I was introduced to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in a hostel room one rainy night. Four of us sat together and read aloud his ‘cities’. The boundless imagination with which they were conceived filled us with excitement, curiosity and wonderment. It wasn’t as if I understood it completely, but that again added to its lure. I had forgotten the heights that imagination could possibly reach. After a long time, I found something that was this free of any boundaries or restrictions.
A few days ago, I came across this post and found it very interesting. It also got me thinking. Are his cities purely ‘imaginary’? Couldn’t you see that, in many ways, we have built around us, cities that are as chaotic, as wonderful and as strange as the ones Marco Polo speaks about? So, I decided to do an exercise –to try and look at cities the way he sees them, to try and find invisible cities within our cities. This is a bizarre thing to do, and I tried to be as open-minded and imaginative as possible while doing this.
The Phoenix City:
I have to talk here about the famous city of Boux. Around it lies the desert. As you approach the city, you find that the city has been born again, from destruction. The city stands in the midst of its own rubble. And like broken limbs are patched up with casts and plaster, its buildings show signs of wreckage. Every once in a while Nature comes in all fury and shakes up the city, leaving nothing, and every time, it rises again, not without wearing its wounds proudly for others to see.
This was inspired from the city of Bhuj, where I spent four months. Bhuj was the epicenter of the earthquake in 2011. The Kachchh region has always been susceptible to earthquakes and has been facing major earthquakes every hundred years. We have heard many stories of abandoned cities and cities that were totally destroyed by a natural calamity. But Bhuj is the Phoenix city.
The Excess city
With every single item you could possibly think of, this city forms a maze of streets, all overflowing. There is nothing you can’t find here- Sweets are sold in shops with a grand staircase and blouses laid with precious stones and lace are found on the street. In many ways this is a city of desire: The very desire that sages warn us from – material desire. Everything is displayed and everybody is called in to touch, feel and buy. It is a city of overwhelming excess.
This city was born from roaming around Commercial Street in Bangalore. There is literally nothing that you can’t find there. And while that may sound nice, it was an overwhelming experience for me.
The city of Surveillance:
Everyone walked as if they knew where they were going. Confident, smiling and greeting each other warmly. Every now and then someone or the other stealthily looked up towards the ‘eye’ and quickly looked away from it. It is hard in this city to not be aware of the ‘eye’. These are everywhere. They follow you out in the street. They follow you out in the office, when you go shopping, in the restaurant, everywhere. I can’t casually state that I think this is unnecessary. It wasn’t the most comfortable city. Everyone stole moments away from the ‘gaze’ and relished them, while acknowledging that the surveillance gave them ‘security’.
The city for Anyone.
Leaving the city of surveillance to come to the city for Anyone was a contrasting and liberating. Here you could find the ‘liberals’, the lovers, the drinkers, the social deviants, the outcasts- anyone and everyone. There weren’t many rules. Nor were there any responsibilities. The city lived by accommodating these ‘outsiders’ who found this haven. Well, for them, it was haven. But a person from the surveillance city would feel like a fish out of water and wouldn’t know what to do.
It was the ultimate freedom city, where no restrictions of any sort were in place. Here most common ‘illegel’ things were legal. Cities like these crop up when the existing ones squeeze out of them the people whom they consider as ‘undesirables’.
The city of Signboards:
It was hard to focus here. My eyes wandered restlessly, trying to settle, but that was impossible. There were signs on roads, on buildings, set in, jutting out….there were even people walking about with sign boards on their backs. Where they felt signboards didn’t do the job, they resorted to flyers or shouting. The city, to me seemed to have an excessive attention seeking character. But that was the way its people survived, competing with each other, to have bigger, better ways to capture the attention of passers by. Sometimes, I felt they were descending into madness, trying to come up with new ways of capturing attention. The kind of madness that made them hang a board on a human and made him walk up and down the road.
We live and work in cities. Everyday, we travel through the same roads, and it becomes easy to take things for granted. Yet, is that all? Aren’t cities man-made wonders? Aren’t they like huge machines, chugging through the centuries? Cities today have grown, with them new habits and lifestyles have formed and this means what we take for granted now might have been a very surprising, even laughable phenomenon at another place and time. I would like to leave it there, and hope you will find ways of looking at the place and the time we live in, through a different lens.
[Divya RV, the author of this beautiful interpretation of Italo Calvino’s seminal work, “Invisible Cities”, is still grappling with the process of becoming an architect while juggling with writing, traveling and adjusting to the ubiquitous ‘PG’ life in the city. ]