Is Small Beautiful? A Tale of Two Cities

Bhaskar Majumder

The question seems puzzling for the size of the earth restricts the size of others physically and the former is independent of social choice. Technology or brain power is not captivated by the size of the earth; however, the earth provides the pedestal to examine how technology is activated. For a layman like me a key is small in size and has the capacity to unlock a closed big gate or the accelerator of a vehicle is small in size that minimizes the travel time of the big vehicle on a linear distance. The questions what forms size and how size affects social actions need to be explained.

What I propose to explain here is not about the cardinality of matter by number-kg-meter-litre but the nature of the public sphere that works in space considered as small or not. Small being relative, at least one more unit is needed to juxtapose. The public sphere being invisible, I take public space as a proxy. The canvas of my text is confined to cities here.

Based on my experience of living for decades in large cities like Calcutta/Kolkata and small cities like Allahabad/Prayagraj, I think I am in a position to shed some light on the way the size gets reflected through actions and ideas of the individuals. As far as practicable I shall abstain from political questions.

Allahabad as beautiful
The city of Allahabad is beautiful by distance even without the facilities of public transport. This does not mean that public transport is absent but they are like auto rickshaws, battery-run rickshaws, manual rickshaws, some not-much-dependable JNRUM buses, and very few old-model small size buses meant mainly for the milkmen. In addition, the old model slow-speed horse-driven vehicles move on the roads. The city has its own beauty for people here consider a distance of 10 k.m. as very long and suffer from the inertia to start moving; if there is a bridge in-between like the Sastri Bridge on the Ganges then the drudgery-disliking people will think twice before crossing that bridge. Thus, people live localized in the beautiful small city that reflects more of ruralisation or what may be called as rurban - a mix of rural and urban.

Allahabad urban population as percentage of Allahabad district (rural + urban) population remained at around 20.0 during the past six decades, 1951-2011, implying the static urban capacity of Allahabad. The city of Allahabad is an image of urban Allahabad. The city is a million-plus populated city that could not generate high mobility among cluster of satellite towns implying perpetuation of smallness. The strength in such smallness is less crime, less lootable resources or public properties and more of peace in living in a white city. The freedom of cattle on public roads to walk and take a nap occupied the public roads that moving public vehicles could have. But then cattle are innocuous generally – they are auto-mobile in Allahabad but are not classified as automobile. The public vehicles are very little in number but the sound that each one makes while moving on public road reminds sound of silencer-less vehicles. The sound of the horn probably reflects the power of the driver or the confidence of the driver to make the unpredictable pedestrians alert. Needless to say, pavements are virtually absent in such a beautiful small city.

The identity of private vehicles in Allahabad get linked with power identity for reasons not readily understood like one observes terms like ‘’Police’’, ‘’Mantry’’, ‘’Adhyaksya’’ obviously in Hindi on the front of the vehicles displayed. Some of these vehicles show Party flags. Surprisingly, some of the residential houses show Party flags. The sophistication shown by the Mathadhis (public stalwarts) in Allahabad city seems to me more artificial than real – sophistication by expression of ‘Namoste’, touching feet and all that. Being small, the people remain non-anonymous.  

Kolkata as beautiful
Most of the pavements in Kolkata are occupied by the street hawkers. Does it reflect any conflict or crowding out? Probably no, for the pedestrians enjoy food and other goods that these hawkers sell which otherwise could have been non-attainable for these pedestrians. Kolkata is liveable in spite of being big; adequate public means of transport that make the speed of each vehicle very slow. One aspect is absence of hand-driven rickshaws that mostly the in-migrant barefoot people used to pull. The horse-driven vehicles are also extremely rare now. So are the pollution-free trams that used to move slowly on tracks fixed on surface roads. The double-decker buses that used to ply already disappeared from the city. One may opine some beauty of the city is lost while disciplining the city.

The number of public vehicles is so large in number in Kolkata that the private vehicles seem to have disappeared from public views. The question of display of power by plying of private vehicles is a non-event there unlike what is observed in the city of Allahabad. Being large, the people remain anonymous in the city public domain.

The beauty of Kolkata lies more in public interaction that is often uncalled for. Each will come forward to help, each will try to get scope to advice what best others can do for example while constructing a residential house or a study course to pursue etc. Even the fish seller in local bazaar will get time to advice the buyer how to cook that fish at home reflecting a social market.  

Notwithstanding the fact that both the cities have a cultural root or that people are rooted culturally, the tale of the two cities is not for comparison for they are virtually non-comparable for the following reasons: one, each day more than twice the size of settled population of Allahabad city enters into the city of Kolkata in the morning through mainly local trains and go out in the evening; this is unimaginable for the city of Allahabad. Second, local travel in Kolkata for entry and exit covers more than 100 km. one way that is not possible for Allahabad not only because of absence of such frequent local trains but more so because of the absence of carrying capacity of the Allahabad city. The easy going city like Allahabad does not also like to expand much that may be manifest from the exit of all the pilgrims each year once Kumbh comes to an end. While Kolkata is a combination of culture and commerce, the city of Allahabad is a pilgrim city. The institutions here are mostly occupied by the Mathadhish (culturally heavyweight) who decide or try to decide the fate of the others. Cultural suffocation can be dispersed in Kolkata while it is impossible for a small city like Allahabad.

Men on the street in the city of Allahabad feel happy if they get Dahi-Jilebi-Samosa from roadside shops to meet their appetite. The juxtaposition is 365x24 hour tea shops in Kolkata. One difference in these lie in the fact that in the latter it is mostly conversations (storm) over a cup of tea while in the former it is generally absent. Debate is not generally seen as a ‘’pure’’ act in the heartland for they see the person involved in it as ‘Larte Jhagarte hai’ while they believe in silence, touching feet and saying Namoste.

One finds number of beggars, street children, slum population in Kolkata that may show dark side of the city but that is also a reflection of a large city that carries much more than one crore settled population. The non-dark city like Allahabad is partially free from this but conceals the plight of the poor by silence of the latter and peace of a graveyard. Questions do not come out in Allahabad city. It shows easy life – ‘’Chalta hai’’. The city of Allahabad lives in silence that fails to generate a vibrant civil society.

Beauty lies in beholder’s eyes. The people of Allahabad living in peace perhaps like the beauty of the city though they did not express it. The people of Kolkata may like the city for its pluralism and vibrancy in the civil society that get expressed frequently. Thus, both small and large are beautiful in the way people perceive it. In case Kolkata gets truncated into fifteen Allahabads the beauty of Kolkata probably will be lost just as Allahabad cannot be readily converted into a Kolkata.

I avoided deliberately the related administrative-political-economic dimensions of being large and small. Also I did not go into the question that large became large not on a single day – it traversed on elastic time to show its expanding size. The point here is also not that each city will have to traverse the same trajectory.

With no aspersion on anybody in either of the cities, the reason for my selecting these two cities was because in each I spent very intensively more than two decades other than spending my days in other locations. The implication is, I got chances to meet people in both to try to understand public life in both.                                  

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Sep 18, 2019

Bhaskar Majumder [email protected]

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