Roads to the Past

Indian cities tend to look back on their past more selectively. Beyond the major monuments there is little effort to remember the past; the more common memories of recent history are frequently erased. A part of this erasure can be attributed to economic pressures. The cost of maintaining old buildings can be quite high. And when it is weighed against the value of the real estate the buildings occupy it is not difficult to spot which consideration usually wins.

It would not be entirely accurate, though, to blame the disdain for the past entirely on economic considerations. There is also a tendency to impose the present on the past.

This is best seen in the now-routine task of changing the names of roads in our cities. The very fact that the old names are associated with a past we do not endorse is seen as sufficient reason to change them. That this will also erase memories of the period associated with the old names does not seem to matter, and may even be seen as a bonus.

What’s more, the new names are seen as an endorsement of the personality whose name the road adopts, rather than as a memory of the relationship of that person to the city. Take the case of Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bengaluru. Gandhi had two important influences on the city. In 1915 he initiated work on an institute named after his mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who had passed away earlier that year. In 1927 Gandhi held prayer meetings in another part of the city and, as was his wont, commented extensively on the social and political situation. Yet when a decision to name a road after Mahatma Gandhi was taken, neither of the roads on which Gandhi’s two important encounters with Bengaluru took place was chosen. Instead, South Parade, with its dance halls and bars, was chosen to be named after the Mahatma simply because it was the most elite road in the city.

Turning history into a battlefield in which there can be no agreement ensures we do not learn the lessons the past can teach us. It is not that Indian cities were always as dismissive of their past. Most of them had had to deal with the possibility of conflict between different groups. 

Few would deny that despite there being less cultural diversity in India today than there existed a century ago, there is no dearth of conflict. Yet there is little evidence of willingness to learn from some of the more enlightened approaches that may have succeeded in a city in the course of its history. Most Indian cities prefer to distort their history than learn from it.

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