Utopian musing

In a ceramics museum in Toledo, Spain, we saw a staggering array of examples of pottery through the ages. Most of them were of the Talavera de la Reina style, a form of ceramics that was introduced to spain by the Moors, but carried forward by the spaniards. D expressed surprise on seeing some of them, she’d always thought that the style of ceramics was actually from Mexico. She told me about the Talavera ceramics of Mexico…and also about how each village in the province of Michoacán had its own specialty when it came to handicrafts. Apparently, each village was encouraged to develop a distinctive style of craftwork by a priest who was in that area. For example, the village of Tzintzuntzan was known for pottery, Paracho for Guitars, Santa Clara for copper products and Nurio for woven woollen goods. I cynically remarked that it was very uncommon to come across a priest who actually helped the local Indians at that time of spanish colonization, but apparently it wasn’t that rare.

Two weeks later, I was back in Bangalore, after a gap of almost two years. I’d spent the two years in Sydney, but just before I reached Bangalore, I’d done a more or less whirlwind trip by rail across France and Spain. Coming to Bangalore, however, was a bit of a culture shock. I’d never believed that I’d have a problem coming to terms with my native city, but from the moment I got off the plane, Bangalore – and India- hit me like a thunderclap. On the way home from the airport, my senses were assaulted on all fronts. The traffic, the noise, the smell, all of these, all those things that my mind had forgotten came back with a vengeance. And curiously, my mind was not prepared to slip back into India-mode. It took me two weeks of whining and wondering why nothing ever works and why the traffic is so bad, and general annoyance at everything. I kept thinking of simple ways to improve things…like automatic pothole filling machines…in the far future, I swear there ought to be semi sentient pothole filling robots. Anyway, in all my commuting up and down through the new city, I was seeing things with new eyes; and eyes that did not like what they were looking at. In my mind I constructed elaborate scenarios to fix what was wrong…and how that given the opportunity, even I could devise a better system, a better way of life. This set me on the trail of Utopias. How so many planned cities are in reality very boring. How none of the Utopias in literature escaped their inevitable demise.

In a curious case of synchronicity, I was aimlessly browsing in one of my favourite bookstores, Premier Books, when I came across a book called Thomas More’s Magician, written by Toby Green. Since my mind was buzzing with Utopian thought, I decided to take a look at it, despite the clunkiness of the title. Imagine my surprise when I realized that it was about a priest who founded the very first Utopian community, in Mexico, inspired by the writings of Thomas More. The priest’s name was Vasco de Quiroga and the book was the story of his life and his endeavour to build a self sustaining Indian community in sixteenth century Mexico.
I bought the book, and as I read through it, I realized that Quiroga was the one that D was talking about, back in the museum in Toledo. I read the book with interest and indeed, it was clear that Quiroga was indeed the one, since it detailed how each village was encouraged by Quiroga to specialize in a different craft, but I had my own problems with the book. The author chose to intrude into the story of Quiroga ever other chapter and I found myself skipping to get to the real story. You can read more about Quiroga here, but here’s a quote –

“Quiroga’s plan, which he implemented with outstanding success, was to create communities in the vicinity of Lake Pátzcuaro, the heart of the Tarascan country, where Indians would not only receive religious instruction, but also in arts and crafts and in the fundamentals of self-government.”

Reading the book and learning about how the community slowly dissipated due the squabbles and tensions of colonized Mexico assuaged my interest in Utopias for a while. And as time went by, I grew more and more accustomed to living in Bangalore. One does not forget one’s home town…and I soon felt like I’d never been away. Which was quite hard to do…since pretty much all I did for the first two weeks was to notice the differences. Bangalore is the so called IT capital of India, and rapid development of the IT industry mean that there was an equally rapid influx of people from all over the country. Bangalore was always known for it’s vague air of cosmopolitanism but it became more and more clear that the human geography of Bangalore was changing. For instance, it became more common to hear Hindi being spoken on the streets, and less of Kannada. Shopping Malls were being built at a crazy rate. Hundred year old trees that lined certain road were either being felled or earmarked for felling in order to make space for the new transit rail system. Everything looked new, but nevertheless, I grew used to it. But still the theme of Utopias nagged me.

My month in Bangalore was soon up. I headed to Singapore to visit a prof at the Uni. I knew next to nothing about Singapore…and since I was staying there for only a few days, I didn’t even bother getting a guide book to acquaint myself with the city. On reaching there however, I couldn’t help but compare Singapore to Bangalore or any other city for that matter. Coming straight from India, Singapore was a revelation. I kept obsessively noting the design of the city. The transport system was a breath of fresh air. All you had to do was buy this Smart Card that works on both buses and the metro, you enter the station by tapping the card on the turnstile, which lights up to display how much credit is left. You can then top up the card at any of the stations automatically. This design took all the hassle out of traveling: no tickets to buy, and the card was read by the machine so quickly that it barely broke my stride. The metro covers the entire island, and smaller trains deviate to other areas, but even if you were forced to get off the train system, (which by the way was incredibly efficient and punctual), there were always a plethora of bus services. But this german-like efficiency did not stop at the transport system. The whole island was designed, very obviously designed, to make life easier. All the people stayed in huge skyscrapers that teetered into the sky. Every residential cluster had to have a school within walking distance. There were free to use open air gyms, located in small squares close to the shopping areas. The markets were in specially designated buildings and sold a wide variety of things ranging from fruit and veg to religious items. And all this apart from the shopping malls. I had found my modern Utopia… or so I thought.
open air gym
The second day in Singapore, I started noticing more things. The buildings, especially the residential buildings were a brilliant solution to a land scarce country, in fact Singapore is the densest country in the world, but the end result of such planned construction was a drearily uniform landscape. Even the trees that lined the roads were at the same height. Planned cities are always boring, witness Canberra or Chandigarh, there is something about naturally growing cities that is almost organic and makes living there such a delight. I felt this very strongly in Europe…I could tell instantly that Paris was meant for walking…we spent many hours just ambling along the bylanes and the delightfully cobbled streets. Even though my mind was telling me that the cityscape of Singapore was a result of necessity, I felt vaguely troubled by the lack of diversity. I stopped looking out of train windows on my trips around Singapore…everything looked the same. Occasionally a non-flat roofed building would flit past the window, and spark my interest, but these moments were few and far between.

As I spent more time in Singapore, it became apparent that even this apparently perfect city state was not bereft of problems. The newspapers were so bland, that it was obvious that they were controlled by the government. There was an eerie sense of paranoia about the place. I guess a system such as Singapore’s could only be brought about due to a more or less authoritarian system, but still, I felt that all the conveniences in the world do not compensate for being on your toes every time you venture out. Singapore is a country where even the protests are planned for. During the recent IMF meeting, the authorities went so far as to specify an indoor area for the protesters. In fact, I even came across certain areas that are set aside for the ‘radical’ people to do their stuff in.

At the end of my stay in Singapore, I came away convinced that Utopian thinking would never work in the real world. Humans are too diverse and unpredictable, and when things are too planned, something is always lost. But as a parting thought, the system laid down by Vasco de Quiroga in Mexico still persists today, in a sense, through the craft industry. I guess one must wait for the long view of time to really tell.


2 thoughts on “Utopian musing

  1. Thanks Dinesh, that was an interesting review of your trip. Of particular note was your initial reaction upon returning to Bangalore and especially your brain working overtime with ideas initially of how to fix things (you could probably modify one of those robot vacuums, adding a pile of ashphalt on top just by the by!).

    It stuck a chord with me because after stopping so long in Hanoi I was able to see myself go through the stages of ‘having all the answers’ — or at least thinking that I had productive advancement or ameliorative social/societal ideas — to where the long view kicked in and I came to a kind of point of silence, knowing that for every clanging observation I made that went against my own history or beliefs or understandings, there was a very deep well of cultural, social and economic reasons and influences behind the ‘realities’ that I thought I was seeing, that could not be quelled by any piecemeal or (to me) amazing remedy that I might just pull out of my ass.

    I watched this same evolution in thinking with a lot of travellers who ended up staying more than a few weeks. It is/was a very strange feeling. A kind of an exhalting revelation but at the same time a blow to the psyche.

    Nothing, not even an imagined utopia, is as easy as it at first seems.

  2. “there was a very deep well of cultural, social and economic reasons and influences behind the ‘realities'”

    Well, to the most part, yes, but this was in Bangalore, and I was supposed to know these realities, and I assumed that it would be easy to slip back into Bangalore mode. It is sort of reassuring to see that you have been through similar changes in world view (and I would so favorite that comment if I could) . Any pretensions that I had towards utopia building were well and truly laid to rest in Singapore 🙂

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