Authors at The Hindu’s Lit for Life fest discussed spaces, names and Indian cities’ changing mores

Many Indian cities have forgotten the definition of public space, said Mumbai resident and author of City Adrift, Naresh Fernandes.

“We have lost that sense of public space. This has had a profound effect on urban democracy,” he said, during a discussion on ‘India’s mega cities: Centres of hope or centres of despair?’ on the second day of The Hindu’s Lit for Life festival on Sunday.

Mr. Fernandes explained how the latest Chatrapathi Shivaji airport terminal in Mumbai had over 6,000 pieces of art and was touted to be the country’s biggest display of public art.

“We have come to believe that an art exhibition can be public even if it can be accessed only by buying an international air ticket.” He also pointed out how his city had this craze to name everything after Shivaji.

Nirmala Lakshman, author of Degree Coffee by the Yard, a short biography of Madras and director, Kasturi and Sons Ltd., said Chennai too, had its share of battles when it came to naming places. “Almost everything in Chennai is named after MGR or Anna, and there are battles about whom a place should be named after,” she said.

Ms. Lakshman, however, said that unlike other cities Chennai is following a different body of expansion. “The city hasn’t grown to the level of airports. A lot more people still take buses to travel outside the city. The railway stations are as vital as ever.”

To a question from the audience about the politics of changing the names of cities, Amit Chaudhuri, the author of Calcutta: Two years in the city and Telling Tales, a collection of essays, termed name changes acts of cultural nostalgia.

“I stick to Calcutta in English as it has a history in the spoken word. Kolkata is an imaginary construct,” he said.

Pushpa Arabindoo, lecturer of geography and urban design at the department of geography, University College, London, who moderated the discussion, set the tone for the dialogues by pondering on the kind of development that cities were currently undergoing.

Later in the evening, award-winning novelist, author of Cutting for Stone and physician Abraham Verghese, spoke about how a book changed his perception of life.

“It was Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage in which the hero Philip tries his hand at art but fails and goes to medical school. After two years of drudgery, when he enters a hospital, he saw humanity there in the rough, the artistes’ canvas. He thinks to himself, ‘This is something I can do, this is something possibly to do.’”

“Those words just jumped off the page and showed me that almost anybody with a curiosity about the human condition and willingness could be a good physician. That’s what I took away from that line,” explained the doctor who has worked with persons with HIV/AIDS.

Ethiopia-born Verghese, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, has ties with Chennai too. Having done his medical studies at Madras Medical College, he says that almost everything about the city has changed. “The city is a metaphor for my youth and for deep friendship,” he added.

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