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New residents in search of the new city

The Indian Express - 6 January, 2015

An even more disheartening statistic is that, in the top 53 cities, about 16 per cent of the population lives in slums.

Indian cities once used to have distinctive characteristics. There was beavering Mumbai, epitomised by the hordes milling in and out of train stations, and cabbies who would not bother to give up precious billable hours to molest a passenger, and the rich and famous living discreetly. In contrast, there was middle-class, government Delhi and powerful, political Delhi, where everyone understood their place in life and how best to signal it loudly.

Kolkata was the bastion of genteel poverty and good manners, as seen from its decaying buildings and the way it cared for its women. Unlike Delhi, where women were traumatised with male harassment, in Kolkata, women were offered seats in crowded mini-buses and were treated like everybody's mothers and sisters on the street. I once got into a taxi at Kolkata airport and said "Sonagachi ke paas," and the driver clucked and said, "It isn't a good place for you to go, can I take you somewhere else?" If I had said to a Mumbai cabbie "Kamathipura", he would have taken me without even the slightest interest, except perhaps "Chutta hai na?" (I hope you have change?) In Delhi, there would have been a gleam in the eye if I said "G.B. Road", and the likely questions: "And how long will you be there? Shall I wait for you to take you back?"

Hyderabad and Bangalore were the non-identical twins, not in a hurry to get anywhere. One the garden city of retirees and of those who wanted good quality, reasonably priced living, and were willing to give up the fast pace for it. The other had a naturally laid-back pace from another zamaana. I remember cycle- and auto-rickshaws with curtains to make them zenana and movie theatres with a zenana balcony section. Chennai was conservative in food, dress, art, everything – a city where, we used to joke, you had to go to sleep at 9pm so that you could wake up at 5am, when everyone was at their most energetic, noisiest best. There were seven or eight mini-metros as we called them, whose inhabitants believed they were small towners and liked it that way. Jaipur was different from Ahmedabad from Chandigarh from Pune.

But the last two decades have seen a flattening out of these differences, and a uniform, sad sameness has crept in. We now think of city differences in terms of traffic intensity, pollution levels, rape numbers, top-end residential real estate prices, the number of migrants and slums, and the lack of parks for children. Just to get a perspective on our celebrated new urbanisation, "urban India" is a bewildering concoction of a few big cities and a large number of mostly faceless small towns and overgrown villages, which are classified as urban but are not so, the creation of a census definition that says villages must have most of their men employed in agriculture. The largest 18 towns have 30 per cent of urban India's population, the largest 53 have about 43 per cent. The remaining 57 per cent is almost equally divided between 418 small towns and 7,467 tiny towns, about half declared urban and the other half being in that twilight zone of neither rural nor urban, charmingly called "Census Towns". An even more disheartening statistic is that, in the top 53 cities, about 16 per cent of the population lives in slums.

But in all this squalor and chaos, there is a wonderful new phenomenon that has emerged and is growing by leaps and bounds in all towns. It is the rise of entrepreneurial ventures – even the smallest town very quickly gets its path lab, nursing home, Indianised foreign food restaurant, a jazzed-up local-food eatery, some version of a mall, a multiplex and, of course, beauty parlours. Even more heartening is the rise of micro-entrepreneurs, who provide a variety of services to people in the city, and women are as active as men here.

What takes your breath away is the entrepreneurial energy, especially the intellectual energy, they bring to their work. Every day, they try to go up the value chain, add some bell or whistle or home delivery version, or use the internet to increase revenue. The amount of learning that happens here is very impressive. The tailor who makes your curtains and upholstery will nudge you –do you want "normal" or blinds or (pulling out a tattered book) Victorian drapes, and do you want fabric blinds, or maybe imported bamboo or roller blinds? He has learnt from other places, other people, and it is staggering how uptodate he is in a continuously changing world, and how confident, too, of his new abilities.

The chap who walks a bunch of dogs leverages his customer-base to go into pet grooming (even the vocabulary is regularly refreshed), telling you exactly what kind of extra tuition your spoilt pet needs to behave. The vegetable vendor now stocks parsley and thyme and tells you how to cook some of these foreign vegetables, such as zucchini. He has learnt from customers whose share of increased spend he lost to the supermarket across the road.Mine said to me, "I keep rocket leaves also" (earlier it was just salad ka patta, now he has learnt to differentiate between them), and then, instead of packaged leaves, he took out a loose bundle, weighed and gave it to me at a better price. He had managed to trace the source of this product and compete quite well! Tailors have learnt as well from the big shops and widened their offerings and advice. Even the humble resizing tailor has learnt how to work with ever-changing fashions, as memsahibs give away newer clothes and the recipients are young and fastidious about the fit.

Food is an area where micro-entrepreneurs thrive – they supply everything you can think of, cooked in every way, to shops and individuals. If you work late, someone is ready to send you late dinner; if you are on a specific diet, that's no problem; and shops are increasingly stocking ready-to-eat food, coming from some smart lady's kitchen. And yes, she too is ceaselessly experimenting and thinking about what would add value to the customer and make her pay more.

This learning energy is displayed by domestic help, too. They embrace gadgets and learn how to use them with alacrity, as do drivers who have learnt to use GPS or to adapt to new cars with new features all the time. Even the maalish waali bai is now a spa therapist and can tell you about "points" (acupressure) and exfoliation, without missing a beat. And it is only in large cities that you see heartening examples all the time of upward mobility. The tailor's daughter who is in final-year CA, the domestic help's son who repairs laptops, and many more such examples. When our city infrastructure catches up with this new world of high-energy micro-entrepreneurship, watch the dazzle of smiles and the jingle of more money in more pockets!

Bijapurkar is the author of A Never-Before World: Tracking the Evolution of Consumer India