Notes from Raipur

The capital of Chhattisgarh is still a city trying hard to grow out of its non-city persona, not always by choice it might seem

March 18, 2017 04:03 pm | Updated 04:03 pm IST

If Bombay is the maximum city, Raipur is the minimum city,” says my friend about Chhattisgarh’s capital, two days into our trip. (Oh, and she did say Bombay, not Mumbai.) She is right. In many ways the city, though it doesn’t seem any less ambitious, greets you with mellow vibes as if it’s drunk on mahua moonshine. The drivers on its roads show no frayed nerves and the roads themselves are equipped with traffic signals. Most of all, people largely seem to know what those colours on the traffic signals represent. I didn’t entirely expect this, because when I went to Bihar last year, its capital Patna didn’t have any signals and there was perpetual mayhem on its roads, like everyone was in a mad rush to get somewhere but their Google Maps wouldn’t function.

Those metropolis definers, the tinted glass-paned, high-rise buildings, are missing in the city. As though to compensate, the city does have as many as eight malls and expensive car dealerships, so Raipurians don’t have to drive longer in their BMWs to buy their Gucci handbags and Steve Madden shoes.

The roads are impossibly broad and they’ve the capacity to make you feel really small on weekends when they look like abandoned playgrounds. Maybe the BMWs are parked in the mall basements. I can’t get over these broad roads; it feels like infrastructure has arrived in Raipur long before urban development creeps over like the thorny tentacles of an unwieldy octopus.

A splash of graffiti

On the other hand, it’s still a city trying hard to grow out of its non-city persona, not always by choice it might seem. Receding slightly from the city centre are fields growing rice, maize, greens and water chestnut. A slum rehabilitation programme has wiped out a set of shanties around the city’s Telibandha Talab, the lake in the heart of the city often combed by fishermen even on sunny afternoons. The slum has been replaced by a series of squat buildings hugging the lake, whose walls are graffitied in bright colours as if someone thought a dash of Copenhagen would do well for the aesthetics of the city.

Aspiration can be a beautiful thing but Raipur isn’t pompous about it. I see the rather underwhelming moniker ‘Credible Chhattisgarh’, peddled on a hoarding by the State tourism board. I understand the urge to make your tourism tagline alliterate (we’re a country obsessed with rhyming/ matching syllables) but this, I suspect, is the handiwork of an overworked official with a bad taste in wordplay.

Museum madness

At the Mahant Ghasidas Memorial Museum, alongside excavations of exquisite 12th century sculptures, you will find, wait for it, moth-eaten taxidermy animals. On one level, helpfully titled the natural history section, are bunnies with their skull split, hyenas baring their teeth with necks broken, even a human (not stuffed, thankfully, but eerily human-like) sitting sombrely behind the taxidermied animals and birds. It’s a bizarre museum that seems to have been put together by bored officials who were spiteful of their transfer to Raipur.

Fifteen years of BJP rule has brought in good roads but just outside the city, I see open-air granaries— sacks of grains ‘stored’ in open-air facilities with just black tarpaulin pulled over it for protection from sun and rain. I can’t begin to think of the damage rains and rodents must bring on the grains. I suddenly think of all the scandalous news reports about rotting grains in India’s storage facilities. Why do we always prioritise industrial development over human development?

Our driver Vicky a.k.a. Chandrasekar Pandey talks about a certain Raja Talab, a water body a stone’s throw away from his house. “It’s never dry, even in the summer. When I was growing up, you dropped a coin and you could see it travel all the way to the lakebed and settle down. Now, it’s mixed with sewer water let out from the neighbouring buildings and has become dirty.”

Wait, I’ve heard the same story somewhere. Then it strikes me. Having been a late settler in Bengaluru, I had only heard of electric-fan-less and enviably pleasant summers, crystal clear lakes and roads that breathed free with sparse traffic. Now, its lakes spew toxic froth and summers arrive as early as February. I can’t help but think Raipur is Bengaluru in many ways, from 20 years ago. Maximum or minimum, here is a city caught in the throes of development and an all-too-familiar story is slowly unfurling.

The writer is as happy on the road as he is at home tending to his house plants that often breed fruit flies. He lives in Stuttgart, Germany.

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