A collection of writings of
Yashwant K Das,
architect and planner.
I thought that the best way of celebrating his 85 years of purposeful life would be to
bring together his writings under one cover for his family and friends.
He first wrote a small piece on a 'Lota' for an English architectural magazine, way
back in 1967, but he became quite prolific between 1988-91 when he wrote a regular
column for a Bombay daily under the byline 'Thinking Aloud' on subjects as varied as
architecture, cities, slums and political and social issues.Many of the articles in this
notebook may be read in context to that period, though most are relevant even today.
He has an uncommon ability to see deeper connections in everyday objects and
happenings, which many of us just give a pass. A Bombay daily in an introduction to
one of his columns described his approach - 'He has a broad vision of life and goes
easily from the history of architecture to its sociological implications and then comes
up with all sorts of practical solutions to the city's many problems : the proliferating
slums, the snarled traffic and the commuting travails. It is difficult to pin down Das
who could best be described as a down-to-earth dreamer'.
Those of us who have worked with him know of his concern and commitment to
common places and common purpose. These are amply reflected in his works and
writings and are best exemplified in his designs for his sister's house in Lucknow and
in his own weekend cottage. Perhaps, it all began with the Angan of his family's house
in Allahabad where he spent his formative years.
Appropriately, this notebook starts with his piece on that very Angan.
1. Outer Space 1
2. Whom are we building homes for? – An Interview 4
3. Don't nibble at our parks 14
4. How vital is the architecture? 17
5. A Historical bias 21
6. Vistara – Exhibition Review 27
7. The Vitality remains 32
8. Our Decaying Cities – An Interview 36
9. Wanted : A Beetle building 44
10. Office Office 47
11. A New Look –Book Review 51
12. Home is where the heart is 57
13. The Responsive House –Book Review 60
14. City should be seen as a verb, not a noun – An Interview 64
15. A Mahatma, true to his name 74
16. What the Indian reality is 77
17. Declining quality of our elected representatives 80
18. Bureaucratic Republic of India 84
19. No laurels for our achievers 87
20. Frankly, it stinks! 90
21. The eternal cycle 93
22. Things seem pretty messy 96
23. Sloth makes it worse 101
24. If there were no politics 105
25. Petty lies and small misdemeanours 109
26. Kick out sports' bodies! 112
27. 'Kursi' – the only concern 116
28. Design for what? - Knife, Axe and Mechanical Saw 119
29. Do we need Japanese help to think? 123
30. Avoidable tragedies 126
31. Travails of train travel 129
32. Black is not so beautiful 132
33. Mourning in the morning 135
34. Make directories functional 137
35. Who needs Pepsi Cola? 141
36. Perks should be banned 144
37. The clock is indispensable 147
38. Glimpses of Goa 150
39. Spaced Out? 154
40. Reflections 161
Reminiscing over the mystical qualities of the angan…
I grew up in a sprawling colonial house with a large angan. We literally lived in it.
Mother would cook there, sisters would wash and dry their long hair sitting out in the
open, sarees fluttering on the clothesline. When I returned from school, I remember I
would sit at the stone table and eat my meal with a bamboo stave in one hand to ward
off diving eagles!
In the summer holidays, my sisters would visit us with their children. At night, string
beds covered with white sheets would be spread out all over the angan. And we would
pass the hot summer nights drinking iced milk and playing cards.In the daytime, when
the elders stayed indoors to escape the lu and the scorching sun, the children would
romp around in the angan, climb the guava trees and steal from the earthen pots filled
with pickles, which mother had left there to mature.
So central was the angan to our lives that children were reared, festivals were
celebrated and weddings performed there, and the angan embraced all of us like a
mother. We literally grew up in there. Even after decades, whenever we meet, we
share sweet memories of the angan. And I have often wondered about how much the
angan has contributed in keeping our large family close together.
When we returned to India after living abroad for over 10 years in closed boxes, we
invested our last paisa in a terrace flat. We tore down the wall between the living room
and the terrace and put up glass doors in between, grew a patch of grass on it, planted
a bougainvillea and a bamboo. The ambience was great. It was our pride and our
neighbours' envy. But somehow, we never made use of it as much as I thought we
would. We would have an occasional cup of tea or drink, but then, it was more
convenient to sit in the living room. The fridge was close by!
Slowly, it dawned on me that life had changed and so had the character of the open
spaces. Consumerism had taken over and gadgetry had arrived. Gadgetry, which is
tied to the umbilical cords of piped services like electricity, water and gas.
A TV or a VCR cannot be easily plugged on the terrace. The gas cylinder can't be
moved about at will. Expensive clothes are no longer hand-washed and dried in the
sun, but are dry-cleaned. Hair is no longer washed and dried in the open. The beauty
parlours have taken over. Weddings take place in 5 star hotels. After all, what is the
status value of a poor angan!
Further, it dawned on me that more than humans, it is their belongings that need the
built boxes. In the past, a string or a few pegs sufficed to put up the clothes, but now,
only large wardrobes can fulfill our requirements. Where a simple chulha was the only
adornment in the kitchen, now deep freezers and microwave ovens have to be
accommodated. As our belongings increase, with it increases the pressure on open
spaces. Consequently, rooftops get built over, terraces covered and balconies enclosed.
Even window grills are extended to provide a ledge for potted plants or store odds and
Commerce has ensured as it has ensured so many other things in our lives that today,
open spaces are either for the very poor or the very rich. Very poor because they
hardly have any belongings to put into the 'boxes'. And the very rich because they can
afford all the boxes they need for their belongings and still have something spare to
afford an open space. The rest of us are condemned to live and wither in our 'boxes'.
Leaving aside the utility value, a terrace or an angan may have in the present scheme
of things, it retains a quality which is hard to match by any other architectural element.
It brings people and places together. It is bright and it is shaded. It is open and it is
closed. It is warm and it is cool. It is where the man-made and the natural overlap. It is
nothing and it is still so much. This duality, this ambiguity, invests it with a unique
quality, which is almost mystical whether it is a piazza in an Italian town or a roof
terrace in a Rajasthani house or a traditional courtyard with a tulsi in the middle.
THE INDEPENDENT – 8 th August 1992
Whom Are We Building Homes For?
An interview for The Times of India by Anil Dharker
In a recent article in 'Seminar', you have said that architectural education in India does not
serve our real needs. Can you elaborate on that?
The point I was making was that our education, attitudes and values are determined by written
history. History should deal with everything. But you find that it emphasises a very narrow
area: it is concerned with the exploits of the well-off and kings. It never concerns itself with
what life was for the majority of the people.
Similarly, architectural history as taught in our institutions - and as it was taught to me - deals
with buildings for the privileged. I was taught about the Parthenon and Fatehpur Sikri and
about palaces and other monuments. We didn't study the evolution of villages and towns
which were built by common people for themselves. That is why I ask how our present pattern
of study is relevant to the problems we face today- low-cost housing, squatter settlements or
the growth of urban areas. Our attitudes have been conditioned in such a way that when we do
low-cost housing, we make it look like a smaller version of an upper-income house, although
the problem qualitatively is quite different.
But given the fact that we need solutions urgently and you can't rewrite history or change
attitudes overnight, what do we do?
If, we are aware of this problem, that is the first step.
And the change in attitude must occur not just among architects and town-planners, but
society in general. After all, an architect can do only as much as his client allows.
When you come to the main problem we are talking about – that of mass housing- who will
be your client? People living in shanty towns are not going to employ you, so it will have to
be the state.
It does come to that. But the real client will still remain the person whose needs we are going
to satisfy. It may mean that we satisfy his needs through a government institution but I regard
that only as a conduit.
But is the user really going to have any say? He hasn't much choice – in his limited budget,
he can only afford a single room.
That's why we have to ask him: because we are providing him with so much less, that 'less' has
to be so much more! If I am designing a house for a rich man, I can afford to make some
mistakes. Suppose I design his bedroom with poor ventilation, he can stick in an airconditioner.
But if my client has one room, there's literally no room for a mistake, is there?
That's where the broad question comes in of whether I and other architects are of any real use
– given our present education, the way we are organized, the way we charge our fees.
For instance, our fees are based on the total cost of the project – the higher the cost, the higher
our fees. I don't want to cut my own throat, but one can safely say that the less an architect
works, the higher will be the cost of the project and therefore the higher the fees! In India
especially, we should be working harder to lower costs but that means reducing fees and that's
why architects cannot afford to work for the masses.
Prof. John Turner, of M.I.T. during his recent visit here, was telling us of his experience in
Lima, Peru, where it was found that it was much cheaper for people to purchase their own
material through co-operatives and build their own houses. Perhaps a system like that can
be evolved here. And a body like the Indian Standards Institution with the help of architects
could evolve simple plans and methods of construction as guidelines.
Another thing which was observed at Lima and elsewhere, was that left to themselves, people
built houses of the size they required at that point in their lives. A young couple may require
just one room, a young family two or three rooms, an older couple when their children have
gone away, one room again.
Isn't the present system of bye-laws obstructionist and vested in the sense that there are so
many municipal permissions required that the services of an architect become absolutely
necessary? A poor man who can't afford an architect, therefore cannot build legally.
That's right. All squatter settlements are 'unauthorized constructions' because their plans
haven't been sanctioned. And even if the plans were taken for sanction, they wouldn't be
passed because they do not meet the bye-laws.
When the dwellings of a majority of people do not meet the bye-laws, which is wrong? The
dwellings or the bye-laws? The bye-laws have been made by the elite for the elite. There's a
need to change them drastically.
And greatly, simplify procedures. Nowadays, architects spend a lot of time running around
getting various 'No Objection' certificates – from the highway authorities, the airport
authorities and so on.
What can be done, especially for residential buildings, is that the corporation can suggest
certain standards, even typical designs and leave it to the architect or the owner to follow
them. The municipality can say ' As long as you meet these standards, you don't have to come
to us. But if you don't adhere to them, we will take strong action against you'.
Isn't the problem of architecture mainly that it is an 'urban' concept whereas India is
largely a rural country?
Yes, but why restrict yourself to architecture? It needs to be recognized in a general way that
if you want to do something for the people, we must go to where people live. And unless we
do enough for people in rural areas, they are going to migrate to urban areas making the
problems of urban areas so acute that we can't manage them. It becomes a vicious circle and to
break it, we have to go to the basics.
Otherwise, what we do may be well-intentioned, but it will never go beyond the surface. I'll
give you an example. Take the ten most populous cities in India. You will find that their total
population is only about 5 per cent of India's population. If the work of architects is confined
to these cities as it is today, they are doing something for only 5 per cent of India's population.
In fact, it's not even that – when you have taken out squatters, slum-dwellers and all those who
can't afford architects, you are left with barelyone per cent of India's population.
We can always be 'successful' architects by living in Bombay and having a large practice. But
let us not fool ourselves that we are being relevant to the problems of society.
Would you then say that architecture is socially irrelevant?
As it is practiced or organized today, yes. Many of us think – perhaps from guilty conscience
or because it is fashionable to be socially committed, that we must design low cost housing.
But the fact remains that no architect in India has come out with anything of value.
How have people managed so far in rural areas where they have been building their own
dwellings for years without professional help?
They have managed quite well by seeing and learning – the methods have evolved over a
number of years. That is part of the problem of town-planners today – the growth of towns is
so rapid that there is no time for feedback and learning from our mistakes.
Why can't some of the knowhow from rural areas be transferred to towns? For example, we
know that any large city has a large number of migrants from rural areas. Provided we gave
them some land, access to materials and other facilities, they could build their own
That would be a very positive step, rather than creating institutions like Housing Boards to
build tenements. When you build flats through institutions, they are obviously going to be
more expensive than if people built them themselves.
Not only that but you are then imposing a lifestyle which is alien to them and which there is
no reason why they should adopt.What does one do about immediate problems? We cannot
be callous and say that since we are embarking on a new programme of rural uplift, we
damn the present generation of urban poor. Surely, we can take some measures to alleviate
the problems of pavement dwellers and provide minimum facilities.
I agree. We tend to look at things in an institutionalized way and say that everyone must have
a roof over his head. But many of those sleeping on the pavements have good reasons for
doing so – they don't have a permanent job, they can't yet invest in a house and for nine
months in a year, it's pleasant to sleep outside. So let people sleep on railway platforms –
many are not being used at night. Provide lockers for their belongings, plan toilets and
showers for this extra population and not just passengers.
Similarly, schools or college verandahs and other public buildings can be used at night.
Someone told me that the Bombay municipal corporation used to have benches in parks.
When they found people sleeping on them, they changed the benches to chairs. I find this
absurd – what's wrong with people sleeping in parks? We should have more benches. This
attitude results in walls being built on the highway from the airport so that tourists can't see
squatters. Who are we designing cities for?
We have disposed of architects, or at best found them useful in a limited way. But aren't
town-planners required to decide about the overall planning of cities?
I have my doubts about the usefulness of the town-planners in today's India. When there is so
much uncertainty about the availability of funds for development programmes, can he really
plan a town and will the town grow according to his design? We know the case of Chandigarh
which hasn't worked in spite of the best town-planners.
This has happened elsewhere too. I am told that Brazil's new capital is not one but two cities –
the planned Brasilia and the real Brasilia just outside where shanty towns have sprung up.
People in the planned Brasilia motor down to the real Brasilia because things there are that
There are a lot of limitations on the part of planners to plan, foresee and control. This is where
I come back to what I was saying earlier. Our focus on urban areas must change. Urban areas
are very capital intensive and we just don't have that much money. Take an example – the
BEST in Bombay is taking a substantial loan from the World Bank. But this loan will
replenish their aging buses, not increase BEST's carrying capacity. Then again, no one knows
who is to meet the cost of the proposed rail corridor on the suburban railway system.
How long is our system going to work on subsidies and borrowings? In the last few years, our
growth rate has been 3-4 per cent and our population increased 2-3 per cent. The recent World
Bank report says that over the next ten years, our growth rate will be 3 per cent which will be
about the same as our population. So we will be where we are. I don't understand then how we
are going to find funds for financing urban areas. If funds are found, it can only mean that they
have been diverted from rural areas. So rural areas will get poorer, the rural poor will migrate
to urban areas and urban problems will again get out of hand. We must break this vicious
circle if we are to get anywhere.
I don't think the answer lies in stopping industrialization completely. It must lie in
decentralizing industry and perhaps in another kind of technology.
Obviously, industry for us must be labour-intensive and economically viable in smaller towns.
Our scientists must work out a new technology. Sophisticated technology inevitably leads to
urban concentration because of the need for skilled manpower, universities, research
Democracy means doing the kind of things people understand, which they can do, which they
can control. We must, therefore, have a technology which the majority of our population
which is illiterate can control. Otherwise, we will always have some kind of exploitation –
whether by politicians, capitalists or technologists.
Illiteracy is going to be with us for years and years. Under the Constitution, we should have
had compulsory primary education by 1965. Now the date has been pushed forward to 1980.
But the fact is that today, there are more illiterates than in 1947. Though education has spread,
population has grown so much more. Illiterates are going to be in the majority for 40 to 50
It's a situation like 'Alice in Wonderland' when you have to keep running to remain in the
same place. With the changed technology must also come a reorientation of education to
learn about more relevant technologies like gobar-gas plants.
I'll give you an example of our lopsided thinking. In the field of transportation, we are all
agreed that given our population, we must have mass transportation. But we confuse it with a
highly technological and capital-intensive system. The main argument is – car vs bus vs
suburban train. But as we were saying earlier, if Bombay city which is the richest in India,
cannot afford to even maintain its present fleet of buses without massive loans, what hope is
there for other cities? We must think in terms of smaller towns where you can walk, or cycle
to work, and forget about all this talk about reserved lanes for buses and so on. This is what is
being done in Hanoi or China.
We must keep asking – what can the majority of population afford?
THE TIMES OF INDIA – 16th November 1975
Don’t nibble at our parks
London, a city of seven million, is known for its open spaces and innumerable
residential areas are known by their parks, commons, greens and heaths. Two or threestoreyed
residential buildings are invariably planned on four sides of an evergreen
square and most buildings have a small garden in the front and a backyard. All this, in
a climate which is not too inviting for outdoor life! And it is not just the numbers, but
the sizes of these parks and green areas are enormous. Hyde Park, which is right in the
middle of the city, has an area of 340 acres. Hampstead Heath approximates 800 acres
and Regent Park is 554 acres. These are just a few examples. And nobody ever thinks
in England that these open spaces should be nibbled at.
In Bombay, a city of over 10 million and still growing and in a climate where one
would rather be outdoors than indoors, the number of parks in the city can be counted
on one's fingertips. Residential buildings have strips of land around them, which are
either used for parking cars or dumping garbage. Open-to-sky terraces are disallowed
by the corporation and now that the balcony area is counted in the FSI, the builders
have stopped providing it.
The few parks left are always nibbled at, either for holding an exhibition or a political
conference and specious argument or the other is always found to allot land within the
non-development zone – the most favoured argument currently going in tourism.And
the insidious ways in which open spaces are nibbled at in our city is exemplified by
the reported decision that the Drive-In cinema site at Bandra-Kurla can be developed
for commercial purposes. Drive-In theatre was essentially an open-air activity for
entertainment and enjoyment of large sections of public.
Hundreds of Dharavi residents, who could not afford to buy a ticket to get into the
theatre, would sit along the road to watch the film on the big screen. If the cinema has
become an uneconomical proposition, which it has, it should be developed as an
amusement park or an open-air art and culture centre, thus maintaining, in principle,
its original purpose.
And the insidious ways in which one land use is changed to another and to a more
profitable one is exemplified by the recent attempts by the cinema owners in the city
to convert their sites into commercial complexes. The city is woefully short of cultural
and entertainment facilities. Let these sites be developed for libraries, experimental
theatres, art galleries and new-wave cinemas and nothing else.
The Urban Land Ceiling Act, which has dampened the building activity in the city,
offers a unique opportunity to restructure the city. Thousands of acres of vacant land
are available in the eastern and western suburbs, where the city is growing the most.
The government does not want to acquire these plots, as it does not have money to
build and private developers will not touch them because the guidelines of the Act
make it economically unattractive for them to build.
But what is stopping the government from acquiring some of them for laying out
extensive parks and greens? Lakhs of trees can be planted on these, thousands of urban
employed can find jobs, planting trees and tending greens and social forestry will get a
Around these parks and greens can be planned residential areas by subdividing land
into small plots, which small co-operative societies can develop on their own. This
may even help lessen the hold of big developers in shaping the city.
Parts of the city will always degenerate with time and economic changes. This is part
of a city's life cycle. But degenerated areas should be used as an opportunity to
rejuvenate and restructure the city rather than strangulate it further. More than the
legal interpretation of rules and procedures and even expert opinions, what the city
needs is understanding, caring and nurturing, but alas, this is what is missing.
MID DAY– 7 th July 1989
How vital is the architecture ?
When we architects meet, we show each other colourful slides of our buildings and
talk eloquently about the big thoughts which went into creating these. But I have often
wondered how important is this kind of architecture for most of the people.
Gandhiji was born in an innocuous looking house and most of his life, he lived and
worked from buildings which were not architecturally very distinguished,though they
became distinguished later because of his thoughts and actions. The house Jawaharlal
Nehru was born in, In Allahabad, became part of a red-light area, soon after the family
moved to Anand Bhavan.
Though Anand Bhavan was a distinguished piece of architecture, Nehru's most prolific
years as a thinker and writer were spent in the jails. Similarly, the mathematician
genius Ramanujan lived and worked in an ordinary looking house. Now of course,
these people were highly talented, who perhaps would have been what they were
irrespective of the kind of buildings they lived in.
I spent formative years of my life living in a large colonial house with a large angan
attached to it and my most vivid memories of those years is of lying down at night in
the angan looking at the stars and even today, I sometimes feel like tearing down the
roof of my bedroom. The form or proportions of the house have a very small place in
Once in London, we had asked about a dozen architects to draw the elevation of the
office building they were working in. Only one of them could do so with any kind of
accuracy. Many did not even know the number of windows it had!
I also know of friends who spent most of their enterprising and creative years, living
and working out of homes and offices, which were not only ordinary, but were almost
rundown. It was only after they had made good in the material world, that they
renovated their places. Having done so, I know they have enjoyed greater physical
comforts, but I doubt if their enterprise or creativity has appreciably increased.
If you look at the institutions, almost the same thing prevails. Oxford University has a
set of very distinguished buildings so has Cambridge, but Harvard does not. Still
Harvard is at the frontiers of knowledge. Similarly, at the MIT, most of the pathbreaking
research is done in rooms which are no more than four walls, two windows
and a door strung along dark, dingy never-ending corridors. And the guidance system
for the Apollo Mission which landed the first man on the moon was designed in a
disused warehouse. MIT does have a few distinguished buildings designed by Aalto
and Saarinen, but they are hardly talked about and I do not know how much they have
contributed to the creativity at the MIT.
Taking examples nearer home, we may ask if the Punjab High Court dispenses more
justice because it is housed in an architectural masterpiece, or if Punjab and Haryana
are better administered states because their secretariat was designed by the world
renowned architect Le Corbusier.
Recently, I read an interview of Charles Correa in which he reminisces about Le
Corbusier and says that there is a colossal difference between construction and
architecture. But I wonder why it has to be so. And it was not always so. Only in the
recent past, villages and towns were built by people with shared knowledge and
experience. Building, like eating and clothing, was a community act. Buildings were
built by people who knew their needs, knew the materials they used and also knew
how to put them together. And they put them together with love and care. And it
created buildings which not only worked but looked good as well. Till of course, such
time that master builders and architects came along and created this colossal
difference between construction and architecture and there is something quite
nauseating about a society which perpetuates such gross disparities, be they economic,
social or architectural.
The saddest part is that we architects take so much from our villages and towns –
monumentalize folk and vernacular architecture for our five-star projects, but give
back so little to these people and places.
MID DAY – 12 th May 1989
A Historical Bias
Architectural profession today is accorded a status much below others, for its
relevance to deal with the problem facing the society, is in question.
In our society, with millions of people and majority of them living below subsistence
level, providing shelter to these homeless and basic environmental facilities in large
urban and rural areas is the most urgent task, facing architects and planners.But are we
equal to the task? Does the formal architecture, in the vocation of which we are trained
and the practice of which produces the type of buildings which are mushrooming all
over our cities, provide the answer?
Clearly, it is no. But why?
To understand the present state of architecture, we must look back into time, for the
root of formal architecture lies in written history. A history which deals with the
privileged and the powerful, their exploits and symbols of their authority. But, which
largely ignores the common man, his efforts and achievements. Not surprisingly, the
source of inspiration for both, the public and architects has been historical monuments
– palaces, temples and capital cities – artifacts built by master builders for their
patrons. Creations of anonymous builders – houses, hamlets and villages remained
unacknowledged and unappreciated.
This historical bias has conditioned the socio-cultural thinking and has established the
architectural frame within which the architects view their role and the public forms its
sense of appreciation. It has produced a value system which encourages monumental
architecture and has determined to a large extent, the architects' pre-occupation with
image making and visually dramatic forms, and it can't be said that this pre-occupation
belonged to ancient and middle ages only.
At the turn of the present century, hinging the art of architecture on the newfound
technology and materials like concrete, glass, steel and devices like lifts, electric
bulbs, architects designed buildings with large spaces, wide openings, straight lines
and clean surfaces, devoid of ornamentation and applications. These buildings had an
appearance of machine made products, thus creating an illusion of rationality and
functionality. This illusion was further reinforced by the fact that increased use was
made of new-found building materials and techniques – products of industrialization,
which itself was considered to be an outcome of scientific and rational thinking. But if
looked into deeply, it would be observed that the difference was more in style than in
In the words of Ranyer Banham – the noted architectural historian – 'Mies van der
Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of the modern
movement in Europe was so purely symbolic in intention that the concept of
functionalism would need to be stretched to the point of unrecognisability before it
could be made to fit'.
His later buildings in Chicago and New York follow the same pattern and their
pristine quality can well be compared with that of the Parthenon. Corbusier's Capitol
Complex at Chandigarh is in the same strain as Fatehpur Sikri, awesome and grand,
symbolic of power and authority over the common man. Conceptually, the two are the
same, although the styles differ.
This conceptual approach toward monumentality and visually dramatic forms is not
restricted to Mies or Corb, nor is it exemplified by their buildings alone, for these two
are the giants of the modern movement of architecture and their ideas and works have
not only inspired a whole new generation of present architects, but have also greatly
influenced the cultural and financial elite, who, in almost all cases, are the clients and
critics of architects.
Architects, thus caught between the professional pressures to emulate the examples of
giants like Mies and Corb, and the pressure of the client taste to have buildings which
are 'unique', indulge in design exercises, which vary from pure plagiarism to feeble
attempts at 'originality' – in most cases arrived at by clever manipulation of forms and
other design elements. The pre-occupation remains with the end product and what is
visible. The more substantive questions of cultural and socio-economic relationships
with the built environment are lost sight of, if not totally ignored. Nothing would be
wrong with this approach if all of our clients were the privileged and the powerful
with ample resources, but when most happen to be poor and under-privileged, with not
enough even for the essentials of life, irrelevance of this approach becomes obvious.
Clearly, need is for change.
The prevailing attitudes need change so that professional services can be made
available to the masses in the larger interest of society. Professional ethics must also
change to favour social needs rather than individual interests. The need is for
architects to lower their sights to reach the humble, at times sacrificing quality for
quantity and making marginal improvements for the benefit of many, in preference to
total accomplishments for the use of the few.
Architects must divert their attention to innovations and design standards, which will
have wide application and which can be adopted to advantage by builders, artisans and
home-owners. Cumulative effect of small improvements to our environment can create
The emphasis must shift from the end product to the process which creates built
environment and in which, factors other than architectural, and people other than
architects, participate. In the process, the architects must be prepared to lose some of
the control which they like to enjoy over the end product.
The realization must come that buildings and towns are not the exclusive preserve of
architects or products of their efforts alone, nor do they have any exceptional insights
into these problems. In fact, in the past, most of what has been built (much good with
some bad has been built) is the outcome of the continuing activity of a whole
community using shared experience. Architects must become part of this common
enterprise using their specialized knowledge to stimulate and help development in the
desired direction, providing missing links where necessary. The approach must be to
support and encourage community initiative and effort and not to provide a substitute
There is much that architects can learn from the villages and small towns of our
country, from non-descript dwellings in old parts of our cities, built over a period of
time by their owner-occupiers with the help of artisans and mistries; from the
bungalows built all over India by English engineers and administrators who certainly
had a better understanding of our climatic conditions. Much can be learnt from a
typical Bengal village built around a pond, creating an almost perfect ecologically
balanced system; from pols of an old Ahmedabad city, grouping dwellings around a
common space, forming a cohesive social group; from town dwellings of Rajasthan
making extensive use of courtyards and terraces; and from the innovative genius of the
people of Hyderabad Sind who created 'Badgir' to provide ventilation in their homes.
Much can be learnt even from the bastis of Calcutta and Bombay. No doubt, much is
wrong with them and much can be improved there, but it can be hardly denied that
they are the only examples of mass housing in India which the people living in them
There are innumerable such examples of built environment created by anonymous
builders, which are functional – and some even aesthetically satisfying. These
examples are closer to the problems with which we are faced today and more relevant
to understanding the process of development, than temples and palaces of the past,
from which architects have derived their knowledge and inspiration, so a beginning
must be made by rewriting history; a history which will emphasize the efforts and
aspirations of the common man through the ages, his accomplishments and his
artifacts; history which will remove the distortions in our perception and change our
value system, for without it, the relevance of architects, in solving the problems
staring us in the face, will always be questionable.
SEMINAR – 1 st February 1978
Exhibition of Indian architecture - a review
VISTARA is an exhibition of Indian architecture, organized by the Festival of India
Committee at the Nehru Centre in Bombay. Charles Correa and his colleagues
conceived it, and worked for over two years to collect and organize the materials now
on display. Mounting an exhibition of this range and scale – it includes examples of
architecture from Vedic times to this age, and everything from temples to hutments - is
a daunting task. Thousands of architectural works have to be identified, researched
and photographed. Moreover, many unique and diverse examples of architectural
works have to be coalesced into a form of display, which is at once comprehensible
and appealing, both to the architect and the layman.
Correa and his colleagues have done this with considerable success. To start with, the
name of the exhibition, 'Vistara' itself is very expressive: rich with many meanings.
The exhibition's logo, which shows a mandala with a bindu in the centre, is
graphically very appealing. The cutout of purusha, covered with gold-leaf, which
greets you at the entrance sets the mood of things – Indian. Banni houses show the
rural heritage of India and display its beautiful craftsmanship. A copper plate depicting
sri yantra, symbolizing the union of Shiva and Shakti, gleaming on the floor under a
black canopy, with soft hypnotic music in the air, creates a feeling of mystique. Then
on to sub-terrain architecture, perhaps one of the most unique of its kind in the world.
The inevitable Taj and other grand structures of the Moghul era. The ambience of the
colonial Raj. The dominating structures of Le Corbusier followed by works of Louis
Kahn and of several Indian architects, some of whom were inspired by the works of
these giants of the modern movement, and who have dominated the architectural scene
in India for the past two or three decades.
The theme of the exhibition attempts to relate the manifest with the non-manifest – the
belief systems of a culture with its architecture. In all cultures, belief systems mould
architecture. When the Americans build skyscrapers in gleaming stainless steel and
glass, it is a manifestation of their belief in excellence. In India, beliefs are deeprooted
and diverse. Our manifest world is small and infirm: therefore, it shapes our
architecture in a different, unique manner. I would say, however, that all architecture
is essentially the people's response to their climates: beliefs grow out of necessities.
Religion and philosophies only sanctify them.
Therefore, Indian architecture is quite different from the Western model in the way it
organizes and uses spaces. Modhera can be seen as a space within the womb of the
space. Fatehpur-Sikri is a series of spaces interconnected; spaces which are formed by
pushing the buildings to the edges; Bulund Darwaza opens into a space. This concept
occurs all through our architectural history, in monumental buildings as well as in
humble houses built by people themselves, with courtyards in the middle and rooms
around. Wadas, chowks, angans, chabutras and barsatis have a special place in our
The concept of space within space is deep-rooted in our minds. A child draws a circle
in the sand to instinctively define his space. Even today, in many homes, a Brahmin
cook draws a line with a piece of coal to demarcate his mythical 'pure' space of work
from the 'polluted' area beyond the line. In the Ramayana, Lakshman draws a circle
around Sita to create a protective space. He chooses not to build a wall. This idea of
space is so deeply rooted in the Indian mind, that even today, no sooner a wall is built,
than people and their activities spill out. Our minds define space, not our buildings.
The exhibition suggests that modernity came to India with Le Corbusier. But
modernity came with the British Raj. Our minds were opened to liberal thinking,
egalitarianism and rationality. Modernity came to education, administration, judiciary
and architecture. What was created during this period were not just the Raj Bhavans
and the ambience of the burra-sahib lifestyle but, for the first time in our history,
rulers built buildings for public use on a large scale – district courts, civil hospitals,
schools, police stations and a host of dak bungalows. These were ordinary buildings
for the use of ordinary citizens, built with local materials and they responded well to
the climate of the place and functions of the institutions. Public architecture in India
was being democratized.
It is not a mere accident of history that Le Corbusier came to India about the same
time that Gandhiji left to us his few possessions filled with profound messages. But,
we had made our choice.
The modern movement of architecture in Europe, of which Le Corbusier was one of
the founders, was essentially a response to the new materials and technology of the
late 19 th century. Its intellectual underpinnings were rationality and functionality. But,
with Le Corbusier and later with Louis Kahn, the modern movement came to India in
a highly stylized form. It was heady wine for our nascent profession. While Europe
was busy rebuilding its war-ravaged cities and thousands of houses for the homeless,
we, in India, were set on a course, which kept a whole generation of architects
occupied, for almost three decades, with a form of architecture, which neither gave
expression to our cultural heritage nor to the aspirations of our people.
It is no wonder then, that most of the contemporary works of architecture in the
exhibition are described in architectural terms: 'expression of purist spatial order', 'a
bold expression of cubist aesthetics', 'a bold statement of urban form' etc. They are
seldom described in terms of people and places. One is tempted to call this a period of
architectural colonization and what a paradox of history that it began when we had just
got our political independence.
By the mid-'70s, this phase of architecture in India had run its course. A period of
introspection and re-assessment began. One set of architects, fascinated by the forms,
images and symbols of our traditional architecture, started looking for a new form of
expression and this process of the 'Sanskritization' of architecture is evident in some of
the works of the later '70s at the exhibition. Yet another set of architects, concerned
with the problems of growing cities and the homeless, have started looking towards
vernacular architecture – which is as rich and varied as formal architecture – for
solutions to some of the problems facing the built environment. The search is on. And,
some time, the two must coalesce to form the truly Indian architecture. And what
better example can there be, than the Mahatma himself; who would read the Gita as
well as look through a microscope!
Recalling the images of Gandhiji's possessions almost four decades later, one hopes, is
not just a matter of the form of the exhibition, but an assertion for the very content of
our architecture. If this is to be so, we shall indeed move on to a new Vistara, which
will have a far greater impact on the lives and culture of our people than all the
architectural monuments put together.
DEBONAIR – December '86
The vitality remains
A city to survive and thrive…
Bombay must have added a few million people to its population in the past decade.
And it shows. From almost every window, one can see more hutments and pavementdwellers.
The streets are more crowded, bazaars busier. There are longer queues at the
bus-stops and the trains are jam-packed. For those who crave convenience, the city is
bursting at the seams and the crisis is all around us. For those looking for opportunities
to survive and thrive, it is a hub of activities which offers a choice, a chance to make
good in this material world.
There are the few who have chosen to move out to more easy-paced places like
Bangalore and Pune, but the city continues to attract thousands of artisans from
eastern UP, construction workers from Andhra and Karnataka, the drought-affected
from Rajasthan and young professionals from other states, to enjoy the freedom which
only the anonymity of Bombay provides.
And while some of the corporate offices have moved out, their engineers keep coming
to the city to look for someone who will make a machine part as the Yen has gone up
and they can't afford to import it any longer. And they are sure to find someone sitting
on a machine in a dark and dingy gala in Kandivili or Goregaon, who will make it for
them if not as good as the Japanese, almost as good.
With the Urban Land Ceiling Act acting as dampener on construction activity in the
city, buildings are mushrooming outside the city limits. Even New Bombay at last
looks like it's taking off. And one sees more and more advertisements for farmhouses
a few hours away from the city – a pointer of the shape of things to come. But the Act
is no dampener on the growth of hutments and 'unauthorised' construction. About half
the population of the city today lives and works in them. At first, both the thought and
sight of them is depressing, but if one sees how people have improved many of these
settlements against all odds, it is not quite so depressing.
There are more buses on the roads, but the BEST keeps doing a wonderful job of
carrying hordes of commuters every day. There are more suburban trains too, though
the stations remain as derelict as ever. The Maharaja of Scindia has granted Rs. 60
lakhs to face-lift four major stations on the western corridor. It will not pay for marble,
as used at the Gwalior station, but for Bombayites, a fresh coat of paint will do.
The Western Expressway is still being debated, but the city roads have absorbed the
thousands of Marutis without many traffic hiccups. Just goes to show that better traffic
management can also create additional carrying capacity. And the Marutis have added
a little more colour and zip to Bombay's roads.
And Bombay is greener than ever before. Pherozshah Mehta Road is full of shady
trees, so are many of the roads in the suburbs. Trees along Marine Drive and Haji Ali
are taking root and more and more traffic islands are being turned into vibrant greens.
There are more plants in the balconies and indoors, even if some of them are artificial.
Fewer trees get chopped, and when they do, they make for newspaper headlines.
At last, the Tata Theatre got permission to build luxury flats to support its cultural
activities and Prithvi Theatre continues to survive on a shoe-string. And the roads are a
little livelier with street theatre. The idea of having a gallery of modern art is still
gathering dust, but the pavements around Jahangir Art Gallery are attracting artists, art
lovers and passers-by. Small may or may not be beautiful, but it certainly works.
The fashion, the flair and the style of the decade are reflected in the city's architecture.
Hafeez Contractor's buildings and their copies, which are sprouting all over the city
are a testimony to it. They may work, they may not. But they certainly sell. Because
people having earned money are now willing to spend for the label and the looks.
The decade also saw the completion of Correa's skyscraper at Kemps Corner with
gardens in the sky. Few can afford to live in them, but almost everyone can see the
difference between the elegant and the prosaic. Uttam Jain completed the Research
Centre for the RBI, full of architectural symbols and even if most of these belong to
the dry and dusty landscape of Rajasthan, sitting on wet and green hillocks of
Goregaon, it is a worthy addition to the kaleidoscopic images of the city.
In the past decade, Bombay has lost some of its elan and grace, which happens to most
growing cities, but none of its vitality. And it has been brave, even magnanimous. It
braved the police mutiny and the Bhiwandi carnage. It withstood the chauvinism of
Sainiks and Mastans. It took in its stride, the land and cement scandals. And the gang
wars of mafias. It met the greed of thousands and the needs of the millions. What more
could we ask of a city. Salaam Bombay.
MID DAY –27 th June 1989
Our Decaying Cities
An Interview for Youth Times by Anil Dharker
There seems to be a general consensus of opinion that our cities do not work.
Would you say that this is by and large true?
There is no doubt about it-our cities do not work, in the sense that the very large
population in our urban areas cannot be supported by the infrastructure there. By
infrastructure, I mean all the facilities that one expects of a town- transport, roads,
sanitation, medical facilities and so on. For 80 or 90% of our urban population, all
these are simply non-existent.
Urbanisation isnot an Indian invention-it started in the west many years ago. Why is
it then that it is regarded as a problem here and not in the West?
As you say, urbanisation is not a new thing. It started in the West after the industrial
revolution had brought about great changes such as railroads and manufacturing
industries. But what you will find is that in West European countries such as France
and Sweden, cities followed industrialisation. For instance, in France, when about
30% of the country's population was engaged in manufacturing, only 10% was living
in towns. The same happened in Sweden and Switzerland. This means that a great
deal of manufacturing activity was going on in the villages so that when cities grew,
they had enough potential to create jobs for people who might go there.
In India, the situation is rather different-we don't have enough industries and not
enough jobs in our cities. Our cities are growing only because of the population
pressure in villages, and because rural poverty forces people to migrate into cities.
I will give you anexample. In 1951, Bombay had a population of 3 million. In 1971,
this had become 6 million i.e. it has doubled in 20 years while our overall population
is doubling in 35-40 years.Of this population, half is employed in manufacturing
activity. The other half is in 'service' activity. This proportion may be similar to that in
England, but when you talk of service activity for the U.K. you mean not only shopkeepers
but also bankers, financial institutions and-research bodies. Here we have
domesticservants, hawkers, touts and peddlars in large number. They are in a
sense,'parasites'. The net result is that only a small number of people are gainfully
employed. It is people in productive jobs who contribute to the wealth of cities.
Without that, cities have no money to provide the required facilities.
You were talking about industrialisation preceding urbanisation in the west.
Was this made to happen or was it an accident of history? Why hasn't it happened
Urbanisation in the West took place at a slower pace. The population did not increase
as rapidly as it is doing here. Their agriculture was on a very sound footing so there
was not this scramble of people who had to move from villages because of poverty.
People were moving into cities because they had better jobs or something more
An Indian parallel is the Punjab.Because rural agriculture has beenstrong, smaller
towns have sprung up near villages to provide servicing and marketing. They have
developed industries of their own such as hosiery, sports' goods, tractor repairs and so
on. Allthis means that the pressures on urbanisation which we see elsewhere are
missing in the Punjab. There areno large towns bursting at their seams. And towns in
Punjab like Ludhiana, Bhatinda, Jalandhar, do work.In the rest of the country, people
migrate from villages because they are 'pushed' by pressures there, not 'pulled' by job
When you talked about manufacturing activity being present in the villages of
Western Europe, I take it these would be in the form of smithy or ironmongery.
Surely this happens here too.
True. But the advantage the West had was that technology then was not as
sophisticated as it is now. Because we have industrialised much later, we have
suddenly adopted this sophisticated technology. There has been a quantum jump. And
that makes it very difficult for our villagers to adapt to.
Are the problems the same in all our cities whether it is Bombay, Delhi or Calcutta?
They are more or less the same, because their causes are identical. Of the doubling of
Bombay's population, I mentioned earlier, half has been because of rural migration.
Only half has been due to the natural population increase in the city. Thisis similar to
what is happening in Calcutta or Delhi.
The problems of Bombay are very peculiar in many ways because it is a narrow strip
of land and there is no possibility of growth in any direction. Commuting is northsouth,
and uni-directional only. A city, like New Delhi on the other hand, 'is, to a
lay man, well- planned with wider boulevards and lots of open spaces. Would you
say that Delhi works better for its average citizen?
In some respects, it may work better than Bombay. There is less congestion, more
open space. But this very open space causes its problems too. A public transport
system is extremely uneconomical. Bombay at least is linear and densely populated;
transportation can be cheaper. But basically, both are faced with the problem of lack
of useful employment.
Would this be the same fora new city like Chandigarh?
A new city has several advantages-you can plan as you want, whereas in an existing
city, you have to live with a lot of things, which do not suit present conditions.But
planned cities have their own problems-they are capital-intensive, so you have to
invest a lot of money in them, before they develop to a stage, where people will put up
industries in them or come to live in them.
Chandigarh did have the advantage of being planned soon after Partition as an
alternative to Lahore as Punjab's capital. So government offices moved there, giving it
an impetus for growth. But industries are reluctant to go there and its open spaces and
low density is expensive for public transportation.
I think that new towns are only a limited solution in easing the pressures on large
towns. But we have a lot of existing small towns-India's urban population is spread
through 2500 towns with population ranging from 5000 to over 5 million.
Most of these smaller towns have developed,because of their proximity to rivers and
fertile land. Many of them have a reasonably good infrastructure. I think greater use
should be made of these towns as the initial investment is much less than for
newtowns. It is quicker and cheaper to improve an existing infrastructure than starting
A case in point is New Bombay which is being built to siphon off population from
Bombay. But New Bombay is being built on barren land, which,to start with, has to
Suppose instead you take a town like Kalyan or Thana or even Nasik which really isn't
so far fromBombay. Let's develop them. Theyare also near the villages of thatarea, so
they could be feeding back to the villages certain kinds of services, provide market
facilities which the villages badly need.
Can you expand on this?
Let's take Nasik as a concrete example. What steps would you take to develop it?
Would you move industries from Bombay there?
Yes, I would move some industries from Bombay. Before that, the infrastructure of
Nasik must be improved to make it attractive for industries to shift. This is being done
to some extent by agencies like SICOM.The transport link with Bombay would need
to be improved to make it possible for some people, who have to stay in Bombay for
various reasons, to commute there in about 2 hours.Simultaneously, Nasik’s
development must be integrated with the development of smaller towns and villages
around it so that it becomes a growth centre. The surplus population of villages will
then go to Nasik, rather than to Bombay.
How does the cost of improving the infrastructure of a small town compare with that
of a large town?
It is much cheaper. For example, studies show that per capita cost of infrastructure
development for towns over 5,00,000 population comes to Rs. 280. For towns between
50,000 and 5,00,000, the figure is Rs. 225. If you go to towns smaller than 50,000, the
figure is only Rs.180. These figures are from a study done some years ago. The actual
figures will be higher now, but the ratios will be the same i.e. if large cities are taken
as the base of 100, the cost for medium cities is 66. That’s a considerable difference.
It is obvious why this should be so. In large cities, because of problems of space, you
need multistoreyed buildings of steel and concrete, whereas you could build smaller
and cheaper structures of brick. Transport in a large town has to be taxis or trains or
In small towns, it can be auto-rickshaws, mini-buses and cycles. Roads, therefore, do
not have to be as good in smaller towns. In large cities, you have to go miles to get a
sufficient quantity of water. Most smaller towns are near a natural source of water.
There’s another important point. Surveys have shown that living conditions are better
in smaller towns than in large ones. For instance, the percentage of people living in
one room or less is 80 in Calcutta. If you take the four largest cities, the percentage is
65. In smaller towns, the figure is 44. In villages, it is 35% i.e. only one-third live in
one room quarters. Two-thirds have larger houses.
Would the kind of industry you would put into a small town be the same as in a
large town or would it be different – a sort of intermediate technology?
That’s a very important question. Very often, the incentives being offered by the
government to industry to move to small towns, do not work because those industries
are not economically viable in a smaller town.
Like the mini-steel plants at Tarapur.
The important point to remember is that our population is increasing while the land
that can be cultivated, is not. So alternative employment must be found for these
increasing number of people. As we have said before, these jobs should be created in
smaller towns. And since most of the migrant labour is unskilled, we must develop a
technology that uses semi-skilled and even unskilled workers. The small towns can
then become a kind of stepping stone to larger cities and more sophisticated
This is an argument about our received ideas about industrialization. For example,
going back to the bicycle now – that phrase gives me away. Most people regard
bicycles as ‘going back’, going forward would mean superfast trains and planesand
all those western symbols of progress. We have been taught to see industrialization
as a thing of the jet-age.
The question is of ‘appropriate’ technology rather than ‘backward’ technology. We
have to face realities. We have a large population, we are short of funds, a large
proportion of our population is illiterate. We have to create a situation where the
majority of our people can work and live. It’s not a question of going backward or
forward. These are static ideas; we have to decide what is suitable for us.
YOUTH TIMES –1976
Wanted : a Beetle building
The Volkswagen Beetle is the perfect example of looks in the backseat and utility up
front. The present Indian situation demands that form follow function and not the
In the mid-'50s, when I had entered the architectural school, we were brought up on
the architectural dictum 'Form follows function'. Not that we knew much about the
function of the buildings we were designing, but the discussion among students and
teachers was invariably about how the designs we had done, related to the function of
Moving to England in the early '60s, when Europe was preoccupied with the
reconstruction of its cities – building schools, housing and hospitals etc – the approach
was more or less the same : how to use space efficiently and materials economically.
Not that looks were ignored, but they somehow took the back seat and came out of a
judicious pooling together of the various building elements. The underlying idea was
to use reason, whatever one could muster, to cope with the reality as it was perceived.
But the building needs of the society and the ways to fulfill them were discussed and
debated among architects and the professional bodies. And, more important, leaving
aside a few dilettantes, most architects felt truly responsible and accountable to
Returning to India was a revelation. Here, form followed the client. It was not his
superior knowledge or longer experience, but his position that was doing the dictating.
In cases where the architect could manage to outwit the client with his seductive
drawings or smooth talk, form followed the architect or to be more precise, his whims.
In recent years, with post-modernism hitting the West and with our desire not to be
left behind, our tempting drawings and clever talk have become even more
sophisticated. In the past, we spoke about means and needs. Now we talk of culture
and aspirations. Building designs come wrapped in cultural images and long wordy
explanations as though buildings are dumb and unable to speak for themselves. The
emphasis nowadays is on style rather than substance. The parallels with the
advertising world here are obvious, where the packaging is more important than the
In my view, these forays into our cultural past should be made cautiously. The
educated have a special responsibility to do some soul-searching. Culture is our
collective experience. To the extent that it helps to create a better tomorrow, it must be
used. But to dig into the past and mindlessly appropriate forms, images and symbols,
without understanding and explaining how it is relevant to a better tomorrow is not
fair to a society which desperately needs buildings which are affordable and which
Things which are affordable and work have their own pleasures. Nothing illustrates
this point better than the design of Volkswagen Beetle in the late forties. With the
world war over, industries were looking for new products to manufacture. Volkswagen
came out with a peoples' car which was affordable and which worked. It was not
particularly comfortable and good-looking. But over three decades, millions of people,
the world over, bought it because it gave them the much-needed mobility which in
turn opened up for them new vistas of life. But times change. By the '70s, standards of
living had gone up in the West and people were looking for more than just the basic
necessities. When the Japanese came out with comparable cars which had greater
comfort, style and zip, it was time for the good old Beetle to make its exit.
Similarly, what we need today are buildings which are affordable, buildings which
work and which will open up opportunities for our people. Hopefully, times will
change for the better, for buildings with style and flair and with architectural whims.
But, that time is not now.
THE INDEPENDENT – 12 th September 1992
In the past, organizations used to be small and a typical office belonged to a lawyer, a
solicitor or an accountant, with the owner or the boss having a private office next to
the window; his secretary occupying a small partitioned area adjacent to his offices
and other assistants, book-keepers and stenographers in another room nearby.
Essentially, it was an extension of a study at home, where a few reference books were
kept, some paper work was done and an occasional meeting took place.
With the growth of the service industry in the 50's, organizations became bigger.
Corporate offices were set up, with several departments under unitary command and
control. Space requirements increased. Each department had its own functional
requirement of work and storage space. Communications within the departments and
with other departments became long and complex. It was no longer possible to meet
complex organizational needs by just buying more office space, and adding more
desks and storage cupboards.
Planning and design effort was required to rationalize the different requirements,
resolve the contradictions between opposites like greater communication and privacy,
and plan for efficient functioning of offices. Thus entered the architects and designers,
some going on to become specialists in office interior design.
In the beginning, the response of designers was 'more of the same'. In place of one
private office, more private offices flanked along the window wall, guarded by their
secretaries sitting outside their cabins in small glass partitioned areas and the bulk of
the junior offices, assistants and stenographers, in an open hall or, if possible, in
several halls segregated department-wise.
However, the architects' contribution was unmistakable. They rationalized the space
requirements, desk sizes, distances between two desks, the width of aisles and space
required for storage of files and documents etc. Planning modules were established.
Standards for light, temperature and ventilation were set. But the planning was still
largely dictated by rank and status. So a junior got a smaller desk than his senior
colleague irrespective of the nature of their work. The boss always had the largest
cabin with a window, preferably in the corner with two windows! The architect
superimposed his traditional grammar of visual order, pattern and geometry on the
organisation's chart based on hierarchy.
The early sixties saw a sea change in the approach to office interiors. In 1958, a
management consultancy group in Germany looked into conventional office interiors
and concluded that these had a harmful effect on work performance, and rarely
improved the working environment.According to their study, an office layout based on
an organizational chart seldom responded to real everyday needs of work and
communication. The partitioned cabin created a barrier between colleagues at work
and hampered communication, and it was too rigid to meet the modern need for rapid
They came out with an 'office landscape' plan which, according to them, met the
'realities of office work space'! It was not based on any organization chart, but on the
logic of office functions. It did away with partitioned cabins. It was an open office
plan. The desks were staggered to avoid eye to eye contact and the sense of being
watched. Managers were given extra area to symbolize their status (status was not
totally ignored) which was screened by plants and filing units. Rest areas and space for
future expansion was provided. But, the most striking thing was that it did not look
like anything seen before in office layouts. Gone was the geometrical order of
conventional office plans. Visually, it looked random and confusing. When it was first
published, it caused considerable doubts, but its impact on subsequent office interiors
in Europe and the US was unmistakable.
Now offices all over the world are more open than closed. Organisation charts have
not been cast into the waste paper basket, but functional needs of the office work are
paid attention to. Hierarchy is still there, but distinctions have been reduced.
In India, office interiors saw a big surge in the eighties. The country's economy was
expanding and with it, its business organizations. As real estate prices sky-rocketed,
the need was to fit more people and facilities into the same space. (In India, we still
judge efficiency by the number of persons/sq.ft.) The cost equation had dramatically
changed. With office space at Bombay's Nariman Point selling at over Rs. 10,000 per
sq.ft., it made money sense to spend another Rs.1000 per sq.ft on interiors, if in the
process, 10% more could be accommodated. Interiors paid for themselves with
designers' ambience thrown in as a bargain. On the other hand, the social structure of
business organizations was also changing. Organisations were becoming professional.
Bright, young whiz-kids were joining the firms, clerks and assistants were giving way
to management graduates. Graduates who were not senior enough to claim a cabin but
were educated enough to claim a half cabin! Old manual typewriters were being
replaced by word processors. Both men and machines required a new working
environment. Central air-conditioning became a rule rather than an exception. This
meant that the office layout got divorced from the window wall. It gave the designers
freedom to plan, which changed the shape of offices.
That is where the office planning stands today, but what about the future? With
electronic age upon us and fax, video-conferencing, cellular telephones and laptops
knocking at our doors, 'Work by wire' has put the conventional office planning based
on organizational charts and functional relationships on its head. Now, one can be
anywhere and everywhere at the same time as long as one has a video screen and the
right frequency. What it means to the future of office planning, indeed to the future of
office planners, is an interesting thought.
A New Look
The New Landscape by Charles Correa – Book Review
In the New Landscape, Charles Correa attempts to look at the ever-increasing crisis of
cities in Third World countries. He argues that the abject poverty in the villages
creates distress migration to cities, and suggests that land redistribution in the villages,
establishment of market towns, and shifting of industry and major offices to middlesized
towns are some of the things that can be done to cope with the problem.
Distress migration is by the poorest of the poor. The question is, will an impoverished
Harijan from a village really get a piece of land to cultivate, as suggested in Correa's
redistribution of land? Will he get a place to sell his produce in the new market towns?
Will he get a job in industries or offices if they are shifted to smaller towns? And will
his skills be of any use in industry?
The essence of the problem is poverty. Distress migration stems from it and
aggravates the problem, but schemes of growth centres, public transport systems and
shifting of industry are not going to make much impact unless poverty is dealt with.
Take the example of the Green Revolution. Who benefitted? The rich farmers. Yes,
we produce more food, but the poor can't afford to buy it. Not only do they lack the
purchasing power, they simply do not have the skills and opportunities to acquire it in
the present system. Therefore, the distress, which forces millions to migrate from
villages to the city, continues in the city. The continuing distress of these poor is the
crisis of the cities.
I am not suggesting that the question of a city's size, its location, or its physical form is
not important. It is. But in the overall context, its importance is limited to the extent
that the answer to it helps to break the process of poverty.
Correa writes on New Bombay, which he and two of his colleagues had suggested in
the 60's, as an alternative growth centre which was planned to relieve pressure on
Bombay. It has not been a success. Many reasons can be attributed for this. I think it is
located too close to Bombay to successfully become an alternative growth centre and
too far to relieve the immediate pressures. Opinions may differ on this point, but it
certainly cannot be made a model to 're-arrange the scenery' at a national level. Such
new towns are too expensive and take far too long to take off. The national strategy
must be to develop existing towns, of which there are many in India, where smaller
investments can show greater results in a much shorter time.
Patrick Geddes' idea of conservative surgery for towns (plus a few 'selective
transplants') is perhaps more appropriate in the Indian context. If this approach had
been adopted in the 60's, for small towns close to the source of migration (by investing
in industries and services with the capability to absorb migrants with their traditional
skills), the 'scenery' today might have been different.
Correa has always demanded that space be treated as a valuable resource in structuring
cities. He is most persuasive on the need for low rise/high density housing, on small
equitable plots with 'open to sky spaces' for living, which lend themselves to
incremental development and in the development of which the owner/occupier can
The advantages of this approach are many, both economic and social, and this is how
most cities in the past were built. Even today, in smaller towns where small plots are
affordable, thousands of people build their own houses using their common sense and
shared knowledge with the aid of mistries and masons. Most of our planners and
architects don't quite see things this way, but the trend from 'mass housing' to 'housing
by the masses' is clearly discernable. There is no better example of this than the tens of
thousands of juggies-jhopris where millions live in the Third World cities.
Some of the advantages of low-rise/high-density housing, like incrementality,
pluralism and disaggregation, which are part of juggi-jhopri development, are
incorporated in Correa's scheme for a housing sector in New Bombay. These
considerations must become part of our housing policy in the future. It is a matter of
some hope that schemes like site and services and core houses are already being
accepted by the housing planners. This acceptance may only be due to economic
reasons, but the schemes have very strong social advantages.
It is on this account that Correa's proposition for very small plots of 45 sq.m. to 75
sq.m. for each housing unit appears to be weak. Since land cost is a prime factor in the
total housing costs, economically it makes sense to have small houses on small plots.
It makes housing affordable and keeps the city distances manageable. But socially it
enforces a small nuclear family pattern for generations to come. Land patterns, which
in turn determine social and even attitudinal patterns for ages to come.
A possible way out of this dilemma can be to go for twin family houses on plots
double the size. Economically, the situation remains the same. Socially, it provides
greater possibilities. A joint family or an extended family can share the whole house,
or part of it can be used for business or trade. Initially, the owner/occupier can live in
one part, another part can be rented out and as the economic standards improve, a
small family can have the whole house to itself.
In any case, rentable housing must become an integral part of any housing policy. As
cities grow, the new immigrants, while searching for permanent work, need rentable
housing. If it is not easily available, the growth of cities suffers. And economic rents,
paid to the owners/occupiers, augment their capacity to afford and build more housing,
which in turn spurs both, the economic and physical growth of cities.More than land
use, mobility determines the city structure and its economic viability. Therefore, a
correct choice of transport and communication modes is of crucial importance for
Third World cities.
Correa illustrates with the example of China, where millions bicycle to work. He
suggests greater use of bicycles in our cities. With the growth of cities as distances get
longer and the viability of bicycles reduces, Correa suggests public transport systems
based on Mass Rapid Transport (MRT).
Correa had developed this scheme of MRT for his New Bombay proposal. Though
theoretically interesting, it is a moot point if it is practically viable. Like New
Bombay, it certainly cannot be used as a model for growing cities of the third world.
Resource constraints and lack of managerial skills make it impractical. Moreover,
urban growth is going to take place in existing towns and cities, where laying of
tracks, whether surface or underground, plays havoc with existing life and property.
(Note the Calcutta experience). Like high-rise buildings, MRT is a big question mark.
A more practical thing would be to develop the whole range of road transport,
including bicycles, two wheelers, cars and buses. Its advantages are the same as of
low-rise housing – incrementality, pluralism, participation, equity and disaggregation.
What is more, like low-rise housing, it has great potential to generate employment in
the informal sector of the economy.
In the last decade, the trend changed from 'mass housing' to 'housing by the masses'. I
would not be surprised if in the next decade, the trend changed from 'mass transport' to
'transport by the masses'. With the design of pollution free cars (doing 100 miles per
gallon) already on the drawing board, the cars may still have the last laugh before the
turn of the century. The least we can do is to keep our options open.
The book contains some of Correa's articles written almost two decades ago. Since
then, the perception of cities (both by Correa and others) has considerably changed.
Therefore, at times, some of his propositions (like New Bombay or MRT and his
allusions to Akbar being a great builder or to the creative instincts of Hindemith) do
not square up with his propositions for housing. Nor do they share the same aesthetics.
But the book is to be welcomed, for it is written and illustrated in a simple and concise
manner. It is accessible even to the lay reader. And it is an important contribution,
because cities concern citizens and not just planners. Citizens must get concerned if
the crisis of cities is to be dealt with successfully.
DEBONAIR – April '86
Home is where the heart is
We often lament the loss of old world charm of our cities – felling of trees, fleeing of
the birds – and rise of concrete skyscrapers all around us.
Living in cities does not come naturally to us. It is tough on our senses and it saps our
energy. We yearn to escape – to nature – our original habitat to soothe our senses and
recoup our energy. But the city is not going to change in a hurry. It has become very
complex. Many hidden hands are shaping and re-shaping it every moment. Not many
of us are lucky enough to have either the time or place to escape to, except to our little
homes in these very skyscrapers which we loathe.
The question is what can we do to make our little homes a place to live in and live
By now, it is conventional wisdom that a home needs to meet our physical as well as
psychological needs. The physical needs of a family like studying, eating and sleeping
are generally understood and can be designed and provided for, by an architect, in the
form of a house. The psychological needs, like a sense of comfort, security and
belonging etc. are more complex and unique to the homeowners and can best be filled
in by the homemaker. Therefore, while an architect can design a house, it is only a
homemaker who can turn it into a home.
Recently, I read a book titled ‘The Architecture of Happiness’. At one point, the
author Alain de Botton suggests that we depend on our surroundings to embody the
moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. He further says that we
look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision
of ourselves. This would suggest that if we are fond of reading, then having books on
the shelves will remind us of our interest in literature and knowledge and reinforce our
idea of it. Similarly, if we are fond of art, putting paintings on the wall will reinforce
our interest in the finer things of life. If we are fond of cooking, then having an open
and large kitchen will provide that much more pleasure, thus making us feel fulfilled
A word of caution is necessary. Some of us, who do not value books or works of art,
often display them in our homes as part of the décor – as objects to be ‘showcased’.
This ‘disconnect’ between what we value and what we show will not generate the
sense of happiness we yearn for.
When we acquire a place, the place belongs to us in a legal sense. But do we belong to
it? What do we do to get a sense of belonging?
Let me give you a personal example. I have a small garden and have employed a
gardener to mind it. He waters the plants, prunes the hedges and puts fertilizer in the
roots. The garden looks fresh and green and it makes me feel good. But sometimes
(especially when the gardener is on his annual holidays), I water the plants, prune the
hedges, cut flowers to arrange on the table. I derive immense pleasure from it and a
sense of bonding with the plants and I promise to myself that I should do it more
In brief, the point is that if we nurture our homes, the way some of us nurture our
gardens, by dusting a corner, arranging the books, changing the covers of the cushions
and arranging flowers in the vase, a sense of belonging will develop, which will avoid
alienation with our immediate environment and reduce our yearning to escape to
Let us start by tending to our homes, taking care of the skyscrapers and cities, and we
shall find that the trees have started blooming and the birds have come back chirping.
The Responsive House
The Responsive House is a collection of papers presented at a seminar held at the
MIT. The contributors included some well-known architects like Christopher
Alexander, Habraken, Steve Baer and Nicholas Negroponte. And some not so wellknown
but equally concerned with 'the idea that dwellings ought to be fitted to
people; not people to dwellings, that building technologies ought to be flexible and
changeable; and that people ought to participate in the design, construction and
modifications of their buildings'.
Many people in a city like Bombay, who buy flats, before moving into them,proceed
to tear down walls to combine the passage with a room, build new walls to sub-divide
a room, move doors to create cupboard spaces, or block windows to fit airconditioners,
know that dwellings in mass housing, as being built today, do not fit the
But is there a way that it could?
The seminar papers throw ideas which range from total handicrafts to total
cybernation. At one end, arethe architects who believe that people can be taught the
traditionalcraft of building, with which they can build their own houses as they
choose. At the other end, are the architects who advocate for an inter-active computer
that takes only afew hours to assist in preparing a design and which is linked to a
'magical machine' that does the work of building houses.Sean Wellesley-Miller in his
paper, states: 'The average planninghorizon of most architectural firms is five to ten
years. The average lifetime of most buildings is in excess ofthirty years.'
Assuming that the architects can correctly predict and plan for the first five to ten
years, what happensafterwards? Do the users take on the responsibility of arranging
their environment, and if they can do it after ten years, why not earlier?
And if the users, at some time or the other have to get involved with arranging their
own environment, what kind of buildings do the architects design? Or, must
architects expand their knowledge and technology to increase their planning time
horizon to correspond to the life time of their buildings? Is this possible?
And if we think that more information, industrialized construction andhigher
technology have the answer, what Miller and Negroponte have to say is revealing.
According to Miller, most building systems are primarily structural and structure
accounts for only 30 to 40 per cent of building costs -(the remaining, being for
equipment and finishes) -the net savings are about three to four per cent. Major cost
gains are made due to shortened production time, which at best works out to about 12
per cent cheaper than traditional methods. Add to this the cost of inflexibility, lack of
individual expression and functional adaptation. And what does that work out to ?
Negroponte, who has been researching at MIT on architectureand computers, warns
that like architects, computers too can be extremely paternalistic. He says, 'Our efforts
in computer-aided design were, in fact, taking thispaternalism and amplifying it, trying
to get a computer system which would not only amplify your fantastic design abilities,
but would sit there and ring bells and blow whistles to tell you when you had
contradicted yourself, and make, in a sense, a slicker paternalism than existed before.
After a while we realized, that wasn't what we wanted, that we wanted the machine to
participate much more overtly in the design process, and so its role had to be
intelligent. But this could become, in some sense, a surrogate architect, which is
equally paternalistic, and in some sense you'd be no better off than you were before.'
Where do we go from here?
At one point Miller says, 'Mention the advent of total urbanisation to the average
citizen (and) his immediate emotional reaction is to start searching in an imaginary
atlas for a desert island conveniently close to work.' How very true. Does man, inspite
of all the materialism, still remain an animal wishing to be close to nature? How firm
are his roots in the man-made environment? What part did it play in the evolutionary
process of man?
Man has all along lived in nature with his cave or dwelling forming a small part of his
total living environment, and that too for a short while of every day, when nature got
hostile or unpleasant. A dwellingwas not a substitute for nature, only a supplement.
And his experience of living in an almost total man-made environment is very recent.
It is because of this, that man does not find it familiar, does not feel free in it, and does
not respond to it, as he does to nature.
Have we ever looked at a hill and said how awful; seen a tree and talked of its poor
proportions: found a forest in the wrong location and wished it was on the other side
ofthe river? Why? Because nature does no wrong or because man is nature's very
It may not be possible to go back to nature, it may not even be desirable to do so, but
perhaps we can start our search for a more responsive house from the point that it had
all started -nature.
INSIDE OUTSIDE – '83
City should be seen as a verb, not a noun :
An interview with Midday
Yashwant Das is an architect and town planner with an optimistic view of the future
of Bombay. He has a broad vision of life and goes easily from the history of
architecture to its sociological implications and then comes up with all sorts of
practical solutions to the city's many problems: the proliferating slums, the snarled
traffic and the commuting travails. It is difficult to pin down Das who could best be
described as a down-to-earth dreamer. Facts and figures tumble into personal
beliefs that verge on the fantastic, as Das holds forth on Bombay's problems and
pleasures. But he does leave you with the feeling that what is wrong with this city
can be put right. All we have to do is try.
You took a course at the MIT in 'town planning in the third world countries'. Can
you tell us about this?
After finishing my studies in India, I worked in London for seven years. I was always
interested in the social aspect of planning. The work I was doing in London didn't
offer any solutions to Third World problems. So I decided to go to MIT, not to study
the regular course there, but to study a special course which, luckily, they were
holding. There were ten of us - from India, Iraq, Israel and Latin America. It was very
free wheeling in the sense we could take subjects like sociology, economics, politics. I
studied Indian politics along with subjects like housing and city development. We had
professors who had studied the squatter problem in Latin America and also its
sociological aspect. As in India, the cities in Latin America had migrating labour and
the authorities viewed their dwellings as eyesores. What I learnt was that there is an
important social aspect to housing, which architects usually don't look at.
What are some of the sociological factors affecting architecture and housing in
Living patterns here are different from elsewhere in the world. We don't, for example,
have a very rigid classification of rooms. Here, a bedroom is also used for playing
games, or say, stitching clothes, entertaining guests, eating. This is not so abroad. So,
it is a good idea to have a ground plus one plan for houses there, so that people can
live downstairs during the day and retire upstairs at night. It is very different here.
When I design a house, I don't label the rooms. In my mind, the lack of demarcation
makes things more interesting.
Also, the family structure and lifestyles in the West are different from here. You can
predict that a nuclear, middle class family there will have a certain sized car, two
children, certain household gadgets etc. Here, families from the same economic
bracket may have very different lifestyles. My wife, my daughter and I live in a flat.
And in the same-sized flat opposite ours, there are 11 people.
What kind of plans, on a macro level, would you suggest for housing the poor in
That's a very loaded question. It is the poorest of the poor who come to Bombay in
search of jobs. A recent parliamentary committee, set up to look into the problems of
landless labourers, found that there are 75 million of them earning between Rs. 3 – 8 a
day. These are the potential slum dwellers in the city. Two things are very obvious to
me. One is that they are here to look for work and are not terribly concerned about
where they live. And secondly, they can only have the sort of housing they can afford.
Of course, society can subsidise for them to some extent. Nothing revolutionary can
happen in the near future. But housing doesn't have to be as poor as it is today.
Why is housing a problem? It is a question of access. For thousands of years in our
history, people have been building their own homes. They know what they want and
also the technique. But they have no access to land or resources. The biggest problem
is land on which vested interests – the land-owners and the builders, are sitting. It is
impossible for people to get land legally. If the land and resources were made
available to them, through subsidy loans or whatever, there would be no housing
That's all very well in theory, but how is it to be done?
What else can be done? We grow enough food and still, people are starving. It's the
same thing. Society has to change; it has to be restructured. This is not an architectural
or planning problem. It is essentially a socio-economic problem.
And the other thing is the motivation of the poor. The government setting up housing
boards, serves no purpose. They do not really know what the poor people need. These
people are capable of getting the raw materials or even raising the funds. They need
not go to HDFC or banks and pay high rates of interest. How do most middle class
people buy houses? By borrowing from here and there. If the government says that it
must build a certain number of houses every year, it never gets done. In the last 40
years, the housing board has built only some one lakh houses, while the estimates are
that 40,000 houses are needed every year in Bombay. These schemes are not working.
What you are saying is that the initiative has to come from the people. But the
people have already shown this initiative. So what happens next?
Land must be made available to the people. The Urban Land Ceiling Act has played
havoc with housing. Its aim was to take land from the big land-owners and make it
available to the common man. But the vested interests intervened and the government
is not releasing the land. But there is enough land available. If you drive around
Bombay, you can see that. If you drive out of the city for a mile, you will find acres
and acres of vacant land. This land must be distributed to people in the form of small
plots. If one thinks in terms of multi-storeyed buildings with 100 flats apiece,
obviously the big builders – the Rahejas and the Lokhandwalas – will get into it. But
individuals could buy these small plots and get small time builders and contractors to
build houses. For the very poor, you can't even plan low cost housing. You have to
have no cost housing, made from scrap material. Once you give the hutment dwellers
a tenure and they know that their structures are there for good, then they will develop
them, make them pakka over a period of time. Even most of us from middle class
families furnish our houses gradually. That's a very natural process. Slum-dwellers
should be given basic amenities. If the government cannot provide a tap for each
hutment, let them at least provide one for ten.
Your contention is that Dharavi is an ideal slum. How do you explain this?
There is no magical solution to the housing problem. The stark fact is that we are
growing at the rate of two per cent per year. Dharavi has its own infrastructure. It is
flourishing. I think we must face up to the fact that the Bombay of the future is going
to be more like Dharavi and less like Cuffe Parade.
And one problem is that we look at the city in a very physical way. The city is about
social, economic and cultural life. We live here not for the skyscrapers but for its
intellectual life. Because life is so intense here. A famous architect has said that a city
is about ideas, about people rather than about its buildings.
You feel that too much is made about the façade of a city?
Yes. And again, why don't we go to Dharavi and ask the people if they like to live
there or not? Its people like us, who drive past it, who say it should be pulled down.
But there are real problems in Dharavi too.
Yes, but they have solutions. You see people easing themselves on the road, for
instance. But that's because they have no toilets. You and I would have done the same
in those circumstances. This is where the government can step in. There should be
many more toilets, even public baths. And the toilets can be attended to, so that they
are well maintained and there are no thefts. We should be concentrating on these small
things instead of making grandiose plans. Take the traffic problem, for instance. Why
not make a rule that no cars can be parked at all on the arterial roads? People should
be allowed to park solely in the bylanes.
There seems to be something wrong in the way architecture is taught in India. Why
are there so few architects involved in low cost housing and other such practical
The history of architecture, the way it is taught here, begins with Rome and Greece,
goes on to the Moghuls and the Taj Mahal and then to Le Corbusier and Chandigarh.
The concept of architecture is that it has to be visually grand. That's how individuals
think too. They want monuments. This is ok for certain public buildings. And so
architects do not think about solving social problems. But again, the housing problem
is not a problem of architecture, as I have said before.
It is a socio-political problem.
Knowledge about architecture should not stay with the specialists. This knowledge
should belong to society. I feel a lot of architecture, which is considered creative, is
contributing nothing to society. It is one shot architecture. We don't need original
architecture in that sense. I'd like to do buildings that people can imitate, adapt.
How do you take the knowledge to the people?
By building houses and buildings that are easy to understand. We need to demystify
architecture. People with average intelligence should be able to grasp how a house is
built, what makes a good house. This is true for other problems like, say, traffic. You
live in this city. You should be able to understand what constitutes the transport
problem and suggest practical solutions for it.
I believe you take an interest in old buildings. How can we go about preserving
I don't look at it from an art historian's viewpoint. The first principle of a poor society
is that it must preserve what it has and add to it. It makes a lot of social and cultural
sense. We must have new buildings, of course, but there is no need to destroy the old
ones to build them. And there are beautiful buildings all around us apart from well
known ones like Victoria Terminus. But we can only preserve things that are
connected with our lives.
If buildings are seen as a social resource, then society would have a vested interest in
preserving them. Painting a building is not merely a matter of aesthetics. It also
prolongs the life of the building. If people could be made conscious of all this… And
there could also be a law that buildings must be painted, say every 2-3 years, then
these two factors – the law and the awareness – could work hand in hand.
What measures would you suggest for beautifying Bombay?
At the very basic level – cleanliness. We are so concerned about personal hygiene but
are not bothered about our surroundings. Municipal wards should prominently display
names and phone numbers of civic authorities, local politicians, the police, so that
people can call up and complain and become more active in keeping the city beautiful.
In Singapore, there is a system that if you plant trees in your compound, you are given
a tax rebate. Similar rules could be framed here to help make the city green. Then
there is the question of noise pollution. We can have processions but the level of noise
could be regulated. We are really the first generation of city dwellers, but some of us
are still villagers at heart. We are used to maidans, bazaars, wide open spaces. But we
have to learn to adapt ourselves to the urban environment.
Instead of the barricades put at road dividers, I believe, to help maintain VIP security
and also to prevent jay walking, there could be raised flowerbeds. They need not take
up a lot of space and they will be more aesthetic. Besides, the barricades keep falling
down. All these measures do not require much expertise or funds and therefore they
are not elitist. Bombay is a beautiful city you know, and there is a lot to be proud of in
How do you feel about satellite cities like Vashi?
The project is a non-starter. Cities take a long time to grow. A city should be seen as a
verb, not as a noun. It's an activity. Buildings don't make a city. This concept of cities
as places to live in rather than work in comes from the West. Immediately after the
war in Europe, houses had to be built on a large scale as they had been badly bombed.
Concepts like satellite cities emerged then. But our problem is different. Our cities will
have to be built around places of work. This is true for all developing countries.
Besides, a lot of things should be left to the people. Today's city designer cannot be an
architect or town planner. He is more likely to be an economist.
Talking of work places, what can be done about the problem of congested offices
The corporation has allowed houses, schools, shopping centres and hospitals to come
up in the suburbs, but not offices. This was obviously a wrong policy. Traditionally,
our weavers and craftsmen have worked from their homes. And that's a very healthy
Now what happens to the business districts in the evenings? They are dead, even
dangerous. Since they are being used only half the day, they are also being underutilized.
All that electricity and water supply isn't benefitting anyone in the night!
This segregation of residential and business districts is a hangover of industrialisation.
It came about because there were many polluting industries in the past, which would
have been harmful if they had been located near homes. And also, to some extent, the
upper classes wanted to keep the factories away from their homes. They had a vested
interest in doing that. But today, there are many safe industries, like electronics, for
instance, which could be located in the residential areas, to say nothing of the large
In fact, there should be office buildings, not homes, along the arterial roads of the city
like Linking or Peddar road. These roads are ideal for offices. The authorities should
open up the suburbs to offices. Not just specific areas like the Bandra-Kurla belt, but
all the suburbs.
MID DAY – 17 th July 1988
A Mahatma true to his name
A tribute to Gandhiji on his birth anniversary
Gandhiji is long dead and almost forgotten. I never had the privilege of seeing him but
my earliest memories are of 1942, when, as a young boy, I used to watch my father
and his friends talk in hushed voices (my father was a government servant) about
Gandhiji's Quit India movement. A few years later, when independence fervour was at
its peak, I remember getting up early, putting on my khadi shirt and shorts and going
on Prabhat Pheris, shouting 'Inquilab Zindabad'. It meant nothing more than that I
was part of the fervour.
Soon after, independence came, Gandhiji died and Nehru's speech that night 'The light
has gone out…' became part of our English textbook. And, Nehru became the moulder
of young Indians. It was in the early sixties in London, when I saw a piece in The
Guardian about some Englishmen wanting to install a statue of Gandhiji, that I
decided to read his writings.
As a young architect, what had caught my attention then, was Gandhiji's view that
written history was heavily loaded with exploits of kings and their wars and said little
about the lives and loves of millions of ordinary people. This had particular relevance
to architecture, for architectural history too is loaded with descriptions of monuments
– temples and churches and says little about the buildings of the common people. As
architects, we sought inspiration from these monuments. Therefore, no wonder
whenever we designed for common people, we often got carried away from reality. In
the past 25 years, things have changed, but not much.But what caught my attention the
other day when I was thumbing through his book again, was the great relevance of his
ideas to many of the problems we face today. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Giving evidence before the Hunter Committee for his opposition to the Rowlatt Act,
part of the questions and answers go as follows :
You agree that the abstention from work should be entirely voluntary?
Yes, entirely voluntary, in the sense that persuasion on the day of the hartal would not
be allowed, whereas persuasion by means of leaflets and other propaganda work on
the other days would be perfectly legitimate, so long as no physical force was
You disapprove of people interfering with tongas on the day of the hartal?
You would not object to the police interfering in the case of such a disapprovable
interference on the people's part?
I would not, if they acted with proper restraint and forbearance.
But you agree that on the day of the hartal, it was highly improper to jostle with
other people and stop tongas?
From a Satyagrahi standpoint, I would hold it to be criminal.
I wonder what Datta Samant, George Fernandes and Bal Thackeray will think of it.
And here is something for feminists and men.
"Had not man in his blind selfishness crushed woman's soul as he has done or had
she not succumbed to the 'enjoyments', she would have given the world an
exhibition of the infinite strength that is latent in her. What she showed in the last
fight was, but a broken and imperfect glimpse of it. The world shall see it in all its
wonder and glory when woman has secured an equal opportunity for herself with
man and fully developed her powers of mutual aid and combination."
That was written in Young India, May 7, 1931. Three generations later, we have a
perspective plan for women, but no plan as yet on men's perspectives!
I am tempted to suggest that Gandhiji's writings should be compulsory reading for all,
but I dare not. Any external compulsion was a form of violence for him. And recently,
when I read of the controversy to install Gandhiji's statue near India Gate, like a
typical architect, I racked my head to think of a suitable place. Having re-read
Gandhiji, I would say, melt the statue. Our short memories have defiled him enough.
Namaskar, Gandhiji. It is not for nothing that millions called you a Maha-atma.
MID DAY– 2 nd October 1989
What the Indian reality is
Early this month, Time magazine had, as its cover story,'Super India – The Next
Military Power'. Certainly, we have come a long way because not so long ago, India
was taken notice of by international magazines, only when there was famine or
Among the informed, it was common knowledge that we had the fourth largest
standing army in the world and that after 1972, the fire power and mobility of our
army had dramatically increased. Our air force outclassed Pakistani air force both in
numbers and its penetrative ability and if the Chinese had more planes, we had the
more modern ones with greater striking power. And the Pakistan navy was no match
We also knew that we could hold the Chinese on our northern borders and if they
could occupy bits of our territory because the terrain in certain areas suited them, we
were capable of doing the same to them. And, if Zia of Pakistan did not pour venom
like Bhutto before him, it was because as a wise general, he knew that his Indian
counterparts are quite capable of giving him a bloody nose.
But what many of us did not know was that we have been the largest importers of
arms in the world since '86, spending 80 billion rupees in '87, and what is most
alarming, is the reported news that we are preparing to enter the world's arms bazaar
as an exporter to pay for the large scale imports of defence equipment. Now, if this
report is true, it holds nightmarish prospects for the future. It will certainly give rise to
building of an industrial-military complex as was the case in the sixties in the United
States and the USSR and it is ironical that when the superpowers are moving in the
direction of lower military profile, we are taking steps to escalate it.
I will not go into the consequence of such a policy in the face of declining
effectiveness of our political institutions, for the arguments are complex and
possibilities are innumerable. But, we surely will have our own brand of Adnan
Khashoggis and everything else which goes with their operations. I know moral
arguments don't count much in matters of defence and security of the country, though
I do not understand why it is to be so.
Seeing Super-India – the next military power on Time's cover certainly feeds our
vanity and boosts our ego and now that we are on the threshold of becoming a military
force to reckon with in the region, let us not forget that we still have 300 million
people living under the poverty line. We also have the largest numbers of unemployed
youths and the highest number of working children in the world, 15 million to be
precise, more than the total population of some of the advanced countries. We also
have the highest number of blind people, one of the highest rates of infant mortality
and we have millions of women whom we treat like cattle.
While we can justifiably be proud of our achievements of the past 40 years in the
fields of agriculture, industry and technology, we have not achieved much in areas of
human care and development and in the ultimate analysis,that is what matters.
Some years ago, I had once asked an American, who had lived in India for quite a few
years co-ordinating for the Ford Foundation, what he thought of India's development.
He likened to a glass, half filled with milk and said, you can either call it half filled or
half empty. Perhaps, a more appropriate way of looking at the glass would be as half
filled and half empty, for that is what the Indian reality is. And the irony of this reality
is that with the growing population, the glass keeps getting bigger every day, and as
we fill it with more milk, it also remains more empty.
MID DAY– 28 th April 1989
Declining quality of our elected representatives
The recent amendments of the constitution, lowering the voting age to 18 years, is to
be welcomed, for it adds another 47 million voters to the electoral process. But what is
vexing is the quality of the representation in our parliament. With the years, the
quality has declined considerably and our elected representatives appear to be
promoting the interests of their political bosses rather than the will and aspirations of
No wonder then that, when the Janata Dal was being formed, the main quarrel was not
on policies and programmes, but on who would be the chairman of the parliamentary
board. Because the chairman has the power to give tickets to candidates who, if
elected, will raise their hands in his favour.
In Britain, just as they have a shadow cabinet, they also have a prospective candidate
in each constituency. The candidates are selected by the political parties, but since
they are nominated well in advance of the general elections, the candidates have time
to serve and cultivate their constituency and the voters too have a chance to judge their
character and conduct.
In the US, they have a system of primaries through which the candidates of the two
parties are selected by the party faithful before the general elections.
Now, the important difference between these two systems and the one which we
practice in India is that the people abroad have a say in the selection of the candidates.
In our country, the candidates are put before the voters by the political bosses as
faitaccompli and we are supposed to vote for one or the other.
If I had anything to do with the electoral reforms, I would insist that all candidates
register with the Election Commission at least three years before the general elections.
During this period, candidates of the registered parties should be given funds by the
state to meet their expenses for telephone, transport and basic secretarial services. This
will give them an opportunity to put before the people, their programmes and policies
and it will afford an opportunity to the people to judge the candidates.
Much debate has been going on regarding funding of elections by the government. I
don't quite agree with it. It is bad enough that downright corrupt, communal and
criminal elements stand for elections, but if the government had to finance their
elections as well with tax payers' money, it would be like rubbing salt on the wounded
sentiments of the people.
I would also insist that the candidates stand only from the constituencies where they
are registered as voters, to avoid a frequent replay of Buta Singh standing from
Rajasthan because he can't get elected in Punjab and Shiv Shankar from Gujarat,
because nobody wants to vote for him in Andhra.
I would also prohibit candidates standing from more than one constituency. Since
constitutionally, one cannot represent more than one constituency, there is hardly any
point in standing from more than one. It is a waste of money and candidates should not
treat elections like a lottery ticket.
I would also insist that a candidate once defeated in the general elections cannot be
elected to the Rajya Sabha or be made governor of a state or hold any public office for
at least three years. All political parties in power have been guilty of insulting
the judgement of the electorate and it is time people reasserted their primacy.
Furthermore, a candidate who loses his deposit should be barred from contesting in
another general election for at least six years. This should eliminate the non-serious
candidates. In the recent by-election from Allahabad, the ballot paper was as large as a
Last but not the least, I would ban posters and hoardings. They are a waste of money
and deface the towns and cities for months.
If a candidate is not well-known in the constituency, he has no business to stand for
the elections and if he thinks that he is some kind of a soap or toothpaste which can be
pushed into the electoral market, he is not fit enough to sit in parliament.
Let us remember and let us remind our so-called leaders that we elect our
representatives under the Representation of People's Act, and not under the
'Representation of Politicians' Act'!
MID DAY – 20 th January 1989
Bureaucratic Republic of India
A few weeks ago, the prime minister, addressing a conference of railway porters, said
that out of every six rupees that the government spends on the development projects,
only one rupee reaches the people. The other five go to support the bureaucracy and
the administration. This reminded me of an experience which an American professor
related to me almost 20 years ago.
He was on a lecture tour of South-East Asian countries, and he decided to spend a few
days in India on his way back to America. His interests were in cities and slums, so he
chose Calcutta as his first stop-over. He went to see some of the bastis there and met
members of CMPO, who were, at that time, busy preparing a plan for redevelopment
of the city. One afternoon when he had some spare time, he decided to stroll through
an art gallery.
He was looking at some paintings when a smart young Indian, with a camera hanging
around his neck, got talking to him. The young man appeared educated, cultured and
smart. In the course of their talk, he showed an interest in the camera which the
professor was carrying, and asked if he could have a closer look at it. The professor
unhesitatingly handed it over to him. No sooner did he do so, than the young man ran
away with it. The professor was aghast and for a few moments did not know what to
do. He went back to his hotel, brooded over the incident and decided to forget about it.
Next morning, he took a flight to Delhi and visited his old friend John Kenneth
Galbraith, the American ambassador to India. Galbraith recommended a day off in
Agra, and thence he went. Later, he went to Fatehpur Sikri and hired a local guide. As
they were climbing the steps of the Buland Darwaza, the guide offered to carry the
professor's briefcase. The Calcutta incident flashed before his eyes. He hesitated for a
moment, but handed over the briefcase, thinking that he ought not to let one incident
colour his judgement. When the tour was over, the guide returned the briefcase. His
faith in Indians restored, he prepared to take his flight back to the US.
At the airport, the customs office looked at his passport entries and asked him where
his camera was. He said it was robbed in Calcutta. The officer wanted to know if he
had lodged a complaint with the police, otherwise there was no proof that he hadn't
sold the camera, so he would have to pay customs duty on it, if he wanted to leave the
country. The professor was aghast and dumbfounded. He tried to argue his way
through, but with no success. In desperation, he called Galbraith, who detailed an
embassy staffer to sort out the matter. But he couldn't make much headway with the
customs officer either.
The last departure call was announced and the professor got desperate. Eventually, a
compromise was effected. The professor would pay the customs duty under protest
and be allowed to leave the country; he would be free to take up the matter with the
higher officials later.
On reaching the US, he wrote a stiff note to the Ministry of Finance, which was
followed up by the American Embassy. After almost a year of protracted
correspondence, the professor got a dusty letter in a dusty envelope saying that the
Ministry of Finance of the Government of India had, under exceptional circumstances,
decided to refund the customs duty on the camera paid by the professor. The professor
was happy that at last, his honour had been vindicated. Till he read the last line of the
letter. It said please collect the amount in rupees in Delhi, personally.
Of course, we all know that in 20 years, things have changed. Custom officers no
longer harass old American professors, who have been robbed of their cameras – they
have bigger catches to go after. It is also nice to know that our prime minister knows
that it takes five out of every six rupees, to keep our bureaucrats in their chairs, but I
bet he does not know – and I do not think anyone else does either – how much money
an ordinary citizen of the country spends to keep the bureaucrats in good humour and
push an application or get a petty permission, which shouldn't have been necessary in
the first place. No wonder a retired general of the Indian Army calls the country the
Bureaucratic Republic of India!
MID DAY– 6 th January 1989
No laurels for our achievers
From time to time, an advertisement appears in the newspapers hawking import of
foreign-made cars. The government of India allows import of such cars for certain
categories of people like those returning to the country after staying for some years
abroad, five-star hotels and companies engaged in travel business and with foreign
collaborations etc. But the category which takes the cake is the one which stipulates
that an Indian married to a foreigner, is also entitled to import.
It does not take much imagination to figure out who might have made such a rule.
Obviously, a bureaucrat with a small mind. In our country, people in positions of
power always change rules of the game to suit themselves and their near and dear
On the other hand, I also know of a very bright doctor who did his Ph.D. in cancer
surgery from a university in England. When he was finishing his doctorate, he applied
for a job in a medical college in India which offered him a post of a surgeon at Rs.
1,500/- per month. As he was keen to return and had no better offer, he accepted it. On
arriving, he found that the medical college had no staff quarters, so he rented a place
for Rs. 1,200/- a month and his wife's salary, (also a doctor) went to pay the rent
while, with his salary, he met the other expenses.
After working for some time, he wanted a few weeks' leave to go to England to submit
his thesis, but the leave was denied to him as the government rules did not permit
leave so soon after joining. He wrote to the university about his predicament, which
promptly adjusted his submission dates to suit the Indian bureaucratic norms.
Recently, the medical college has given him a two-bedroom flat in a middle income
group housing scheme. So, the message is clear, if you marry a foreign girl, you are
entitled to import a car, but if you get a doctorate from a foreign university, you lump
a two-bedroom MIG flat.
Recently, I read in a weekly that Dr. Reddy, a well-known medical researcher,
working in Philadelphia has done pioneering work in discovering a virus that is
believed to cause multiple sclerosis. But, he was denied admission in an Indian
university as he had completed his schooling at the tender age of 13!
Recently, I also read that the Cambridge University made special arrangements for a
child prodigy to complete his masters in mathematics. Similarly, the eminent
sociologist Prof. M.N. Srinivas, who was very keen to return to India to do further
research after his studies at Oxford, took up an appointment at Oxford, as the
Anthropological Survey of India to which he had applied, did not even care to reply.
To top it, the Oxford University allowed Prof. Srinivas to do field research for a year
as part of his appointment, something he was very keen on.
How is it that we, as a society, are so callous and inconsiderate to our own talented
people. And, I am not suggesting that we should give the kind of salaries which these
achievers can get in the West or even provide them the kind of research facilities
which the West provides. I know, it is not within our means, but surely, it is within our
means to give them decent housing, to bend the government rules a little to give them
leave for legitimate purposes, to say a word of appreciation in recognition of their
work and to send a thank-you note for tasks accomplished.
A society which does not reward and honour its achievers will achieve very little, for
it is only through them that the society can achieve for all its people. Tell me, what
more, persons like JRD Tata, Satyajit Ray and Sam Manekshaw have to do to get the
Bharat Ratna. Guess, join the ruling party.
MID DAY– 17 th March 1989
Frankly, it stinks!
One of the hassles of having an architectural practice in a city like Bombay is getting
approvals of building proposals through the corporation. Not only has one to run
around the various departments of the corporation, but one is also required to obtain,
what are called NOCs – no objection certificates – from umpteen government agencies
like police, fire brigade, Urban Land Ceiling (ULC), civil aviation etc. I am told of a
story and I do not know how true it is, that at one time, the BMC required a NOC from
the civil aviation department for any building over one floor in the vicinity of the
airport, until some sharp and spirited architect pointed to the double-decker buses
plying in the area!
This running around and the attendant hassles make some of the architects opt out of
designing buildings in the city. Others, who learn the ropes and become 'experts' in
getting approvals through the corporation, by humouring all and sundry, find, by the
end of the day, that they are left with little time or energy to do much architecture.
And the result of this is there for all to see in the shape of poor architectural quality of
buildings in the city.
Recently, my hackles were raised when a junior engineer of a local authority, sitting
on a steel chair with two gold rings, a gold watch on his wrist and a packet of imported
cigarettes on the table, refused to approve my proposal for an industrial building as I
had not drawn a section through the septic tank! Now I do not understand the point.
Did he think I do not know what a section through the septic tank looks like? It is a
standard design, which anyone can pick up from the ISI code or maybe he thought that
my client would much rather save the money and see all the muck lying under his
office. Frankly, it stinks!
Imagine, building proposals of internationally acclaimed architects like Correa and
Doshi being vetted by assistant engineers. And this is not all, the same engineers, who
in all probability have a second-class degree from a second-class college also vet or at
least they are supposed to, design calculations of structural engineers, many of whom
have doctorate degrees from premier foreign universities, who periodically teach
there, have written books and who are experts in computer analysis.
And, I have often wondered, why it should be necessary for qualified and experienced
architects and engineers to seek prior approval of their building proposals from the
After all, a lawyer does not obtain prior approval of his line of legal arguments from
the government's legal department. Nor does a medical practitioner ever clear his
prescription with anybody before giving medicine to his patient. Similarly, a chartered
accountant does not clear the returns he files on behalf of his client with anybody.
And in many cases, lawyers and doctors deal with matters of life and death, which
architects seldom do. In most cases, chartered accountants deal with much more
money than most architects can ever dream of.
The standing of these professionals is judged by the quality of the service they provide
to their clients within the framework of their technical knowledge, professional ethics
and society's laws. And, if they ever violate these norms, which some do sometimes
willfully or otherwise, there are always higher forums available for redressal. Then,
why should it be any different for the architects and the engineers?
Building bye-laws are quite simple – where they are not, they can be made so. They
can be understood by the architects, even by most of the clients. In case of an
ambiguity, the matter can always be referred to the corporation for clarification.
Once, I had expressed this viewpoint to a flourishing architect friend, but he would not
buy the argument. Why some of the architects would like to continue with the existing
system, is of course another story.
MID DAY– 21 st August 1989
The eternal cycle
Books have become very expensive, so I generally buy them only when they appear in
paperback. Therefore, it was only recently that I read 'The Great Depression of 1990'
by Dr. Ravi Batra. In 1985, when the book first hit the stands in America, it was a
runaway success. Thousands of copies were sold. This is understandable as Americans
breathe money. Their economy is based on capital and millions of people invest their
life's savings in shares, so which way the share market will go, is a matter of life and
death for them.
But my interest in the book was somewhat different. One, I was inquisitive as to what
would happen to America because, I think, we all take a vicarious pleasure in
speculating the fall of the mighty. Secondly, we are always intrigued by the future. Be
it the concept of life after deathor what the stars foretell this week. Though most of us
do not believe or claim not to do so, I think most of us take a peek at the astrological
columns of the newspapers.
Dr. Batra's thesis of economic depression is based on a rather interesting theory of
laws of social cycles, first enunciated by Dr. P.C.Sarkar, which suggests that events do
not move in a linear direction, but historically reappear with some regularity. Now,
this will appeal to the Indian mind, as most of our beliefs are centered on this concept.
Combining the laws of social cycles with a historical study of American economy of
the past 200 years, Dr. Batra has concluded that economic depression is always
preceded by a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. According to him, that
was the case in the 1920s in the US, which resulted in the Great Depression of 1930.
Prior to it, great depressions occurred in the US in 1780, 1840 and 1870 under similar
conditions – at almost a regular interval of 60 years.
This theory of Dr. Batra provoked me to wonder if depressions or decay occur in other
fields of human endeavour as well, on undue concentration of power, wealth and
activity in the hands of a few. Of course, politics is the obvious example, where
concentration of power in the hands of a few, leads to autocracy, decay and anarchy,
but then, political power and economic power are closely connected. But, let us say,
could it happen to the arts, music and dance?
We know that India is rich in the arts and I think it is rich and vibrant because it is so
diverse. And this diversity comes because people have an opportunity to express
themselves through their art forms, in their own intimate environment, and in their
own ways. I do not think that this diversity is emphasized just because we are a large
country with varied physical conditions, but because, at least in villages and small
communities, the patronage is available. Art, handicrafts, music and dance are merely
forms of self expression. For their growth and enrichment is required freedom;
freedom from want and prejudice, the exact opposite of a concentration of means and
patronage in the hands of a few.
In this light, we must look afresh at our cultural institutions and programmes – at our
ministry of culture, the several academies, the recently established cultural centres and
the various cultural festivals. And also at our TV coverage, for the medium is there to
stay. Regional TV channels may be politically inconvenient, but, to my mind, they are
cultural imperatives, for who wants to be homogenized by Delhi Doordarshan! A
vibrant and rich art scene cannot be institutionalized or programmed.
MID DAY– 17 th February 1989
Things seem pretty messy!
India Today has gone through a slow and subtle change. Previously, it used to have a
cover story, a couple of special reports and quite a few pages covering current events.
But now, the number of pages covering current events has been considerably reduced
and instead, we get five to six in-depth reports under various headings. This is
understandable, because as a fortnightly, it is difficult to be topical with events moving
at a fast pace in today's world. But, what struck me about its latest issue (June 15) was
that it read like a chronicle of scandals with at least seven such reports :
Dereservation of 285 plots earmarked in Bombay's development plan for public
purposeslike schools, hospitals, parks and gardens, so that private parties could build
expensive housing, hotels and amusement parks to rake in crores.
• The then chief minister of Bihar, Mr. Bhagwat Jha Azad, decided to act against
co-operative mafias. Four of the accused were Congress (I) MPs and MLAs.
When the Bihar High Court formed a full bench to expedite the case, the
government accused two of the three judges of being interested parties. The
case has been going through other twists and turns and, with the general
elections round the corner, there is pressure on the ruling party to let the cooperative
mafias off the hook, as their fund-raising capacity is phenomenal.
• In 1968, the Indian Navy first considered the purchase of advanced
submarines. It took the government five years to initiate detailed studies. It
took another five years for the representatives of the navy to visit foreign
shipyards to examine various submarines. In 1979, the Union Cabinet gave its
approval in 'principle'. In 1981, a formal agreement was signed with the West
German firm, which was not the navy's first choice. And the estimated outlay
of 350 crore rupees went upto 430 crore and an estimated investment of 10
crore on the infrastructure at Mazgaon Docks exceeded 100 crore. Plus, the
charge that the blueprints of the submarines had been passed on to South
Africa in violation of the terms of the contract. And, someone raked in 30 crore
as commission on the deal!
• 'A poor choice of helicopter, insufficient number of pilots and inadequate
maintenance of infrastructure have contributed to make Pawan Hans one of the
most accident-prone helicopter operators in the world' – thus starts the report
on the Helicopter Corporation of India. In 1986, Westland helicopters were
first inducted into operation. Almost immediately, some of them were
grounded for engine failures. In one year of operation, the managing director
of the company reported 357 defects and 63 engine removals. And within two
years of its induction, the civil aviation ministry seriously considered
grounding the entire West land fleet. In early 80s, the Westland helicopter was
rejected as the worst of the four possible choices by a number of committees!
The corporation also has French Dauphins in its fleet. Six of them were meant
for the VIP squadron, but were not used for a single day. Instead, these were
cannibalized for parts to keep other Dauphins flying. Now with the elections
coming, orders have come to get the VIP squadron ready. It means
cannibalizing the fleet which flies to Bombay High to put parts in the VIP
• Vayudoot, between 1982-87, increased its turnover from 18 lakh rupees to
about 14 crores, its operating losses from 67 lakh to over 10 crores. It has
outstanding payments of about 14 crores, plus loans of about 45 crores. Of
course, Vayudoot's high-flying managing director will claim that he is in
business not to make money but to fly.
Here are some samples which the magazine terms as political routes. Within
six weeks of Motilal Vora becoming civil aviation minister, Bhopal was made
a base for planes. Since Bhopal had no infrastructure, a plane had to fly daily
to Delhi for maintenance. Soon after Bansi Lal became transport minister,
Hissar, a town near his constituency, was 'inaugurated' twice. When Shivaji
Patil took charge, a service was inaugurated to his constituency, but no planes
were available for flights for weeks after that. And Arun Nehru's constituency
was put on the Vayudoot map two days after Rajiv Gandhi's government was
sworn in. At times, it flew with no passengers! And it goes on.
• In Srinagar in 1986, the government ordered 907 acres of land to be earmarked
as a city forest. When Farooq Abdullah came to power, he decided that an
international golf course would be more appropriate. So, a fleet of bulldozers
are busy mowing down trees and flattening the ground. And the famous Dal
Lake is polluted by the filth coming out from the city's sewers.
Two-thirds of Nainital's sewage is dumped into its famed lake. In Mussoorie,
multi-storeyed concrete monoliths, including a 12 storeyed apartment complex,
have come up in total violation of the building byelaws. And the dreadful story
goes on and on.
• Last but not the least, 'Poison in your food!' Under a photograph of appetizing
food in a silver thali are these words. 'Indian food is laced with some of the
highest amounts of toxic pesticide residues in the world. Babies too are taking
large doses of these toxins through breast milk and from some infant food. As
a result, Indians face a higher risk of heart disease, brain and liver damage and
even cancer. Yet the usage of pesticides continues to grow.' Surely, the choice
before us is not whether we want to die of hunger or of eating?
Now, India Today is not Indian Express, which can be accused of being biased
towards the government and out to embarrass it. Nor is it a tabloid, which is out to
boost its circulation by bringing out sensational stories. The fortnightly is known for
its balanced and well-researched reports and if it can find seven stories, which amount
to scandals in a fortnight, things must be pretty messy. Or am I reading too much into
MID DAY– 2 nd June 1989
Sloth makes it worse
We often read about the rapid degeneration of our cities. We are repeatedly told how
hundreds of families migrate to Bombay everyday. That about half the population of
the city now lives in squatters and slums. And of the scarcity of public services and of
congestion on the roads. Statistical figures are given to drive home the points.
All this is of course true. But what we don’t talk often enough about is how all this is
compounded to an unbearable limit by the sloth and inefficiency with which we work
and act in our city. Let me give you a few examples.
There is a bus stop on a main road close to my flat. Every morning, I find the bus
stopping in the middle of the road. Scores of cars and three-wheelers come to a
screeching halt behind it, followed by a couple of double-deckers, within seconds.
Further down the road is a newly built school, bound by roads on two sides. Of the
three gates, the one closer to the road junction, where also happen to be two bus stops,
is used to drop and collect children. You can imagine the knots in which buses, cars
and scooters tie themselves in, morning, noon and evening.About 200 metres away is
a posh club recently built. It has roads on three sides, but the distinguished architect
decided to have the two gates to it, bang opposite the bus terminus. There is bedlam
there most of the day. Not far from it is a 5 star hotel, also recently built by yet another
distinguished architect for a public sector corporation. There is a single gate to it from
the narrow main road. During the recent 'Filmfare' function held there, there was a
mile long traffic jam for two hours!
Now, if the buses ply in our city at an average speed of 13 kmph, it is not so much
because of the hundreds of poor people who flock to it everyday, but because of our
While I am talking about traffic in our city, let me give you another illustration. In
non-peak hours, it takes me an hour and ten minutes to drive to Nariman Point from
my suburban office. The reason: That day, the president is visiting the city and the
police are not allowing any parking along the route. Now, will our learned traffic
commissioner tell us why? Why can't, what can be done for the first citizen of the
country, not be done for the thousands of ordinary citizens of the city?
In any well-organised city, people are on the move, mornings and evenings. During
the office hours, roads are practically deserted. But in our city, the roads are littered
with people all day. The reason: Some are on their way to seek a permission, which
should not have been necessary in the first place. Some are on the move with the
original of the permission, because the officer at the other end does not trust the Xerox
copy. Yet others are on foot to remind someone to open the file to look at the letter
sent weeks ago. The housewife is rushing to the gas agency because the cylinder has
not arrived in spite of three telephone reminders. Then of course, there is that
inevitable chase for the payments, which should have been made months ago. And, it
goes on and on, which prompted a management consultant to remark that we have a
thriving 'Follow-up' industry!
If we did not have such a thriving 'Follow-up' industry, one journey would have
sufficed where more than three are made now. Consequently, our trains and buses,
which carry 10 million passengers now, would carry only three. Queues would be
shorter, trains and buses less crowded, tempers less frayed. It would result in less
energy consumption, cleaner air and healthier life.
'Meetings' is another of our national penchants. I have often attended meetings, which
start with something like 'What do you think of VP Singh' and end with a cup of tea.
Whatever little gets done in between could have as well been sorted out by a telephone
call. But then, as a people, we like to feel each other's presence. The result is, a
meeting takes place where none was necessary. Three meetings take place where one
would have sufficed. But, none came prepared for the first meeting, and everyone
came only half prepared for the second one! One less meeting means at least half a
dozen less journeys.
So, instead of counting the increase in the number of cars since the Marutis hit the
roads, let us count the number of journeys which can be avoided.
I am often asked why New Bombay has not worked. The reason is simple. We only
succeeded in spreading the sloth and inefficiency across the creek and of the worse
kind. Employment in the area – practically nil. Educational and medical facilities –
worse. Public transport – a shame. And, the crying shame is the Thane creek bridge.
Instead of hiding behind generality and faceless figures, let us stop aiding and abetting
inefficiency, which is choking the life lines of our cities.
MID DAY– 3 rd February 1990
If there were no politics
Electioneering is on and the political leaders are in the news. I have often wondered
what these leaders would have been were they not in politics. Of course, Jawaharlal
Nehru was a learned man and had he not been in politics, he would easily have been a
leading barrister or a don at Cambridge. Certainly the vice-chancellor of Allahabad
University in its hey days. Sardar Patel would have been an advocate in the Supreme
Court, advocating in his booming voice, the cause of the poor. Dr. B.C.Roy would
have had a flourishing practice in Calcutta.
But C Rajagopalachari would certainly have been a politician, being the Chanakya that
he was, and if there was no politics around, he would have invented it! Lal Bahadur
Shastri, most probably, would have been a scholar at Kashi Vidya Peeth, exhorting his
students the virtues of simple living and high thinking.
Of our present breed of political leaders, I think A.B.Vajpayee would have been a
professor of Hindi in the Banaras Hindi University or a scholar of Sanskrit. L.K.
Advani would have been a jholawala journalist, probably editing a Hindi daily from a
place like Kanpur and Chandrashekhar, a professor of political science at Allahabad
University, reading out, year after year, from his frayed notebook, the same old lecture
on the historical imperatives of social change. I can't think what V.P. Singh would
have been doing. Maybe, just twiddling his thumb sitting in the verandah of his
dilapidated Aish Mahal in Allahabad.
And, of Indira Gandhi, one is sure that she would have been a plain housewife, a
mother and a grandmother, living in her Mehrauli farm house. And she would have
certainly been alive today because it was politics that killed her. And her son Sanjay
would have also been alive today, because the plane in which he killed himself is
presented only to the Prime Minister's sons. And if Indira Gandhi had not been in
politics, Rajiv Gandhi would still be flying with Airlines and what a blessing in
disguise that would have been for the country!
Talking about Prime Minister's sons reminds me of a story and it is a true one. In the
days of the emergency, Sanjay Gandhi wanted to organize a meet of his Youth
Congress. As civilian accommodation was not available at the proposed place of the
meet, the chief secretary of the state telephoned the army commander, saying that the
Prime Minister's son wanted to use the army barracks. The General growled back,
'Prime Ministers don't have sons, they have only ministers and secretaries. You mean
Indira Gandhi's son wants it. Sorry, the barracks are for my jawans' and he put the
I know Jawaharlal Nehru is coming out of our eyes and ears, but let the small acts of
small men not detract us from the great deeds of the great man that Jawaharlal Nehru
I was still in school when I first heard him speak on the grounds of Allahabad
University. Soon after he began to speak, it started to drizzle and one of his attendants
came forward with an umbrella. Nehru waved him away with a royal movement of his
hand. After the speech, when he got into his car, it was surrounded by delirious
students shouting 'Jawaharlal Nehru zindabad, Jawaharlal Nehru zindabad' and it
couldn't move out. A few minutes later, a red-faced Nehru jumped out of the car like
an angry tiger and shouted, 'What nonsense is this'. There was pin drop silence all
around. Students instinctively made way for his car. It moved out amidst renewed
chants of 'Nehru zindabad, Nehru zindabad!' Such was his hold on the masses.
It was years later that I had the opportunity of hearing him again, when he came to
address one of the convocations at I.I.T.Kharagpur. By then, India had become used to
his being the Prime Minister and I guess Nehru had become used to being the Prime
Minister of India. The roads were repaired, lamp posts were painted, buildings were
white-washed and new gardens were created instantly. Nehru came and gave a
meandering speech (those were not the days of speech writers and readers) about
science and industrialization; how the future of the country rests on our (then) young
shoulders. After the convocation speech, he briskly walked from one laboratory to
another, followed by professors and hordes of us students (those were not the days of
black cats either) showing keen interest in what was being done. The atmosphere was
electrifying and one could feel the excitement in the bones.
A few years later, it was in London, that a liberal, middle-class English man – a
colleague of mine, broke the news of his death. He seemed sadder than I was. The
hallmark of the greatness of a man iswhen he can move ordinary people seven seas
across. And Jawaharlal Nehru was one such man.
And, if I had anything to do with his centenary celebrations, I would have done just
one thing. Declare the rose as the national flower and let its fragrance spread the ideals
for which Jawaharlal Nehru worked all his life.
MID DAY– 23 rd November 1989
Petty lies and small misdemeanours
Let me add my hoarse voice to the boom of Bofors.
Much has been said and written about it, and the truth is still eluding us. Whatever
may be the truth, the popular perception in the minds of the people is that there has
been a concerted attempt at a cover up and half truths have been bandied around to
deflect public attention from the central question of who got away with the Rs. 64
Now, with the CAG report and General Sunderji's disclosures, only a die-hard partisan
will believe otherwise, and in any case, in matters of public affairs, it is the popular
perception that counts.
In the past, politicians and bureaucrats have suffered public ignominy for much
smaller misdemeanours and much lesser lies. In the early sixties, in England, Mr.
Profumo, then Minister of Defence in the McMillan cabinet had to resign because he
had denied, in Parliament, his involvement in a sex scandal, which, later on, was
proven to be untrue.
No direct connection was ever established between his sexual escapades and the
national security and no money changed hands. But, the fact that a cabinet minister
told a lie in the parliament was enough to destroy his credibility and that of the
McMillan government.Mr.Profumo resigned, left politics forever and plunged himself
in charitable work as penance. In the next general elections, the Conservatives lost.
In the early seventies, in the United States, the famous Watergate scandal was about a
petty theft of some innocuous campaign papers of the Democratic Party. The dirty
trick was carried out by a lowly minion of the Republican Party. It was not done at the
instance of the Republican administration, state secrets were not involved and no
money had changed hands.
President Nixon's sin was that when the matter was brought to his notice, he advised to
put a lid on it, to avoid political embarrassment in an election year. And later, on
questioning, denied to having so advised. When the truth emerged, he had to resign,
creating the dubious history of being the first ever US President to leave in disgrace.
Many of his cabinet and staff members were convicted. Gerald Ford, an honest and
upright Republican, who succeeded Nixon as the stop gap President, lost the election
to the Democrat.
The problem with small misdemeanours and petty lies is that it erodes the credibility
of not just the persons involved and their offices, but also of the society and the nation
A couple of years ago, whenever I read or heard of Japan, the names of Honda and
Sony came to mind and one was awed by their industrial progress. But since the
scandals broke out, forcing three successive Japanese prime ministers to resign in
disgrace, I am increasingly less impressed with the GNP. As we form impressions of
other countries, others do of our country.
It is not Rajiv Gandhi who is in a bind, it is the country which finds itself in a bind.
Mohan Katre, the CBI director tells India Today that when his daughter-in-law was
upset answering the calls, he asked his DIG to send a peon to man the phone. Using
government servants and public money for private use. Yet another example of small
And, three cheers to the Board of Control for Cricket in India for lifting the ban on the
cricketers on receiving their statement of regret. The world knows that the Supreme
Court twisted the arms of the Board for being monopolistic and arbitrary. Yet, another
example of petty lies.
MID DAY– 18 th September 1989
Kick out sports' bodies!
Well, we have done it again! Lost in soccer to a club team from Brazil, three games to
nil. Lost the Indira Gandhi Memorial Gold Cup Hockey – placed third, beating lowly
Kenya. And, we are at the bottom of the table in Nehru Soccer, now being played in
And if we get a thrashing against the West Indies, we should be able to take the
humiliation in our stride, for we will be playing against the kings of cricket, who have
thrashed everyone else in the world. So meagre are our consolations.
Understandably, sports' persons will feel dejected, sports' lovers despondent, sports'
critics will bitch as usual and there may be muffled noises in parliament too. But, do
we really care for sports?
In Delhi, when we built the stadium for the Asiads, we named it after Jawaharlal
Nehru. There, we also have an Ambedkar stadium and a Shivaji stadium. In Madras,
we have a Chidambaram stadium, in Bangalore, a Chinnaswami stadium, in Bombay,
a Wankhede stadium and in Hyderabad, a Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium. Not one
stadium is named after a sports' person.
Now, Nehru was a great man and if Bharat was to be called Jawahar, I would still
consider myself a proud citizen of this country. But to name a hunk of concrete after
his memory is pure blasphemy. And the only connection I can see between Lal
Bahadur Shastri and cricket is that he was as short as Gavaskar and like Gavaskar, he
also played straight!
Then, we have tournaments named after our politicians as well. Sanjay Gandhi
Hockey, Indira Gandhi Hockey, Nehru Soccer… Now, the kinds of games Sanjay
Gandhi played were certainly a topic of Delhi's drawing room gossip and the only
stick which Indira Gandhi ever wielded, was against her political foes.
I can't think of a single sports person, who has been inspired by their acts. It is only in
cricket that we have Ranji and Duleep trophy tournaments: Is it a coincidence that we
appear to do better in cricket than in any other game?
And since the stadiums and tournaments can be named only after dead politicians, so
the living ones find their way into sports organizations. The Maharajah of Scindia is
the Vice-President of the Cricket Control Board, Mr. Jagdish Tytler, Vice-president
(judo), Indian Olympic Association, Mr KP Singh Deo, vice-president (rowing),
Indiam Olympic Association and Mr. Das Munshi, president, Indian Football
In addition, we have Margaret Alva as our sports minister, and with the experience of
Asiad behind Buta Singh and Rajiv Gandhi, we should have the most sporting cabinet
in the world.
If we can't have a stadium after our sports persons, can't name a tournament after them
and can't trust them with running sports organizations, why blame them for
performing so poorly for the country?
In my view, radical measures are required. Abolish the sports ministry and abolish
most of the sports organizations, which are the hot bed of politics. Abolish coaching
and conditioning camps and put a ban on building stadiums. What we have to do is to
learn to enjoy playing the game.
We should take over all the empty plots of land, convert them into playfields and start
playing football, if necessary with empty cardboard boxes, start playing hockey with
dried branches of trees and cricket with soft balls, as most youngsters do on deserted
roads during the bandh days. After all, Dhyan Chand perfected dribbling, playing with
a ball honed out of a stone and Gavaskar perfected his straight drives playing in a
I am sure that if we enjoy playing, we will win. The Caribbean cricketers are an
excellent example of this. They enjoy their game and they win all the time. In all kinds
of conditions, against all kinds of teams, even against all kinds of umpires! And if
even after all this, we don't win, we will not feel so despondent because we would
have enjoyed the mere act of playing in the first place.
By the way, 'Kick-off with Bagpiper' is a logo I see very often associated with sports.
We know what kind of kick they are interested in! I know games need promotion, but
the kind of companies which come forward are the ones who make cigarettes and
I can't believe that smokers and tipplers will make the best sports people. May be Dr.
Kurien of Amul will take note and start promoting sports.
MID DAY– 3 rd February 1989
'Kursi', the only concern
VP Singh became the leader of the National Front parliamentary party as was
expected. But, was he elected, selected or deflected by an ungainly reverse flick
executed by Tau Devi Lal, when many of VP's supporters had expected him to play a
Indian Express, the likes of Vinod Mehta and many of the detractors of Chandra
Shekhar, are entitled to their glee at this discomfiture of finding himself run out by a
direct throw from Ajit Singh hiding amongst the spectators. But, it certainly was not
cricket as was once played by the gentlemen!
Before I get carried away with the cricketing analogies, let me make the point. And the
point is that elections held in broad daylight where men and women of convictions
stand and be counted is the very essence of democratic functioning. Therefore, VP's
insistence that he be elected unanimously was hard to understand. More so, coming
from a person who rightly asserts that unity should not become the tombstone of
democracy! And, Chandra Shekhar's stance 'he is a candidate; he is not a candidate;,
was neither here nor there.
Now, remember what happened in the run of UP chief ministership. Out of nowhere,
Ajit Singh jumped into the fray. In the true Congress tradition, central observers were
sent to Lucknow. Some sort of election took place. Ajit Singh asserted, he lost by 5
votes, Mulayam Singh claimed he won by 35 votes and Madhu Dandavate disclaims
that any elections took place. Now, why are we so coy about elections?
Compare this with what recently happened in England. Anthony Meyer, a back
bencher, challenged Ms Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative
Party. Elections took place. (Conservative MPs vote annually on their leader). Meyer
got 33 votes, Margaret Thatcher 314 votes and there were some abstentions. No one
accused Mr. Meyer of being a dissident, a party breaker or a pretender to the throne.
The reason for this was that Meyer stood for a united Europe without reservations,
while Thatcher stood for a united Europe with some reservations. And, the votes
which Margaret Thatcher failed to get, was seen as some opposition to her policies.
Now, this is the vital difference between the functioning of matured democracies of
the west and our fledging one. There, ideas and issues are articulated, debated and
discussed. Here, in our system, they are kept under wrap.
I cannot believe that experienced political leaders like VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar
do not have political ideas and convictions. But, whatever they have, they keep so
close to their chests that people, media included, cannot be blamed for believing that
most of our political leaders stand for nothing else but the kursi.
VP Singh's one liners, exhorting people to cancel the license of Rajiv Gandhi to rule
enthralled his supporters and perhaps, got him some votes, but it did not help the cause
of any meaningful debate. Nor did his first press conference as the prime minister
show much promise. Since he insists that the country's polity has moved from politics
of personalities to politics of issues, let us hope ideas and debates will flourish under
the new dispensation.
And, Chandra Shekhar should get out of his hibernation to tell the country where it
should stand on various issues. It is not for us to tell him that his mentors like Ashok
Mehta, Acharya Narendra Dev and Jai Prakash were known for their ideas about the
society and not for any positions they had held in the party or the government.
MID DAY– 27 th December 1989
Design for what?
Knife, Axe and Mechanical Saw
A triple-edged question…
The difference between the knife, the axe and the mechanical saw lies, not only in
their design or in the varying uses to which they are put, but more significantly, in the
relationship which these tools have had with Man – the designer, the producer and the
In primitive times, we built shelters to protect ourselves from a hostile environment,
designed tools to increase our resources, and developed languages to communicate
with one another. Every design was born from a genuine physical need.
The edge of a piece of hard metal was sharpened to make a knife so that food could be
cut into chunks small enough to be put in the mouth and chewed. Later, an axe was
developed to chop branches off trees, a job which the knife could not do. And as time
progressed and our greed for 'more' increased, the mechanical saw was developed to
fell whole forests. Designs for all these tools resulted from conscious efforts to
increase our material wealth.
The primitive knife was designed, produced and used by one man. The functions of a
designer, manufacturer and user were rolled into one person. If the knife did not
function well or needed a sharper edge or a pointed end, it was re-shaped on a piece of
stone till the desired result was produced. The feedback was instant. There was no
chance for a communication gap between the user and the designer to develop. The
designer had full knowledge of the production methods and consequently of their
limitations and potential. In short, one man had total control.
The axe was designed and produced by the village blacksmith for use by the local
villagers. If the villagers wanted a bigger or heavier axe, they told the blacksmith of
their need. Depending upon the availability of materials, the blacksmith tried to satisfy
the requirements of the villagers to the extent possible. Since he could not satisfy the
requirement of each and every user, he designed and produced a range of axes, which
would satisfy most of the requirements of most of the users.
The three functions of designer, manufacturer and user, which, in the case of the knife
were rolled into one, were now split into two – the manufacturer and the user. And it
may be presumed that while the blacksmith had total control over production and the
user over its use, the role of the designer was shared by both. The blacksmith provided
design input from the point of view of manufacturing and the user from the point of
view of function. Thus, the design of an axe was the product of shared experiences.
Total control by one person over design, production and use was no longer present,
but operations were still within the limits of personal management.
Designing the mechanical saw requires specialized training and sophisticated methods.
Its production involves special metals and elaborate fabrication and testing facilities.
The product itself is so sophisticated, that the user has to take special training in order
to handle and maintain it properly. The three functions of design, production and use,
in the case of the mechanical saw, have become totally separated and are being
performed by three specialized groups which never meet each other. In order to
achieve communication among the three interdependent groups, elaborate systems of
communication have to be developed.
The total control which one man had in the case of the knife, and which was split into
two in the case of the axe, has been further fragmented into three. Furthermore, since
the design, production and use functions spread far beyond the limits of the
manageable ambit of a village, as in the case of an axe, communication among the
three interdependent parties has become less frequent, more time consuming and more
prone to distortion.
Thus, it will be seen that as products become more complex and their operations
larger, relationships among designers, producers and users become fragile. The
smallest communication gap causes designers to design what producers cannot
produce, manufacturers to produce what users cannot use, and users to use products in
ways for which they were not designed. Naturally, the question then arises, 'Design for
what?' Perhaps, the answer lies not in improving designs, but in re-establishing the
relationship between man and his products, between man and man.
Do we need Japanese help to think?
About 12 years ago, I got myself a new Padmini. For the first six months, I drove it
very properly. Looked in the rear-view mirror, gave the left indicator signal before
turning left, gave the right indicator signal before turning right and while stopping at
traffic lights, engaged the neutral gear and pulled up the handbrake.
But, within six months, as the bulbs started fusing and the handbrake cable began to
loosen, my driving degenerated. I would hardly care to look in the rear-view mirror,
gave hand signals only when absolutely necessary and while stopping at traffic lights
or parking, I would keep the car in gear.
Even when the car came back from the garage after periodic servicing, with the
handbrake cable adjusted and the fused bulbs replaced, I would use them only for the
first few days, as somehow, I had lost faith in the system.
Four years back, when I got myself a Maruti, it took me about a week to get back into
the proper mode of driving, looking in the rearview mirror, giving the indicator signals
before turning, flashing the headlights to overtake and at traffic lights, putting the car
in the neutral gear and pulling up the handbrake. I must say that this habit has
remained with me for the last four years. And I observe other Maruti drivers also,
using the indicator signals and flashing the headlights to pass other cars, though
perhaps a few times too often.
Recently, I was being driven in a Maruti van by a rustic driver in the countryside of
Gujarat and I was pleasantly surprised that he too used his indicator signals so much
that when the road curved, he would indicate whether he was going on to the left or
the right curve. And when he wanted to stop by the roadside, he looked into the
rearview mirror, gave the left hand signal, stopped the car, put the gear in the neutral,
pulled the handbrake and put the flasher lights.
The point of this narration is that use of improved and sophisticated technology can be
easily assimilated by the urbane and literate as well as rustic and illiterate and
consequently, it improves the system all round.
Therefore, it comes as an unpleasant surprise that the thousands of three-wheeler autorickshaws,
which are on the Bombay roads, do not have indicator lights, do not have
high or low beams; in fact, their headlights are so weak that one can hardly see
anything in them, don't even have a number plate light and the rearview mirrors are
optional extra! Now Bajaj Auto are the world's biggest manufacturers of threewheelers
and they can't even advance an excuse that they don't possess the required
technology because they also make Kawasaki-Bajaj motorcycles, which have the
rearview mirrors, the indicator lights, the low and high beams and the number plate
lights - the works.
You must have also noticed that most three-wheelers have a thin steel strip across the
right-hand gate to prevent passengers from getting off on the traffic side. Now, this
says something about the ingenuity and resourcefulness of their owner-drivers, but not
much about the calibre of thinking of scores of MBAs and M Techs, who must be
responsible for their manufacture and marketing.
Recently, I read about a small Japanese car, which had both the passenger doors on the
left side. Please, do not tell me that we need a Japanese collaboration to think as well!
You might have also noticed many of the new model Marutis are bashed in at the rear.
And, the reason is that the two number-plate lights project out almost as much as the
back bumper. Slight impact at the rear caves in the dicky door. Here is a chance for
Indian engineers to improve upon the original Japanese design!
MID DAY – 3 rd March 1989
We all know that every year, thousands of people are killed in England in road
accidents, but what, perhaps, is not so well-known is that even more people die from
accidents in their own homes and many more get seriously injured. I doubt if
comparable figures are available for our country, but I strongly suspect that people
dying or getting seriously injured in accidents in our homes must be much higher than
on our roads. The reasons are simple. Compared to western countries, we have more
homes and less cars. And we care so little while designing and maintaining our
buildings to avoid accidents.
Decades ago, in England, a toddler fell through the balcony of a multistoreyed
building. The cause was that the banisters of the balcony railing were spaced at 15
centimetres, a gap large enough for a young child to pass through. After the public
outcry – in England, such incidents invariably invite public indignation – it was made
mandatory to have banisters no more than 9 cms apart. And, there are many do's and
don'ts to prevent such tragedies.
A majority of home accidents take place in the kitchens. So, simple precautions are
suggested. Like, avoid movement in the work area to reduce the risk of collisions;
counter surface on each side of the cooker lessens the risk of projecting saucepan
handles; place storage shelves at easily reachable heights to avoid falling over. And,
never fix a cupboard directly over the cooker.
Bathrooms are equally accident-prone. And, again the precautions are simple. No
electrical outlets, as they are particularly dangerous when the body is wet. A non-slip
floor is an absolute must in a place which is bound to get wet, and bolts on bathroom
doors should be openable from the outside in an emergency.
There are other precautions to take as well. Open stairwells are a potential danger. So,
it is best to avoid them. Children invariably play on the stairs. Balcony railings should
not only be safe, but must feel safe as well, to prevent people suffering from vertigo,
from falling over. A shallow pond can be a danger to young children. Many drown in
them every year. The doormat should be flush with the floor.
Now, the next time you enter someone's garden, or climb the stairs of a building, or
get into your kitchen or bath, just observe what precautions have been taken.
I know of a family who lost a young child in the lily pond of their newly laid garden. I
know of another family who lost their young daughter, when she fell through the
balcony. I also know of an elderly woman who broke her hip bone, slipping on a silly
step leading to her kitchen. A couple of years ago, there was a mild hue and cry when
a young boy playing in the forecourt of a multistoreyed building was hit by an object
falling from one of the upper floors and died instantaneously.
And one sees so many women of lower working class with burn scars. I doubt if all of
them are cases of bride burning. But who cares to design a primus stove which will not
easily tip over? As a society, we do precious little to avert such avoidable tragedies. In
our midst, everything is dear, except dear life.
MID DAY– 16 th October 1989
Travails of train travel
Even before the Indian Airlines became chaotic in the past few months, I had always
preferred to travel by train. Travelling by train gives you time to relax, sleep, read a
book or just brood. First class AC is an absolute luxury for me, especially when my
clients pay the fares. When I have to pay, I prefer to travel second class AC, which is
so far quite comfortable.
The compartments are new and relatively clean. The AC usually works. And if the copassengers
do not play cards late in the night or are not a young couple with a howling
child, the journey can be quite enjoyable.
Recently, I happened to travel to Lucknow by the superfast train. An eventful one,
fortunately, at least till the train approached Lucknow. When I was all set to get off,
the train stopped at a small station called Amousi, about 20 Kms from Lucknow. At
first, I did not take notice of this – one gets used to it travelling by trains. But when it
was over half an hour, I got out to enquire but nobody really knew the cause. In the
compartment, people started speculating. 'A rail roko', 'No, an accident'…. And so on.
The train started an hour later but stopped again for about half an hour at the outer
signal of Lucknow station. Finally, we reached Lucknow an hour and a half late.
In Japan now, whenever a superfast train runs late, the surcharge is refunded to the
passengers. Of course, we know why such a system is not followed in India.
The next day, I saw a quarter page advertisement in the National Herald, inserted by
the North-Eastern Railway, apologizing to the public for the delayed arrivals and
departures of Lucknow trains. It said that they were in the process of computerizing
the signaling system and it would take another two to three weeks to set things right.
Now, that was very thoughtful of the Railways, but I wonder why they didn't
announce it on the public address system at Kanpur, warning the passengers of the
likely delay or ask the station master at Amousi station to inform the passengers of the
reasons for the delay.
The open secret of that quarter page advertisement in the National Herald is that,
except for the public sector organizations, nobody else advertises in the paper and in
the Nehru Centenary year, Nehru's paper has to be financed somehow, even if it means
spending the taxpayer's money.
After a week, I was returning to Bombay. I expected the journey to be uneventful. But
it was not to be so. I had a computerized ticket issued from Bombay VT. As soon as I
got into the train and occupied my berth, the conductor checked my ticket and said
that my berth number was 45 and not 3 as indicated on my ticket. I protested, but he
was not impressed. 'It is not on my chart', he said, 'This is the Kanpur quota. The
return quota is number 45, 46 and 47'.
I reluctantly moved, protesting and asking for the complaint book. When the
conductor came to check my ticket again, I reminded him of the complaint book. He
settled down beside me and went on to explain, at length, his difficulties. He said that
Bombay VT had taken no notice of his advice that the return journey quota berths are
45, 46 and 47 and not 1, 2, 3 and 4. He asked to be considered my younger brother and
be forgiven. Now, we Indians melt at these words and I let him off.
But the thought of not insisting on the complaint book nagged me all through the
journey. I know the virtues of tolerance and forgiveness, but I also know that, unless
we become a little more intolerant of the inefficiency and shoddiness around us, things
will not improve. And what better place to begin with than our own little offices and
MID DAY– 31 st March 1989
Black is not so beautiful
Some time back, I saw an advertisement of an international airline enticing tourists to
Bangkok with a beautiful photograph of hordes of multi-coloured umbrellas.
Juxtaposed was a photograph of black-coloured umbrellas – the subtle suggestion,
being that while other cities are grey and dull, Bangkok is colourful and lively.
This set me to observe what it was like in Bombay. The monsoons had just set in and I
had gone to a departmental store. I noticed that about 60 per cent of the umbrellas for
sale were black and about 40 per cent were coloured. About half of the coloured ones
were brown, grey and blue and the rest were in bright colours of red, yellow and
Soon after, on a rainy day, I happened to pass a bus stop near a school. The school had
just closed and students and their guardians were waiting for the bus in the pouring
rain with their umbrellas and rainwear. What I saw confirmed what I had seen earlier
in the departmental store that black, dull greys and browns dominate over the bright
and the multi-coloured.
And this set me to wonder why, in a country where black is not beautiful, we have so
many black and dull umbrellas and rainwear. Inherited aesthetic sense apart, black is a
colour which absorbs heat, and therefore, is ill-suited. Purely from the point of view of
comfort, white or light colours reflect light and heat and are more suited to our
I may be wrong, but I have a strong suspicion that we inherited the black umbrellas
from the British. And if Bangkok is full of multi-coloured umbrellas, it is because
Thailand was ruled by the French!
And I think we inherited not only the black umbrellas from the British, but also black
taxis, black gowns of judges and lawyers and the black coats of the railway staff.
Now, the black coats of the railway staff made some sense in the days of the steam
engines and coal dust. But with the electrification of the railways, it surely calls for a
change. Similarly, gowns of judges and lawyers must be changed to something more
suited to our climate and cultural ethos. White is what we associate with purity and
And, why insist that all taxis be painted black? If it is just to distinguish them from
private cars, it can be easily done by putting a colourful strip across or having a
coloured number plate. Taxis of different colours will certainly make our roads look
that much livelier. And just imagine thousands of three-wheelers of different colours
zipping across like butterflies rather than like cockroaches as they appear now.
And talking about colour on the roads, I have often wondered why the authorities
decided to put metal barricades on road dividers. Kilometre after kilometer of the
same monotonous design which is poor in aesthetics and construction. The same
purpose could have been so wonderfully served by having flower beds as is being
done along Marine Drive. And imagine different coloured flowers blooming in
different seasons. Kilometre after kilometer of roads all over the city.
When one goes out to the countryside, especially during the monsoon, one is struck by
the colour all around. I know, cities will never be as colourful as the countryside, but
they need not be as dull as they tend to be now. Take care of the small things and the
cumulative effect will make a big difference.
MID DAY– 7 th August 1989
Mourning in the morning
It was not just last Sunday and its not just The Times of India. Every morning, day
after day, all the newspapers bring us gloomy stories of corruption, deceit, agitations,
of accidents, murder and rape.
I will leave it to psychoanalysts to tell us what this does to our collective psyche. But I
have a strong suspicion that this subtle never-ending assault on our sensibilities numbs
our senses and after a while, ceases to move us. After all, how much can the mind
take? In due course, we become cynical and on reading about a new case of corruption
saying 'Chalta hai' and on seeing another photograph of murder, say 'well, it is all a
part of life'.And if the world is really so gloomy, why do we wish to live and enjoy our
lives in this world?
Write about gloomy happening by all means, if they do occur, but present them in
proper proportion and perspective. After all, we laugh more than we cry, so why not
tell us about some funny things which happened the previous day? And surely, there
are more births than murders. Why not have pictures of proud parents beaming at a
new born, rather than of relatives grieving over a mutilated body. Surely, more people
make love the night before than commit rape, so why not give tender stories of people
who find joy and happiness in each other's arms. More flowers bloom every morning
than trees felled the previous day. So, why this gloom morning after morning?
The same Sunday as the above cuttings, I found one news report, which cheered me no
end. It said : Global fusion power in a century 'inevitable' – WASHINGTON, (AP).
The year is 2089 and fusion power plants are energizing the world, bringing the
benefits of virtually unlimited electricity to countries everywhere.
Earth's sky has slowly returned to its normal crystalline blue, purged of the pollutants
that soured the atmosphere a century before, when fossil fuels were civilization's main
energy source.Life is returning to lakes and streams, that previously were acid-filled.
Concerns about acid rain and the global warming trend called the 'greenhouse effect'
are now only academic curiosities.
Such is the world that scientists and engineers envision with the advent of fusion, the
process by which atoms are fused together to release energy.
This exception just goes to prove that there are cheerful happenings in the world, only
the newspapers must bring them to us every morning.
MID DAY– 26 th May 1989
Make directories functional
Recently, Bombay Telephones had invited designs for the cover of the new telephone
directory. I am not too good at graphic design, so I have not sent in an entry, but I do
venture to make a few suggestions.
I can think of three functions which the cover of a book or directory serves. One, it
keeps the inside pages together; two, it tells the interested, at a glance what the inside
pages are all about and three, it attempts to wean the interested away from the other
If one looks at the cover of the present telephone directory, one would notice that it
holds the inside pages together well. Directories are used very roughly and I have yet
to see a copy which was falling apart. It also conveys well that it is a telephone
directory, if anything, a bit too loudly. The chance that it can be confused for anything
else is remote. But the illustration on the cover showing a folded map of Bombay held
together by a telephone is totally unnecessary and wholly avoidable.
A cover is a handy space and therefore valuable, which should be used to provide
useful information. If I were to design the telephone directory, I would reduce the size
of the typeface which proclaims 'Bombay Telephone Directory 1988'. The message
can be conveyed in a more modest manner. I would make the size of the typeface of
emergency telephone numbers big and bold so that in emergencies, one does not have
to search for spectacles to check the telephone numbers.
And, I would scrap the illustration and put in its place, the telephone numbers of
public utilities like hospitals, ambulance, railway and airline enquiries etc. In other
words make it more functional. And all this can be done in an attractive manner using
different colours to highlight the important from the less important.
Similarly, the back cover is a valuable space. I do not know what most people look for
in a telephone directory, perhaps the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL)
should carry out a survey, but I am always looking for STD codes. And I would put on
the back cover, STD codes at least of those cities which are most used.
And between the covers, there is lot which is superfluous. To start with, the letter from
the general manager 'presenting' the directory, and how many subscribers are
interested in knowing the organizational structure of MTNL? Then there are two pages
with 58 columns for keeping record of inspection of telephones. That pre-supposes
once a week visit of the telephone inspectors. Surely, MTNL has more confidence in
their system! And then there are three pages with over 100 columns for subscribers to
jot down frequently called numbers. I wonder how many jot down frequently called
numbers in the telephone directory and how many call 100 telephone numbers
One thing which the present directory gives very well is the information regarding
international subscriber dialing. It gives the country code and city codes and also the
time difference and graphically explains the sequence of various codes to be dialed
and is supported by a world map showing the international time zones. But, I will not
mix it up with organizations and commercial information.With STD becoming
increasingly popular, I would add a section giving telephone numbers of important
public utilities of other metro cities.
Similarly, I would also have a section in which subscribers from other metros could
insert their telephone numbers. This should be popular with hotels, travel agents, carrental
agencies, even some multi-national companies and large corporations.
And lastly, I would suggest that the directories should not be 'presented' but sold at a
nominal charge to the subscribers. It is not so much to raise additional resources for
the MTNL but to avoid waste. Look at it this way. Most offices have more than one
telephone, so do many homes. And the system of distributing directories for each
telephone connection is wasteful, as all the directories do not get used.
Only the other day, I saw a set of directories lying in a corner on the floor of an office
which looked fresh and untouched. I do not remember having used in the past six
months even once the telephone directory at my home. In my small office, it does get
used, but more often to check addresses and pin codes than to find out the telephone
numbers. If I had to pay, I would buy just one set for the office. The 2,940 pages adds
up to a lot of paper, which could be well used for printing scores of text books.
MID DAY – 25 th July 1989
Who needs Pepsi Cola?
I have read of many reasons for which Pepsi Cola should not be allowed in the
country. But my reason is a more basic one. I just don't think we should export food to
the outside world. Yes, we have licked the problem of starvation and widespread
famine, but there are still millions of our people who go to bed half-starved or if you
We know there is no absolute surplus of food. Yes, there is a relative one, because we
do not have a proper distribution system and the perishable food does not reach the
people who need it in time and at prices people can afford. So, if the food rots, it is not
a sufficient reason for us to export it. Instead, we should try to reach it to the people at
prices most can afford.
Remember, a decade ago, when the market of the Gulf countries opened up and we
started exporting meat, fruits and vegetables, the prices of these items went up in the
domestic market. And even for many of the middle class families, a good dish of
chicken or mutton became a treat for special occasions. And, I am not even talking of
the famous Alphonso mangoes or basmati rice, though I do not see why we should be
denied indulgence into these small luxuries.
Another point, when prices of the better varieties go up, the costs of lesser varieties
creep up and in the end, it is the very poor who pay by denying themselves the very
Now, I am not against import of technology per se, provided it helps the very needy. If
Pepsi Cola or someone else has got a technology of, let's say, mixing potato powder
with soya bean flour, packing it for the needy in the villages, who do not get enough
protein, yes, by all means, import the technology. But, to export potato chips for the
rich and to import Pepsi Cola concentrate for the poor, makes no sense. And, if
someone thinks we are surplus in potatoes, let me give you a few figures. In India, per
capita availability of potatoes is of 16.5 kg, which is only one-fourth of the global
figure of 62.8 kg. And in Poland, it is 982 kg per capita per year!
And who needs the colas anyway? In our country, we have a vast selection of cold
drinks, lassi and mattas. We have various kinds of sherbets. Every household has
sugar, salt and lemon readily available. What more does one need to make a cold
drink? Potable water. That's what most of the households do not have – and after 40
years of independence. How sad!
Many other arguments are given in favour of the project. It will create 50,000 jobs,
provide employment to the 'misguided' youth of Punjab, earn foreign exchange etc.
But it is only a thin end of the wedge. Already, one can see that Godrej is talking to
Coca Cola to get into India and Zuari Agro is thinking of exporting tomato ketchup,
tomato puree and other canned food.
To me, it is not a question of a cola. It is a question of a culture.
See the ad. We now make toothpicks with foreign knowhow. Guess, if an American
cola cork ever gets stuck between the teeth, we can always depend on the West
German technology to push it out.
MID DAY– 21 st December 1988
Perks should be banned
Our national flag carrier – Air India – is once again passing through turbulence. The
reason this time is that the management has decided to deprive some of its employees
from travelling first class. Travelling first class for the senior employees with their
families was a perk which was given to them.
Now, in our country, perks are really a racket. Air India employees can travel at a
concessional rate in first class or economy class according to their status. They can
even get a discount on travels on Indian Airlines. And, I guess Indian Airlines staff
can do likewise on Air India. We know that in railways, mostly it is the railway staff
and their families who travel in the first class. Bank employees can get loans at
nominal interest as if the money belonged to their forefathers. It is like my claiming a
flat in every building I design! But then, I am self-employed. Perks are an anarchist
practice, which has turned into a racket in organized sectors, both public and private,
but that is another story.
Someone I know runs two multi-crore plants in India. He lives in a three bedroom
house on one of the plant sites and his house is similar to the ones in which ten other
colleagues of his live. When he gets to the other plant site, he lives in a 10' x 15' room
in the company guest house. He washes his own clothes, he polishes his own shoes, he
dines in the same dining room as the others. And he runs the two plants like an
autocrat and spins money for his group. Not a telex message flutters the two
companies without his knowledge.
The question is, how come he can function like an autocrat. It is simply this, that even
when he takes decisions which are inconvenient to his colleagues and subordinates,
they understand and appreciate the fairness of his stand, for he denies to himself first
what he denies to others later.
If Air India and such establishments were to take a leaf from this example, and I am
sure this is not the only one in India, they would not be in such a mess. But what the
directors have done, they have kept the privilege of travelling first class for themselves
while denying it to the others. Understandably, the others don't accept it.
Yes, it is good for the MD to be a whiz kid – it helps, but it is more important for him
to have the moral authority to lead his colleagues and to command his subordinates.
That obviously is absent. Otherwise, Air India wouldn't have been passing through this
turbulence now and then.
I wonder why the directors of Air India couldn’t decide to travel economy class
themselves and thus set an example for their colleagues and staff. Or they thought, that
not having champagne one night will give them constipation the next morning! And
why not abolish the first class altogether? After all, there are only 16 seats, for which
the quarrel is. When airbuses were first introduced in the Indian Airlines, there used to
be only one class, but soon they introduced an executive class. What for, one does not
know. Perhaps, because some who consider themselves VIPs do not like to travel with
We create classes where none exist and then wonder why the system does not work.
MID DAY– 30 th November 1988
The clock is indispensable
Lewis Mumford was an American sociologist and city planner, whose lifelong interest
was in understanding the cause and effect relationship between cultural attitudes and
technology. That is how some cultural attitudes in the western society gave rise to
certain technologies, which in turn, effected the cultural attitudes, indeed the whole
life pattern of the society.
He wrote several books, including 'The Culture of Cities'and'The Conditions of Man'.
But perhaps his most seminal work is 'Technics and Civilization' written in 1932,
which still holds tremendous relevance, for it deals with the very basic issues involved
in the embiotic relationship between man and machine. And what fascinates me most
in this book is a brief chapter called The Monastery and the Clock.
According to Mumford, it is the clock and not the steam engine, which is the key
machine of the modern industrial age. And it all began in the monasteries of the West,
where the desire for order and power first manifested itself after a long uncertainty and
confusion,that followed the breakdown of the Roman Empire. To enforce order, it was
decreed that the bells of the monastery be rung seven times in the twenty fours to
punctuate the seven periods of devotion of the day. The monastery became the seat of
a regular life. The habit of order and the regulation of time had become its second
nature. It gave human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine.
And the first modern mechanical clock was invented by a monk who later became a
Peeling of bells gave way to 'modern' clock towers in towns of the 13 th century. It
brought a new regularity into the life of the workmen and the merchants. It almost
defined the life in towns. And as Mumford put it, 'Time-keeping passed into timeserving
and time-accounting and time-rationing. As this took place, eternity ceased
gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions'. And in this working
order, he sees the origins of modern capitalism.
In due course, the clock became an embodiment of standardizations, automatic action,
accuracy and mechanical perfection in gearing and transmission, which contributed to
the success of quite different kinds of machines.
The division of an hour into 60 minutes and the minutes into 60 seconds gave a
framework of divided time within which most people thought and worked. And
abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions got regulated
by it. And as Mumford puts it, 'one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted
by the clock; one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it'.
Mumford also says that the orderly punctual life is not native to mankind and that
many eastern civilizations have flourished on a loose basis in time. However, he
concludes that a modern industrial regime could do without coal, iron and steam easier
than it could do without a clock.
Now if you remember, the Britishers always built a clock tower in an Indian town, but
soon enough, we turned it into a landmark and lost the meaning of the chimes of the
clock. Maharaja Jai Singh built Jantar Mantar at Jaipur and Delhi to measure the
positions of the sun, moon and the stars, but soon enough, we turned them into picnic
spots and lost the meaning of quantitative measurement. And today, many of us wear
exquisite looking expensive imported watches, not so much for the time they keep, but
for the status they indicate. After reading Mumford, it is obvious, why it is so. For, the
clock does not have the same place in our cultural ethos as it had in the West.
MID DAY – 14 th April 1989
Glimpses of Goa
Sun, sand, sea and much more…
After a long drive from Bombay, I reach Goa late in the night. The place I am
recommended to stay in, has no vacant room, so I drive round the corner and find, in a
large compound, a large and elegant old house with some rooms to let.
A young man shows me the room with obvious pride. He politely suggests that I take
off my shoes so as to keep the sand out and insists that I see the bathroom. Its walls
are painted with scenes of hills, beaches and coconut trees. All of it, his doing. He
apologises for the dim lights. I like the ambience. Haggle about the rent. Pay the
advance and crash out.
It's morning. The matronly looking mother comes to ask me if I want tea. Also asks
what rent I am paying to the son. Then goes on to tell her life story. How she built the
six rooms, one each for her sons and daughters. How she sweeps, cleans and manages,
while they keep the money. That her husband is old and useless, does not do a thing;
he is stupid and stubborn. If he says lunch at 12 noon, it better be 12 noon. That one of
her sons is on drugs and how sometimes, she has to put him in a hospital. When I ask
if sodas are available nearby, she replies, 'Here, you can get everything – drugs, sex,
bad girls and even AIDS. This place has gone to hell'.
It is afternoon. Sitting in the verandah, I sip my rum and soda. Suddenly, the silence is
shattered by a loud yell in the house. The mother comes rushing out with a tin of paint
and starts painting the timber posts. And, I am reminded of the oft-made feminist
claim that in our society, in most families, it is the women who bear the burden of the
house. Here appears to be a case which fits the claim.
It is evening. I decide to walk on the beach. A young white woman is lying on her
stomach, getting a massage from a tel-malishwala. A bunch of boys stand around
giggling. The woman's male companion appears amused at their giggling.
After a walk, I settle down in a nearby shack to split a bottle of beer with an
Englishman, who is visiting India after a lapse of seven years. He notices a lot of
changes. More cars. More flights. Fewer seats. But the telephones, as bad as ever!
The shack is run by a German couple. She cooks and he serves. Their two-year-old
with pants hanging on the hips plays in the sand. I am reminded of a ga-ga tale told to
me by a young Indian, who recently immigrated to the West about how her five-yearold
plays with the latest educational toys. One need not argue which is better – playing
with sand or educational toys. Enough to understand that our world offers choices and
what is heartening, that the younger generation is increasingly willing to choose.
A bricklayer from Finland has moved into the next room. He wonders if the travellers'
cheques he is carrying are safe on his person; whether he can get a safe deposit locker.
He has to work very hard in Finland, but in four months, he can earn enough to live
for eight months in southern Europe without working.
When I mention that for a hundred rupees a day, he can eat well in Goa, he says that is
what he earns in twenty minutes back home!
A friend wants me to advise her on the new house she plans to build. I go to the site
and find the old house being demolished. Looking at good solid houses around, I
suggest that the old house could have been renovated. She is not impressed. Her
husband is in the Gulf and with Gulf money come Gulf architectural dreams. Pucca
construction, flat roofs and Islamic arches.
It is market day. I decide to drive to the nearby town. Goa is a wonderful mix of
Indian and Western; of Hindu and Catholic cultures. The shop selling liquor could be
anywhere in the Mediterranean. And the silversmith next door selling silver anklets in
any of the peths of Pune. Driving back, I wonder how I cheerfully pay hundred rupees
for the liquor and haggle for a few rupees with the poor women selling the earthen
pots. I notice I am driving slowly. The road is narrow. There are no appointments to
keep. But, perhaps, more significantly, there is no one to overtake!
Driving around, I notice a sticker on a two-wheeler 'Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls
go everywhere'. Obviously, someone is worried somewhere. But I have a faint
suspicion that more than a few gigolos stalk the beaches of Goa. And no one seems to
It is time to get back to the grind. I stop at the check post. The inspector writes down
my car number, licence number and the destination; and directs me to the excise
official who puts down more or less the same information in his register. I am waved
through the barrier. Ten yards away, I see a beer bar. I back into the compound and
order a cola. Seeing an array of liquor bottles in the shop window, I ask about the
prices. They are five rupees more than in Goa, but still about half of Bombay's. I order
half a dozen bottles and drive off.
Make your limited area feel unlimited
Small may or may not be beautiful,
but small spaces are certainly, today, a fact of life.
And, they will become more so
with, we, multiplying
and the land remaining the same.
Living in small spaces is nothing new.
In traditional parts of cities,
most families lived in
and some still live in small houses of two to three rooms.
But, these small houses were part of larger groupings
of a mohalla, a pol, a wada or a chawl.
And the neighbours
were a part of an extended family or a clan or a community.
Everyone knew each other,
lived and grew together.
Doors and windows remained open.
Otlas, verandahs and chabutras were shared with friends.
Indeed, gullies and roads were used
to meet, to chat and play.
- small houses did not feel small.
Today, we live in cities
which are melting pots.
Life is impersonal
and neighbours - strangers.
We keep our doors shut,
- small spaces feel smaller.
Strangers become familiar.
Familiars become friends.
Staircase landings become meeting points.
- small spaces feel larger.
A small space, is indeed, what it is.
A small space
and physically, it will always remain so.
But, the sense of space
- the feel of it,
can be enhanced or constricted,
depending upon how the space is treated.
In a room,
if the window is closed
and curtains are drawn,
the room ends at the window.
- the room feels small.
Withdraw the curtains,
open the window.
Look at the trees outside,
at the garbage dump below,
and at neighbours’windows beyond.
The same room ends at the neighbours’ windows.
- the room feels larger.
We are indeed monarchs,
of not just what we possess,
but of what we survey.
And, there is no law against visual encroachment!
As floor areas contracted,
many of the fittings and furniture
like bookshelves, cupboards and dressing tables,
climbed up the walls
- freeing the floors.
But, not for long.
Parkinson’s law caught up.
More fittings and furniture filled the floors,
partly due to the acquisitive nature of modern life,
partly due to the traditional value system,
wherein one loathes to discard things.
An opportunity lost.
- small spaces remained small.
Floor is the most versatile element of a small living space.
One can sit,
and make love on it.
It is bed-cum-sofa,
It is chair-cum-table,
It is storage.
Traditionally, that is how floors were used.
But, modern chairs and tables,
have so contoured our bodies,
that we cannot sit cross-legged on the floor.
And, free the floor of the clutter.
or chattais -
whatever you may like,
let the floor be the king of the small space.
- small space will feel larger.
If some mortals are still wondering, what to do with their 500 square feet, follow my
10 Commandments :
1. Expand windows.
Lower the sills.
Withdraw the curtains.
Let the outside in.
2. Reduce walls.
Punch openings in them
Let the spaces flow.
3. Let ceilings sail uninterrupted.
4. Keep only necessary furniture,
and keep it low.
5. Limit belongings.
Have more space for living - less for belongings.
Use floor for living.
6. Use soft lights.
Light the corners.
Banish fluorescent tubes!
7. Use light colours.
living areas with bright cushions,
walls with paintings,
the dining table with a bowl of fruits.
the famous words of the famous architect Mies van der Rohe,
LESS IS MORE.
- small space will feel larger.
the Biblical saying
LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR
- small space will feel larger.
10. BE HAPPY
- small space will feel larger.
HOMEDGE – THE HOME MANAGER – 1 st October 2004
Chance, coincidence and turning points
In 1944, Bhai went to Benares Hindu University to become an engineer. He joined the
army. So it was my turn to become an engineer!
Math was not my strong subject, so I applied to IIT Kharagpur for architecture and
naval architecture. After a few tests and an interview, I got a call for architecture. That
was 1954. It was a new phase in my life and also a new way of life. Bhai used to send
me 120 rupees every month. After paying for my fees, mess charges and other
essentials, I was left with a few rupees for, which, these days is called discretionary
spending. This, I used to spend to subscribe to a daily newspaper and on a monthly
treat. The treat meant putting on my best clothes, cycling down a few miles to the
Kharagpur railway station. There, in the cafeteria, I would order a plate of vegetable
cutlets – I was a vegetarian then, and a cup of coffee. Cutlets cost 12 annas, coffee 2
annas and 2 annas I left as tip, for which I got a big salute from the smartly dressed
I was falling into a routine, classes in the morning, sleep in the afternoon, library in the
evening and working on the drawing board at night. I thought I worked hard but it was
not enough to get more than B/B minus grades. That year, in the two months of
summer vacation, I joined the PWD office in Lucknow as a trainee. For my efforts, I
got 120 rupees per month plus some drafting practice and a lot of time to think of how
to break the barrier of B/B minus grades, for if I didn’t do it soon, I would be
condemned to it forever.
In the second year, the first project was to design a swimming pool. And that was a
challenge, for how much could one do with a swimming pool. A pool is just a big hole
in the ground, one could make it kidney shaped or oval, or just a plain rectangle. What
more, what else. I was struggling. One evening, sitting in the library, browsing
through the sections of the swimming pool, an image of a ship flashed through my
mind. I went to the drawing board, drew a section of the pool and a thick line at the
bottom for the ground. And voila, I had my design! A swimming pool over the
ground, not under. I added stairs to reach the deck and diving boards. It started to look
like an aircraft carrier.
When I put up the drawings for marking, the professor looked at the design, then
looked at me and asked if it was my design. I said an emphatic yes. He scribbled A
minus on the sheet –minus, for not believing my emphatic yes. Then on, I never got
less than A. The barrier was breached.
Same year, I once happened to go to Calcutta. I walked into a bookshop on Park street
and picked up my first book on architecture ‘An Introduction to Modern Architecture’
by FRS Yorke. This book cost me 7 rupees. Yorke was one of the pioneers of modern
movement of architecture in Europe. He was to England what Walter Gropius was to
Germany. As luck would have it, a few years later, I was to get a job in his office in
By now, I was being recognized as one of the good designers in the class. Seniors
would come to my drawing board to see what I was doing. I felt confident and
At the end of the third year, I was selected to go to Gangtok, to have my 6 months of
practical training, with a group of architects, who were working on the development
plan of the city. We had an issue of ‘Architectural Forum’, an American architectural
magazine devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright’s works. Of all the masters, his works – low
rise with sloping roofs, were closest to what we could take inspiration (copy) from. So,
we would thumb through it, and try to do our best, but somehow, it would not quite
match the simplicity and spontaneity of the local architecture, which sat in harmony
with the green hills and blue skies of the then Gangtok city. These six months of some
work and much play, left me with a nagging feeling that architecture, as being taught
to us, lacked something somewhere. What it was, I did not know then.
Back to the Institute, our project was to design an engineering college. During
research, I came across a college design in Wales, which was a template for
engineering colleges in UK, setting new design standards and planning parameters. It
was a design prepared by F.R.S.Yorke. In my design, I incorporated some of the
principles suggested there. Call it chance or coincidence, a few years later, as the
youngest project architect in the office, I was to work on the expansion of the same
engineering college under direct supervision of F.R.S.Yorke, the master himself.
One day, a senior, also a friend asked me to prepare his design project, as he wanted to
go on an extended pujaholiday to Calcutta. I felt flattered and agreed. On his return,
when he submitted his project, he got an ‘A’, but someone squeaked. I was called by
Prof. V.N.Prasad, Head of Department, to his office, and given a dressing down. I
came out, chastened.
The five year course was coming to an end. I had selected ‘Child Guidance Clinic’, a
school for emotionally challenged, as subject of my design thesis. Eric Foster, an
English professor who had recently joined the Department, was my thesis guide.
When I showed him a synopsis of my thesis, he looked at me in surprise and said that
his wife was a psychiatrist and a trained ‘child guidance’ counsellor. After that, I
would go to their house and over a cup of tea, both would critique my design.
One day, in the corridor, I crossed paths with Prof. Prasad. He called me to his office.
I went in gingerly, wondering what it was this time. He directed me to sit down and
asked what my plans were after graduation. I mumbled. He offered me a job on the
faculty. I came out happy and with a spring in my stride.
By now, I was clear in my mind that I must go abroad for a few years to gain further
education and experience. Teaching did not take much of my time, as it was about
giving what I had got in the five years. So, rest of the time, I spent in preparing my
portfolio and CV etc. In the library, we used to get an English architectural magazine
called Architectural Journal, which had a regular column of ‘Situations vacant’.
Referring to it, I applied to three offices in London. One replied, no vacancy, one
wrote, come, we will talk. The third offered me a job at 750 pounds a year. It was the
office of F.R.S. Yorke. I was elated.
I borrowed 800 rupees from a friend to book my ticket. Prof. Foster lent me some
more pounds and loads of advice and with that, I sailed for London end of 1960.
F.R.S. Yorke’s practice was old and greying at the edges. David Allford, who was
instrumental in hiring me, was trying to bring in new blood from different
David had spent some time in India during World war II and was interested in things
Indian. He introduced me to Satyajit Ray’s films, and over time, became my friend,
philosopher and guide.
Our office had a small library. Its in-charge was a middle-aged Englishman, and active
member of the Labour party and a great admirer of Nehru. He introduced me to
‘Discovery of India’.
Near our office was London School of Economics. Often days, during lunchbreak, I
would walk to it, to browse in its bookshop. One such day there, I picked up my first
book on planning written by Lloyd Rodwin.
When I had gone to London, I had thought I would work for two three years, do some
further studies, gain some experience and return to India, but years rolled by. It was
seven years and time to return, but now I wanted to do further studies and gain some
experience in America before returning. For this, I applied to some American
universities including M.I.T.
Around this time, in the office, I was working on a project of which the principal
architects were SOM – Skidmore, Owing and Merrill, a leading firm of American
architects – who recently designed the Mumbai airport. Its senior partner, Bill
Hartmann used to periodically visit our office to review the work.
One evening, as is the custom in England, after work, I, along with some of my
colleagues, went to the ‘local’ – our regular pub for our 'usual' glass of beer. Bill
Hartmann was there. We got talking. During our conversation, he asked what my
plans were. When told that I had applied to M.I.T. for further studies, he asked me to
see him. Next morning, I went to his office. He called his secretary and dictated ‘Dear
Andy…’ – a letter to Lawrence Anderson, then Head of Architectural Department at
M.I.T. In 15 days, I got my letter of admission. Rest as they say is history.
On my first day at MIT, I found myself sitting across Prof. Lloyd Rodwin, enrolling
for a programme, of which he was the director. It was the same Lloyd Rodwin, whose
book on planning, I had picked up a few years ago at the bookshop of the London
School of Economics.
On returning to India in 1970, in search of a job, I crisscrossed the country visiting
Calcutta, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Bombay. But no job.
Disappointed, I was mentally prepared to go back to my old office of F.R.S.Yorke in
One sunny morning, sitting in the verandah of Bhai's large bungalow in Deolali, I
came across an advertisement for a position of a senior architect. It was a Post Box
address. I applied. In a few days, I got a call for an interview from a leading firm of
architects in Bombay.
I went for the interview. In fifteen minutes, I got the job of Chief of Design.
I worked there for about nine months. However, my heart was set on starting one's
own practice. Having just settled down in Juhu, a chance meeting at my doctor’s clinic
with someone who knew someone, landed us with our first project with one of the
large business houses in India. It kick-started our practice, never to look back.
During the 45 years of our practice, we did several projects for this group and others.
Some good, some not so good, most in between. But we always delivered. We seldom
lost a client. Our clients became our friends. Our friends became our clients and
remained our friends.
People who worked with us decades ago, are still in touch. 25 years ago, looking for
her first job, Aparna came to our office, and she is still around.
85 years of this journey has had its share of surprises. Some would call it chance,
coincidence or luck, others, destiny, karma or even God’s gift. Call, what you may; it
can’t be denied that hidden hands lurk in our shadows to give life a twist, when least
Often, one thinks, what would have happened if something had not happened, but
then, something else would have happened – for life is not lived in a void –what twist
life would then have taken, there is no knowing.
85 years on …..