Origins of the Franken-City

Friday afternoon, March 23, 2018, we walked Mehrauli. During our pre-walk briefing, Rohit Negi explained that Delhi’s urban villages were historic settlements engulfed by the expanding city; urban villages have allowed for migrants to take up residence in Delhi without receiving full municipal services. As in Shenzhen, the so-called urban village in Delhi is an artifact of legal loopholes—a space of exception that allows for flexible responses to the social problems endemic to global enclaves. Low-income housing is the most obvious fix, but Delhi urban villages also resolve such problems as food distribution, mom & pop entrepreneurialism, and medical care. As in Nantou and Shajing, Dongmen and Shenzhen’s middling enclaves on its outer district metro lines, in the urban villages of Delhi farmers have urbanized their settlements without explicit authorization by the state. In the contemporary Franken-city, the urban village exists at the whim of the government which can (in both Dehli and Shenzhen) use illegality as the excuse for expropriating land, evicting tenants, and masterplanning the city.

Writing a history of the Franken-cities of Delhi and Shenzhen is something of a scavenger hunt that can begin anywhere, but eventually returns to an urban village that was “the original city.” Mehrali, for example, is an assemblage of past and present, national fantasies and quotidian struggles, and boasts over a millennium of continuous settlement. There are in fact three Mehraulis—the enclosed Qutub Complex, the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, and Mehrauli village. The Qutub Complex is a UNESCO world heritage site and many come to the area to visit the Qutub minaret, the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, and the Iron Pillar of Delhi. If the tour has scheduled enough time, these visitors may also stroll through the archaeological park, which occupies 200 acres and includes over 100 monuments that evoke the city’s Hindu, Jain, and Muslim histories. The village is the location of Phool Waalon Ki Sair, a festival which honors both the Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki and Lord Krishna’s sister Jog Maya. Nevertheless, few tourists peak over the red stone walls to learn about the vibrant urban village, even as villagers have accessed this history through everyday actions.

Since the 1970s, Mehrauli has been urbanizing informally and the neighborhood throbs with life. Delivery boys and pedestrians navigate the clotted streets, deftly avoiding auto rickshaws, motorcycles, and cars. Shops sell bright packets of savory snacks and drinks in plastic bottles. Inside the ruins of a large castle, older men play cards, while boys play cricket. Most people live in squat housing beneath tangled telephone and electrical lines. And although there are obvious efforts to keep the main areas clean, densities of people and our plastics can be overwhelming. According to a 2016 newspaper article, the current population is roughly 250,000 people, who are “robbing” Mehrauli of its charm.

Our guide to Mehrauli was Mesha Murali, who curated the 2017 pop-up museum  for the village. Organized by the Centre for Community Knowledge at Ambedkar University and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, the museum narrated the area’s cultural history from the perspective of its residents. Mesha and her team documented memories of jackals in the nearby forest and ghost stories about who lived near Hauz-i-Shamsi Lake. People moved in and out this history, redeploying heritage spaces to banal needs such as places to defecate and hang with friends, even as they recounted stories of ghost sightings and unexplained encounters. In local stories, these sites simultaneously appear more sacred and more profane than in the tourist pamphlet; in the oral histories that Mesha and her team collected, these ruins and the forest were not “ heritage,” but haunted ruins and toilets.

Like Mehrauli, Nantou in Shenzhen is simultaneously an archaeological site and an urban village. The official story has it that Nantou was settled around 331 as part of the expansion of the imperial salt monopoly. Located on the eastern banks of the Pearl River Delta, the city was a maritime gate to Guangzhou and in 736 a naval base was built nearby. In 1394, the Ming built walls around the city. It abuts the the sculpture gardens of Sun Yat-sen Park and the historic Nantou High School campus. Nestled at the western edge of the village is a two-story catholic church. Built in 1913 by Italian missionaries, the church building used to be an orphanage and its graceful arches evoke a time when proselytisation accompanied colonial expansion. Outside the city gates, villagers labored in rice paddies, cultivated oyster beds, and harvested lychees from hillside orchards. Young men often crossed Shenzhen Bay on sampans to Hong Kong, where they either found jobs on an international ship or sailed on one overseas to work, sending remittances to families who remained behind.

By the time the Special Economic Zone was established in 1980, the center of county life had shifted to Shenzhen Market, which was the first station on the Chinese side of the Kowloon-Canton Railway. Nevertheless, as millions of migrants came to the Special Economic Zone to change their lives, they moved into the villages, which during the 1980s and into the early millennium provided factory jobs, cheap housing, and low-capital investment opportunities. Nantou also urbanized informally, its alleys crowded with factory workers and construction laborers, prostitutes and hustlers. During those first decades, Nantou was unconnected to the city’s urban grid, which was also under construction. As in other villages, the alleys frequently flooded and rubbish clotted open sewers, giving rise to the stereotype that urban villages are “dirty, chaotic, and substandard.” However, in 2004, the city’s infrastructure was extended into the villages, providing basic urban services and in 2006 a citywide vice crackdown resulted in family friendly neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the villages remained the most important location of cheap housing and mom & pop investment. Today, Nantou Ancient City footprint is roughly 1.1 square kilometers with a population of 28,000 or so.

The fact that both ancient cities have become densely populated urban neighborhoods, where informal structures butt up against historic architecture begs the question of the Franken-city’s origins. What does it mean that less than fifty years ago, Mehrauli was a rural settlement and Nantou was a forgotten outpost, but recently both neighborhoods have simultaneously become the focus of heritage preservation and social improvement efforts? Inquiring minds want to know: which came first, the Mamluk dynasty or the contemporary population explosion? The salt monopoly or township and village industrial parks? Today, I’m wondering if we care about Mehrauli and Nantou precisely because the juxtaposition of monuments and informal housing highlights something about the dodgy scaffolding of globalizing souls.

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In one of the early chapters of Frankenstein, the protagonist grapples with a major contradiction of modern life. The ancients, he reflects “sought immortality and power,” while in modern times, scientists “exchange[d] chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” The absence of noble purpose in modern life leads young Frankenstein to despair. He then attends a chemistry class where his teacher explains that modern scientists, “whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows .” Upon hearing  Professor’s Waldman’s words, young Frankenstein suddenly understood the meaning behind what Weber called the secularization of the world and Nietzsche referred to as the death of God; although human beings once aspired to greatness, modern technology meant it was no longer possible to believe in a natural order. Instead, to achieve greatness it was necessary to act in God’s place.

The same day that we headed to Mehrauli, the banner headline of India’s millenniumpost was “Cornered by world public opinion, Zuckerberg forced to say ‘sorry’.” One pictures the Facebook CEO backed into a dead end alley, tail pressed up against dank bricks, growling, fangs out, preparing to bite the public. The image seethes with popular fictions—werewolves of London and the paranormal heroes of contemporary romance novels. These stock characters are melodramatic descendants of Frankenstein and The Vampyre, which were both written into life on a cold and rainy night in Geneva, circa 1819. These transformed monsters are buff and considerate, and they take paternity leaves to care for newborns, but when trapped—and they always get trapped around chapter two or three of a Harlequin™ romance—modern heroes grow furry or grow fangs or if an android, modern heroes begin to exhibit consciousness. Our modern demons barely suppress their rage, their eyes glow with an alpha fire, and their manes are professionally groomed. They are beautiful in their primal anger and when they bite back—and they always bite back around chapter eight or nine—we find ourselves in their corner because somehow (as we learned in chapter seven) the known monster isn’t the true monster. The human epidermis is too thin to contain our true nature, which paces just beneath our ribcage. The HEA of our guilty pleasure (and who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story?) is the conformation of a truth that Frankenstein learned through tragedy and we accept as commonsense; the real monsters are those who try and shape human nature, rather than those who express it fully, but to become Alpha, we must give ourselves over to unnatural forces.

So yes, Mehrauli is to Delhi as Nantou is to Shenzhen because their structural similarities run true to the bone. On the face of it, comparing Mehrauli to Delhi is something of an intellectual reach. The monuments at Mehrauli are world class and those at Nantou a resounding “meh.” Also, the provision of urban services in Nantou is far superior to that in Mehrauli. However, these differences comprise two-sides of the same coin. The contradiction between the moral aspirations of classical metaphysics and the amorality of modern science structures everyday life in both Mehrauli and Nantou, albeit via scientific incantations and artificially revitalized traditions. Thus, it should not surprise anyone that even in 2018 after a decade of concerted effort to transform Shenzhen’s “dirty, chaotic, and substandard (zang, luan, cha)” urban villages into middle class neighborhoods, it was still possible for homeless men to climb the pounded earth ruins of Nantou’s Ming-era city wall and defecate in relative privacy. Indeed, these are the origins of the Franken-city—the discovery of ancient grandeur in low-end neighborhoods and the agonizing realization that the the technology at hand cannot satisfy our longing to transcend the limits flesh imposes.


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