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Tenali Rama and Other Stories of Mumbai’s Urbanism

View the Tactical City Media Novel

Tactical City: Tenali Rama and Other Stories of Mumbai’s Urbanism is a fictitious history of Mumbai. The thesis sees the city as a playground of TACTICS and further formulates a manifesto of urban practice for architects and planners as one that learns from these tactics and in the process becomes TACTICAL/OPPORTUNISTIC.Having said that, I shall present this paper in four parts: The first part will layout the context of Mumbai/Bombay on which Tactical city is based. The second part will explain the idea of the ‘Tactical’. The third part will discuss the methods and tactics that reinforce the tactical position and the fourth part will go into a story telling mode that will test out the idea of the Tactical through semi-fictional means.

The contemporary context

The contention of the thesis is that conditions in most third world cities have gone beyond the means of any rational positivist planning. All through (Mumbai’s) political and economic history pervading elite power structures have ensured a lopsided distribution of resources. Through new structural adjustments and sometimes blind inheritance of the tools of the earlier modes of operation both in administrative structures as well as architectural/planning practices, this has carried forward with renewed vigor to the contemporary global context. Contemporary global cities now face escalating problems of environmental deterioration, burdening of infrastructure, lack of housing, growing informalisation of labour coupled with declining bargaining capacity, and unemployment that go hand in hand with increasing polarization of economy, the spatialised imprints of which one sees in the burgeoning lifestyle stores, malls and gated communities housing the new global elite. With lack of access to wealth and power an increasing section of the city’s population is fighting a loosing battle over resources and urban space and is being rendered invisible. The Nehruvian developmental model has failed to address this subaltern mass and largely so has the Left. The sheer scale and extent of the problems now requires new EYES to see the present conditions and new TOOLS and perhaps a new IMAGINATION to operate in these contexts.

The tactical explained

Tactical City claims to be the new imagination mentioned above. Tactical City adopts a position of opportunistic realignment with those left behind by the dominant imagination. Tactical City is an IMAGINED city made of a set of TACTICS of different interests that manifest themselves in different forms in the city; an imagination that creatively goes against the grain of the dominant imagination. Tactical City is a way of thinking about cities and perhaps is valid to other developing contexts. The thesis however addresses Mumbai specifically since it is a context I am most familiar with.

Tactical City derives its name from Michel de Certeau’s thesis of tactics vs. strategies: where he says strategies are the tools of the dominant elite while tactics work in the shadow of strategies and are ‘an art of the weak’, which form mute processes that organize socioeconomic order. It thereby bases itself on Decerteau’s argument against Foucalt’s thesis of all pervading power structures, to quote Decerteau “ If it is true that the grid of discipline is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures (also miniscule and quotidian) manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them, only to evade them and finally what ways of operating form the consumer’s (or dominee’s ) side of the mute processes that organize socio-economic order”.

TACTICAL CITY is a means of bringing these mute processes to mainstream discourse. It believes that Tactics have a creative potential in the way that they are constantly attempting to bridge the gaps between the dominant imagination and the aspirations of the city. The thesis believes that the Tactical is an appropriate metaphor to conceptualise the context as well as an important tool to formulate interventions in the city.

The idea of a fictitious history has several points of origin. The first is embedded in the history of the discipline of architectural/planning theory itself, in its tradition of proposing alternative pasts and futures for the discipline and especially for the city. The second point of origin is in Appadurai’s formulations on imagination where he says, “Imagination today is the staging ground for action and not only for escape. Imagination, especially when collective can become the fuel for action”.Methods and devices Tactical city as a theoretical position is conveyed through the medium of a fictional multimedia novel. It uses various devices, literary, architectural and visual. Tactical city is a fictitious history of Mumbai’s urbanism, told here through the figure of Tenali Rama – a character from a popular Indian folklore. The choice of this character is because he is known as a character who transforms the status quo with his tactics.

The stories that follow do two things – One -they help establish the nuances of the cultural context of the situation and two – they make way for a tactical intervention, which could be a design intervention or an analytical one.

Mumbai here is analyzed as 3 cities on the basis of the shifts through its political and economic structure the colonial city, the socialist city, the global city , Tactical city weaves through this larger structure.

Throughout the narrative, cultural and urban theorists immerge as characters in the city– this is specifically to drive home the fact that Tactical city claims to be a theoretical position, a stance for operating in the contemporary context – and a way of thinking about cities. This is yet another device.

And finally, if nothing else the book claims to be a bed time story for architects and urbanist.

Stories and arguments

Tenali Rama

The first story shows how the character is created – a contemporary twist on an existing parable.

Goddess Kali gives Tenali a boon and tells him that he will be the wittiest person in the world but he should help build Tactical city and that he should name all his sons and daughters Tenali Ramas and make sure they name their sons and daughters Tenali Ramas too and so and so forth. And so there are these multiple Tenali Ramas all through space and time through whom the story of Tactical City is told. Moreover I, as the narrator, enter the story by stating that, the Tenali who is granted the boon is my great great great grandfather. The position of the narrator is important for the thesis, where it becomes the author’s personal search, as an urbanist, for a position in the contemporary context.

With this theoretical background, we shall enter the story telling mode of Tactical City.

In the colonial city

The first story locates Tenali in the colonial city of Mumbai.

“This is the story of a Tenali Rama sibling who decided to migrate to Mumbai in the year 1857. These days the country was ruled by some handsome white men, who had come to the country for trade but stayed on when they saw that the siphoning of wealth from this country required more sophisticated machinery. The sepoy uprising was just over. They say it had been suppressed. Rama settled in the native Indian town just outside the colonial town, where the white men lived with their lovely white horses and their lovely white ladies, sometimes indistinguishable from each other. He lived with a relative who had migrated before him in search of greener pastures. To his surprise he found no green pastures – only a brown town segregated from a white one.”

This was the context in which Tenali entered the colonial town. In such a context the natives (the colonial other) were meticulously documented by the British much like specimens.

An excerpt from Sharda Dwivedi and Mehrotra’s book Bombay, the Cities Within shows such documentation:

“A man like this brings our water everyday”

“Shop selling false teeth: teeth are useful to all religions”.

“Ombrellas hospital at dhobi talao”.

Here the British had documented the native attempts at making a livelihood in the new colonial towns. The documentation is at the same time rife with a sense of power over the native being documented on the part of the colonizers and a sense of awkwardness on the part of the natives who no longer remained self-determining subjects attempting to mimic their colonizers’ language and ways.

To quote from Tactical City,

“The next day Tenali ventured out towards the white colonial town. Between the colonial town and the native town was a large esplanade. They say it was for shooting range, in case the ignorant, ungrateful army of brown men rebelled again. In the background stood robust stone buildings, a typology that was completely new to him. He was told it was a Gothic style, a replica of some buildings that were built in England, the place where these lovely white men came from. Anthony1 had told his neighbour very secretly, who in one of their gossip sessions very secretly told Tenali that a lot of those buildings were built with wealth siphoned off from this country and other colonies. But they were good people after all and very intelligent too if they managed to build such impressive buildings for themselves. (Here as a footnote one may add that the Anthony in the narrative is Anthony King, the cultural theorist who wrote widely on the relations between the Core and the Periphery) Rama, impressed with what he saw and filled with awe returned home, still racking his brains as to how he should make a living in this city. What could he sell that would be useful to all? There were a wide variety of religions and languages here, something very different from his homogeneous village. Just then he saw an old Marwari merchant walk by. He smiled at him and greeted him with a “Jai Shri Krishna” and he saw the merchant missing two of his molars. He knew the merchant would have to soon part with the rest of his teeth thanks to all the sweet meat shops that were opening up in the streets of the native town. He was suddenly sure what he wanted to sell. He would sell false teeth. “Teeth are useful to all religions”1 he thought. Tenali, very happy with his new brain-wave set about the task of making a billboard for himself. Very painstakingly he drew a set of false teeth and painted the lips a bright red though most of the Indian lips were black either because they were simply born that way or because the tobacco that they chewed made them turn black. But who cared for reality? Reality is anyway one that is constructed through representation. He was finally ready with his beautiful new bill board and he beamed at his lovely piece of art. To his billboard he attached his beautifully crafted shop. He made his shop with long strands of flowing facial hair that were attached to the jaw, which was his billboard. This was modeled after the visage of his mendicant friend Valmiki. Valmiki’s long white flowing facial hair was a perfect setting for his spotlessly white teeth. Manual bending gave the structure a fuzzy hair-like appearance. It served as a refuge from the hot tropical sun. Tenali devised a rain protection coat that could be swung around a rail as an inner lining.

The argument here is that, in this project the colonial documentation of the “other” gains a whimsical presence in the city. It hijacks the form of colonial representation and becomes an assertion of native identity. Its object-like nature is also important to the tactic because of the insidious nature of objects in becoming ‘signs’ of identity. The fact that a tactic does not have, as De Certeau says, quote “a proper site, discourse or language of its own and insinuates itself into the other’s place, adorns itself in the other’s garb and speaks through the other’s language” unquote, becomes the basis of this project.

The second project — the ombrella hospital — in a similar vein becomes an assertion of identity.

Vicchu is another migrant documented by the British as a ‘Christian migrant’. In the story Vicchu opens a shop for repairing umbrellas and calls it ‘’Umbrellas hospital’’. (Macaulay had introduced English education in the country already but Vicchu’s education was not part of his agenda since he was only interested in educating a section of the population who could help out with administrative roles. That could perhaps explain the typographic error). He considered himself a Florence nightingale to the battered umbrellas. Vicchu, himself was a lower caste Hindu, who was tired of being looked down on by the upper caste found redemption in the missionaries that came with the colonialists and converted himself to Christianity.

He was impressed by the Red Cross that came with the missionaries and the ideals they stood for. But his own experience at the hospital was a hairy one and he got goose bumps whenever he remembered it. Finally the shop that he designed expressed his strongest emotions. The shop was a HAIRY CROSS. The design reflected simultaneously– his belief in the new found religion and his experience in the hospital that gave him goose bumps – both extremely private emotions. In this case an extremely personal identity finds a voice in the public realm. The argument here is that the project becomes an extreme reflection of an otherwise suppressed subjectivityIn the Socialist City The next project is based in the socialist city. The context of the socialist city is established by the story of Tenali Rama who is lost in his own housing complex of standardized modern housing blocks. Socialist city is characterized by its number crunching methods, standardization and extreme loss of subjectivity.

To quote from the book,

‘The planners of the era, Tenali noticed, started incorporating these cubes as rectangles in their development plans. After a point there were so many rectangles that they were completely confused with which was what. After all they couldn’t just treat these drawings as non hierarchical post modern drawings where the slippages in the way one would read the drawings would inform another way of thinking. Deleuze and Guattari would love these supposedly confusing set of drawings. But the planners of the socialist city did not want to please Deleuze or Guattari. They thought of them as confused souls who talked about maps as against tracings. Tracings after all were irreplaceable. How else would the young draftsmen trace the old colonial maps to mark new additions on? Were Deleuze and Guattari out of their minds? The planners were sure that tracing was the right medium for them. It conveyed the right message. All they needed to do is colour these in reds, blues, yellows and browns to designate zones of public, residential, commercial, housing and utility places. It was as simple as that. After all, the great Parisian architect, one who our great late prime minister was a fan of, had talked about the need to segregate these functions. One was not to mix residential with work areas as the traditional towns used to be. Modernity was against everything that was traditional and retro. Fixed regulations rendered everything and everyone equal. Everyone was so equal that they all became numbers. They didn’t have names anymore. They became known by their professions, their gender and their castes and became entries in the census reports, all trapped in reams of paperwork as numbers, not humans anymore.”

In the context of this tactical city is reflected in Tenali’s dream.

To quote from Tactical City, “That night Tenali had a dream. All the people trapped in the maps as featureless numbers, now came alive as desires and aspirations, the reams of paper became a soft city, a book of maps from where peered body parts of all those featureless numbers, now coming to life as unalienated beings. The eroticism of the body parts at the same time reinforcing and defying the alienation of the metropolis”.

After establishing the context of socialist city, we go into the tactic that Tenali then uses in socialist city.

Tenali started scanning through the development plans of the city. He found that they were made in parts, rectangles that would have to be joined to make the whole city. Tenali out of curiosity started looking for his house on the 1:2500 scale plan. His finger ran over the familiar streets until it slipped from the edge of the sheet. He tried to locate it on the adjoining sheet and found only a part of it there. Excited at his discovery, Tenali set out to explore the edges of the rest of the Development plans. He found one particular instance that was missing a fractional wedge on the sheet. At 1:2500 scale the fractional wedge was a hairline. Not at 1:100 scale he thought. Tenali further corroborated the mistakes by measuring plans from the Land and Estate Department. He redrafted plans of the area he was scrutinising by transferring the measurements mentioned in the land and property documents of the plots he was examining and the adjacent road. He found a wedge of land in the city that was not documented or measured. He appropriated it. He decided to build an urban bedroom on it.

Tenali looked up the Time Savers Standards for the layout of a bedroom, something his architecture school had sworn by. Everyone learnt the right proportions and layouts of bedrooms from these graphic standards, no matter if the standards were European or American. Standards were universal after all. But when it came to fitting the bedroom in the swatch of land he had got by default, Tenali had some trouble. So he went to the Adobe photoshop programme and distorted the standard bedroom to fit onto his site. The transform command in photoshop gave him a large urban bed. The stretching in photoshop made one flanking wall and its doorjamb 5 feet wide and the longitudinal wall taper as its other end. The sitting spaces were elongated to uncanny proportions and the bookshelf became a line in the plan, a relief on the wall, and a dysfunctional element in the city. Perhaps this was an extreme interpretation of form follows function: it reflected the functionality in a city where pavements became bedroom spaces in the night for the city’s multitudinous migrants, for whom bookshelves had no meaning.

This project plays on an understanding of the extreme nuances of the context and works around loopholes and errors in the elite bureaucratic system.

The next project is where Tenali Rama, the unemployed daughter of the Tenali family, builds herself an office after enclosing a standard balcony with a decorative secure grill. Others in tactical city followed with multiple programs for their balconies and transformed the otherwise sterile facades. Some used their balconies to grow mushrooms on, some as an extra bedroom for their newly married son, some simply as storage. Another person a devotee of God Hanuman, built a mountain on it to grow the medicinal herb Sanjeevani as he saw it becoming popular in the global markets. Yet another, a meteorologist by profession made his little meteorological laboratory there and received work outsourced by Star TV for its weather reports. The uses of the balcony were as many as there were people unemployed in the formal job market.

This was a lesson in the tactical use of the otherwise blanket rules.

Global City

We now move into the context of the global city.

To quote from the book,

“It was the year 1991. This was no ordinary year. It was the year India had liberalized. Liberalisation had an alchemical reaction on the city. Glass and concrete towers started growing everywhere from the seeds of green money sown in the city. At the base of the city grew the weeds of the informal economy that serviced these towers: the slums. Tenali Rama lived in one such settlement.

“One day a powerful gust of wind blew off the street light between Tenali’s dwelling and the tall corporate tower that stood in front of it. Tenali’s intervention was a light bulb that would substitute the street light. The light bulb from the low level of his dwelling shone brightly on the tower. The bodies of Tenali and his son blocked the light and created shadows on the large corporate façade. Tenali and his son, otherwise invisible in the city now gained larger that life proportions on the corporate façade and in the city.

Here we see a realignment of expression and identity taking place. The project could be read as an urban light installation.

Here is another story in global city where the frenzy of liberalization brought in a no. of global infrastructural projects and a global road was supposed to be built on Tenali’s land.

To quote: “It was the year 1992; one year after the country had opened its economy to the world under great international pressure. They say it was a ‘universal path to progress’ - for a greater common good. Tenali Rama owned a plot of land where a major expressway was to be built. The expressway was a state initiative to attract foreign direct investment. The land acquisition act called for Tenali Rama’s land to be acquired for the purpose. A restless Rama couldn’t sleep all night the day he received the letter from the government informing him of the same. He shuddered with the thought that his property would be taken away by some foreigners. Tenali had a vision that night. Goddess Kali appeared in his dream and asked him to build her a temple at the edge of his land where the road would cut through and to do this before the break of dawn. Tenali, delighted with the goddess, because he saw through her wit, did as she instructed. Ayappa and Sudama were the engineers who lived in the next district and worked for the Swiss company that was building the infrastructure with money from the World Bank. The next day, they came by to inspect the land. Both recent migrants to the city, god fearing Hindus, refused to touch the temple, lest the Goddess curse them. The new road, a global initiative, was built with a bend in it, which housed the temple for Goddess Kali.

Santa and Banta, the truck drivers who would drive to and fro delivering goods for the new companies along the expressway would never fail to pray to the goddess on their journeys or stop to have a cup of tea and meet other fellow truck drivers. The tea stall and the temple were responsible for many bonds of friendship. The temple attached to the tea stall helped because passersby would make monetary offerings probably imagining that the Goddess would use the money herself. When Tenali realized that the goddess did not really need all that money, he started using the money to invest in better facilities for his tea stall. It was a public space. He was simply a ‘tactical caretaker of it he thought, not an ‘owner’ in the strict sense of the word. The temple was a great funding mechanism for the public space. In little baby steps the facilities grew from a temple to a tea stall to a public space. He had further plans for expansion. The temple was a catalyst in an expanding urban process.”

Here the building of a temple becomes a tactical catalyst in the urban process, one that manages to change the design of a global project for local needs.

At this point in the text there is an indication that perhaps the 3 cities cannot be distinguished as such, perhaps they are all part of the contemporary city.

I Tenali started furiously making links and drawing diagrams to understand the connections, the change from the colonial to the social, to the global city. The more links I drew, the more my diagram got entangled. There was a maze of lines on my paper. The lines moved furiously. After a point they attained a life of their own, jumping between cities in time. They started playing games with me. I suddenly discovered that I could not distinguish between the many Tenalis I was beginning to write about. All the stories had been orally passed on to me or through random notes. Suddenly I wasn’t sure if the 3 cities were linear any more. The global city seemed like it could have existed in 1857 when the mills came to India, and the colonial city could be a contemporary phenomenon. I didn’t know if all those stories happened the day before or the century before. Perhaps all the Tenalis I was writing about existed at the same time. Perhaps I had lost track of all my siblings over time. Maybe I would meet one of them in a chance encounter in the railway train. I was not sure any more.

Manifestations on urban practices

The book Tactical City then ends with an attempt to take stock of the theoretical position laid down in the thesis and understand its implications on architectural/urban practices and its implications on the role of the architect in this context:

I, Tenali Rama was appointed as the new director of KRVIA, an architectural institution in Mumbai, and started to rewrite the curriculum. Was I writing a manifesto? They say this is an age disgusted with manifestos. Should I be too? I could perhaps not write a manifesto. But I could make an archive; an archive of tactical city from the experiences of my Tenali kin.

Whereas the Global city model, formulated by a battery of people who had jumped into the bandwagon of global capitalism, offered very few options to the architect, such as making houses and kitchens for the nouveau rich or building some housing complexes for some builders at Half-the-fees, TACTICAL city opened many more avenues.

Here the options were many:

A TACTICAL architect

Could become a story teller like I am.

An urban curator in the case of the Wilfred-Rahim-Guattari-Koolhas

network analysis

A designer in the case of the innovative vendor shops

A ‘tactical Caretaker’ in the case of the temple and the tea-stall.

A detective in the case of the urban bedroom made on the no man’s land

A policy expert in the case of the balcony use and manipulation

or

A teacher who would enthuse students to come up with their own tactical models of operation in TACTICAL CITY. The list would then go on. TACTICAL CITY needed to grow. Tactical city thus claims that in the light of the large exigencies in the urban context, and the recurrent capturing of resources by the urban elite, the Tactical is the only position, the only avenue left to negotiate the city, to prise open the city to a larger public. Tactical city exhorts the urban practitioner to not take ones context as a given but to historically understand the shifts in urban practices. The fiction attempts to change the status quo by tactical interventions in the existing power structure of the city’s history. Tactical city lays out an agenda for contemporary practice, tweaking the tools of the trade. Of course the semi-fictional mode of the book makes the examples here metaphorical. Nevertheless the Tactical is a real position.

 

 

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