Franken-Cities of Delhi and Shenzhen

On Friday morning, March 23, 2018, Partha Mukhopadhyay of the Centre for Policy Research,  had a powerpoint slide that asserted the rural is not a collection of farms. The assertion had me juxtaposing specific urban villages in Shenzhen and Delhi to think about how macro-stories converge even as our detailed, specific and constitutive micro-stories continuously repulse each other.

Consider, for example, that Delhi and Shenzhen have both been shaped by feudal empires, British colonialism, the Third World projects of Nehru and Zhou Enlai, and containerization. These macro-processes were attached (via urbanizing prosthetics) to both regions, relentlessly reshaping landscapes to the needs of state projects. What’s more, as India’s National Capital Region and China’s Great Bay have urbanized, millions of migrants have hacked Delhi and Shenzhen, creating informal enclaves—urban villages and unauthorized colonies, where migrants and the poor find temporary shelters, raise their children, forage for  wages, and jockey for urban services and social welfare. Consequently, when walking either city, there is visceral recognition—yes, we think, I’ve seen this before. In both cities, we step across wide, smooth boulevards and abruptly enter narrow and uneven alleys, shunting from standardized national languages to regional accents and dialects, from international tastes to hometown kitchens, from glossy malls and their global chains to idiosyncratic mom & pops, from sanitary bathrooms and reliable electricity to open sewers and intermittent access to the city’s grid.

And yet. The inevitable incoherence of juxtaposing the Shenzhen experience with that of Delhi arises because each urban space is clunky and unfinished, held together not only by global logistics, but also (and more importantly) by the emplaced tenacity of encultured beings. Where one of us might see a moment of convergence, someone belches “yes, but…” The resistance is stilted and often incoherent. We know that the two cities have been masterplanned, but like the monster in Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein the landscapes of Delhi and Shenzhen have also been constructed through scavenging and scientific thinking, unexpected moments of tenderness, cultural histories, and a brute desire to reproduce the world in our own image. (Who is “us” white man?) And these differences shake our souls.

Indeed, comparing cities becomes increasingly intolerable the closer we get to particulars because even when there should be a coherent story, we cannot seem to agree about what happened, even when we see the consequences—and that, that moment of mutual recognition seems to be what we want. Instead, we dance to vexed rhythms of call and unsatisfactory responses.

The song begins. This and. But. And. But. And, and, and BUT. And the bar line doesn’t change because the story of what happened to the taxi driver while he waited for us to finish dinner remains a jazzy riff on facts and fiction. After we had finished a full day exploring a small section of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor, we gathered in the marble halls of a high class hotel to talk with local activists about their work. While we ate, our drivers were outside, waiting. As we were preparing to leave, we received word that one of the drivers had been hit by a car. Why was he crossing an unlit expressway at night? To go to the bathroom. But there was plenty of open space where he could have safely urinated and the hotel had staff bathrooms he could have used. And he didn’t feel empowered to ask? He crossed the highway to get to a commercial area and use a restroom. But…something else, it would seem, was at play.

In the next posts, I reflect on a three-day workshop that was hosted by the Centre for Policy Research and organized through the urban equity project of the India China Institute. Participants came from Delhi, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and New York. We hope that by learning from the lived stories the National Capital Region (NCR) and the Big Bay (粤港澳大湾区, or the region formerly known as the PRD), we might better understand what connects our experiences, even as we craft a language in which to hold these conversations. We are thinking about techniques of governance and ideological assemblages in order to figure out what our experiences might mean to and for each other, as well as for situated agents in both regions. This was the second meeting that we have had this year. The first took place in Nantou, at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, January 22-24, 2019.

My thoughts on the three-day workshop are provisional and easily disputed. Nevertheless, I hope that by thinking of the two cities through Frankenstein (and the odd social theory) perhaps we might be clearer about what happened. This, perhaps, is the philosopher’s tune: when I can’t figure out what happened, I turn my gaze to the conditions of human unknowing and the persistence of our shared desire for truth. I do believe that some kind of agreement about what happened will set us free. But here’s the rub: our Franken-Cities seem quasi-sentient, operating not so much according to the will of their makers, but according to the inveterate momentums that concrete and steel impose; accidents (that could only happen here, could only happen there) keep happening despite our best intentions.

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