers from the Khandesh region of Maharashtra, who are known for their physical strength and ability to deftly lift boxes in the textile industry .
Then there were the Surtis. They stood in the queue with some kind of authority. They too giggled. And ate pani poori from the famous roadside stall near Rajkumar Theatre. It must have been 1998, I was around ten, when I overheard a conversation between two mill workers, possibly migrants from eastern India, at the pani poori stall. One of them laughed and said, ‘Yahi phuchka kha ke raat bhar so jayenge. Daal bhaat to khayenge nahin; aise hi phuchka, fafda, muthiya, pau bhaji jaisa sharir lekar ghumte rahenge.’ (They can get a whole night’s sleep by eating just this phuchka. They will not eat rice and lentils. And they will roam around with figures like phuchka, fafda, muthiya and pau bhaji.) This jibe directed at Surtis was hardly an exaggeration. For a Surti, khai, pi ne maja (eat, drink and be merry) is the most important element of life. Streets in Surat are always full of vendors. The city boasts of two khaudhara galis (literally, gluttonous streets), which are open all night, crammed with cars and bikes parked everywhere and people sitting around eating. Young men and old men, young women and old women, children, married couples, engaged couples, giggling over pau bhaji. For Surtis, eating on the street is also an important part of courtship, even in arranged marriages. Couples spend about a year after engagement trying to figure out if the other person enjoys eating out and roaming the streets at night on weekends.
I lived across Rajkumar Theatre and saw it every day. And then one day, I noticed wooden logs around the theatre. The building would be reconstructed, I thought. In a few years, the multi-speciality Apple Hospital came up. The paani poori thela was gone. Instead, there is now a small restaurant, with pizza, ‘Chinese’, burgers and grilled sandwich on the menu. A lot of people point to the huge hospital building with pride. ‘See how Surat has developed,’ they exclaim. They recall how roads used to be narrow and congested with thelas, and see the clearing up of thelas and coming up of ‘clean’ buildings as markers of growth. I, however, could never understand—was it really growth or was it change? Growth and development are always associated with spatial boundaries. With extension, there is an assumption of growth. The body grows and is constantly forming personhood. The city too is thought of as becoming a grown person by capturing more and more spaces within and around.
But the growing body also ages and changes its contours. Sometimes, a limb has to be amputated because it is diseased. Tumours multiply and start affecting the whole body, and they too have to be removed. Urban renewal and revitalization programmes often follow the same clinical approach, removing from the inside, pushing to the outside, areas labelled as diseased or malignant, to preserve the health of the core city. The setting up of the Surat Textile Market outside the inner city in 1977 was one such attempt. Earlier, weavers and small-scale traders would sell yarn from their houses, involving adatiyas (middlemen). Once the Surat Textile Market was built, many migrant traders—Marwadis, Punjabis and later Kathiawadis—bought shops there. Very few Surtis, however, made this shift. They found the outskirts to be dingy and unsuitable. ‘No Surti would ever go there,’ they told me. That city area continues to be constructed as dirty, disgusting, where pigs loiter, full of muck, characteristics that are then extended to the people who own shops there. So the ‘outsiders’ continue to be framed through a circular logic—not only do outsiders live in dirty localities but also because they are outsiders they should continue to live in dirt, they should be amputated from the city, from inhabitable spaces.
Meanwhile, the city continues to extend its limbs.
An official in the Surat Municipal Corporation told me, ‘Surat will now grow till Navsari [an adjoining city]. That day is not far when people will think of Surat as mini-Bombay and go to Bombay for work. Even now, people commute daily between Bombay and Surat through the morning train Flying Rani.’ Many are happy that the ‘outside’ is constantly being added to the city through town planning schemes. People are investing in housing schemes on the extreme peripheries of Surat with the hope that one day these too would ‘become’ part of the city and then they can say that they ‘live’ in the city. What is it about the city that one aspires to be in the city? Is it to be around constant flows of work, money and networks? And is being outside the city the only way be be in a growing city?
‘This area is Nanavat, you know. “Nana” means money and “vat” means respect. In Surat, this area used to be famous for the richest merchants, even Armenian Khojas. Houses were full of money, and hundis [bills of exchange] would be issued every now and then. No wonder Akbar’s famous mint was here. Why wouldn’t people want to come to Surat?’ says Kishorebhai. I wonder if he ever thinks about the various villages that surrounded Surat—peripheries that became part of the city after Surat was separated from the Bombay state in 1960, with the formation of separate states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. Those villages were all ‘on the way’ to Surat—en route to the core, to the centre. And now they are the city. Aren’t spaces then a retrospective idea? Where we lived was the city. The city lies there, right there. With its own connections, networks and houses. Nanavat may be where the asal or real Surat is, but Surat is also in Shahpor, in Bhagal, in Meccai Pul.
Is growth stagnant at some point in time and space, in that frozen moment in memory when houses were full of stacks of money and the city more real? Or does the real city constantly change with the shifting connections between places, labour, skills and trade? All the twelve gates of Kot Vistaar lead to a different city or a village. Delhi Gate leads to Delhi, Baranpuri Gate to Burhanpur, Athwa Gate to Athwa village (now a part of the city), Udhana Darwaza to Udhana village. The Meccai Pul is no longer the gateway to Mecca, as written of in travelogues from the Mughal period, but now leads to Adajan on the other side, a village area incorporated into the Surat city in 1986. The castle on the side of Kot Vistaar stands dilapidated and taken over by the overgrowth of trees.
What goes on on the outside of the city also shapes the city—who comes inside; their bodies, shapes and skills; what commodities they bring; and how they place these and themselves within the shifting contours of the city. When Kishorebhai’s great grandfathers tried to enter the city, they could not. So they asked someone they knew in the city to get them a permission letter for just a visit. Once they got the letter, they came prepared to the city with lots of snacks and sweets. While Surtis were busy weaving in their houses, Kishorebhai’s ancestors would make rounds in the afternoon selling snacks at very low prices. Since Surtis, including the women, worked all day on their looms, it was difficult for them to cook four meals. So they would buy snacks every day, never in bulk but just enough to last through the day. Kishorebhai’s great grandfathers went around workshops and houses selling snacks and sweets. That is how they got absorbed into the city.
I would often meet Kishorebhai in his shop and buy small amounts of ghari, a popular Surti sweet, and sometimes samosas too. In November 2015, I did not see him for the whole month. Sometimes the shop would be closed, sometimes open. His relatives were running the shop, and Kishorebhai was nowhere to be seen. Somehow, I had taken it for granted that the shop would always be there and with it Kishorebhai. This is why I never felt the need to ask him for his phone number. One day, I went to the shop and asked his cousin brother why Kishorebhai was nowhere to be seen and if he was okay. His brother told me, ‘Yes, yes. Absolutely fine. He is just busy with his new house and its furnishings. That is why we [family members] manage the shop.’ ‘Oh, he has moved somewhere else? Where? If it is close by, I can go see him,’ I said. ‘No, it is a little far. You know Vesu road? That is where he has bought a 3-BHK flat. Very nice flat, big society, big garden. Not like the city area, not congested.’
I did not see Kishorebhai through all of December. When walking past his shop on 14 January 2016, the day of the Uttarayan festival, I noticed that he was back. I rushed to him and asked him where he had been. He told me about his new house. I asked him, ‘But I thought you always wanted to live in the city. Vesu, Citylight, Althan, Pandesara were all extras…’ ‘Arre,’ he said, ‘but I still come here. See, I came on Uttarayan festival no? Being Surti is all about these times when the city celebrates. I will also be inside. Very much inside. I have opened a shop there too [in Vesu], but then I will keep coming here. The link is always there.’
As I walked the streets that evening, I could see kite threads and electric wires entwined together, unable sometimes to make out which is which. May be the city and the extended city, the frozen and the moving, the real and the imagined, the inner and outer can never be unentangled. Yet they shape experiences of the city through the coming together of linkages. May be growth is all about what linkages are present at a time and how important they are. Perhaps spaces do not grow but merely change their connections. The spider web looks wider and wider. Yet one can see how there are holes from which leaves poke in and make their own connections. And may be I too have not grown much—it is all extra, only to create linkages with Delhi, Vadodara and Amherst by extending my limbs.
Born and brought up in Surat, Nishpriha Thakur has been working on Surat’s bazaars, old city areas, and the textile and diamond industries since 2013. Currently pursuing a PhD in sociology from Shiv Nadar University, her research interests include marketplace languages, tangible and intangible forms of belongingness in a city, and everyday routines in cityscapes.
Cover image: City of Surat; Robert Sears, 1810–1892, Wikimedia Commons. All images used in the essay © Nishpriha Thakur, unless mentioned otherwise.