Newsletter 39: Metamorphosis

Part 1 of a series on the Forested City.


There’s a persistent myth about the dangers of the city, that compared to the country the city is an alienating and difficult place. Unlike the village where everyone knows your name, the city thrives on anonymity. Then there’s the troubled relationship with nature. In the movie version of the myth, the city screams HUMAN in capital letters. Urban dwellers are trapped in a world entirely of human creation, not knowing how plants grow or animals eat except as pots or pets. There’s some truth to the myth, since urban life is defined by light, noise and air pollution, and by electricity, clock time and air travel, all annihilators of natural rhythms and destroyers of nonhuman life. At the same time, one should be aware that farms are also entirely a human creation; we dream of idyllic villages but the modern corporate farm with its monocultured cash crops and extensive use of fertilizers and borewells isn’t any closer to nature than cities are. In fact, both the city and the farm have been subsumed under the empire of production with farms becoming sites of natural resource production and cities becoming sites of valued added production.

I have this hope that the productive city is not the only avatar of urbanity, that production happens to be the god to whom we sacrifice today, and that yuga is passing. A different city - I am not naive enough to say the city of the future - might well combine the forest, the farm, the factory and the family as different layers in one system. Like the terraced hills of Myanmar, this alternate city will be a 3D Rubik’s cube of homes, urban jungles, small factories and gardens; flows of matter and information set free from the ideology of production.

Radical Inclusion

This layered city is defined by radical inclusion, so that concrete shades naturally into forest. Inclusion is a vague term; in this era of world-bank influenced language of stakeholders and governance, inclusion can easily become another sign of the dominant power, where smiling people of all races and genders drink lattes in airport lounges. That’s not my city. I am not satisfied with a city that has room only for cars and cows either. We need to expand our commons to include all living creatures.

That thought came to my mind toward the end of a short trip to India last week, as I found myself at my parents home in Chennai. It was past 10 PM on a long day of visiting relatives across the city and feeling sick after an overdose of snacks and sweets. I went into a bathroom to perform the usual night time rituals. As I sat on the toilet, doing what one does while musing upon some trivial detail of that day’s proceedings, I felt a gentle tickle that turned into a trail of scampering feet on my inner thigh. The first itch wasn’t enough to turn my head downward, seeing as the view below wasn’t very inviting, but the trail of footsteps were a sign of something worth my attention.

It was one of those large cockroaches found across India, the oval, brown kind. This one was about two inches long, with quivering antennae adding another inch in front. The roach was perched on my right thigh with an excellent view of the nether regions. I used to be terrified of these large cockroaches as a child. Our house in Delhi had a bathroom in one corner of the terrace and in one of those transplanted Brahminical customs, we were forced to use that bathroom at night. The long walk - only twenty feet in the light of day - to the bathroom was one my enduring terrors, both for the trip into the darkness and the possibility of six-legged companions at the destination.

Several decades later, I found myself more amused than terrorized. The cockroach was my only companion in an otherwise mechanical environment of gleaming faucets and plastic buckets. After I flicked the cockroach on to the bathroom floor, it quickly retreated to a corner, where it crouched on its hind legs for a couple of seconds before beginning a round of exploration. Its antennae were working double time, like an Italian arguing with his mother. My eyes followed its progress as the cockroach traveled across the bathroom, from corner to corner, up and down the pipe connecting the sink to the sewers underground. In its gesticulating antennae, I got the feeling of a distinctly six legged curiosity, of the same need to know that I thought I was exhibiting on my side.

Just the day before when I was in Bangalore, a friend screamed loudly as a cockroach ran close to her feet; her husband chased the insect and crushed it with his boot. It’s such an unremarkable incident for most of us. We never think twice about setting out a plateful of poison for them to eat or stomp them as they flit about. Why? My bathroom companion wasn’t a friend, but he wasn’t an enemy either.

The Vermin Wild

Indian and western cities are increasingly devoid of mammalian, avian and reptilian wildlife. Almost all animals larger than a mouse have been decimated by pavement and poison. At least Indian cities have feral animals such as stray dogs and cats, but they have a precarious existence in a world where the nonhuman is subsumed under the productive categories of property and sanitation. That leaves insects and spiders as the entirely nonhuman occupants of the city. My parent’s home has ants, beetles, wasps and mosquitoes in the garden where their trails dot the landscape. Some of those creatures scoot inside as well, where they’re joined by cockroaches that make their way upward from the gutters. This is the vermin wild as I call it, the true wilderness that graces our cities. As the name suggests, we don’t like the vermin wild that much, spending much money and effort trying to exterminate them. An earlier generation used to lay kolams to appease the insect gods, to keep them happy and in harmony with the household. Now we use pest control. It’s about power, a way to turn that screaming fear that my friend couldn’t control into foot stomping mastery.

The sophisticated urbanite is happy to extend some fellowship to the good animals: cats and dogs of course, but also to cows, goats, pigs and sheep, animals that are primarily used for food. Like legalized immigration, it’s easy to imagine a future in which these companion species are afforded a semblance of rights, of protection from arbitrary imprisonment and slaughter. The vermin wild has no such status. Who amongst us is willing to stand before city hall carrying banners that uphold the rights of cockroaches?

Yet, if we are to establish a genuine moral commons in which all creatures have some legitimate presence, we can’t stop at marquee animals like lions and leopards or docile species such as lambs. It’s not enough to create an eden where the lion can lie with the lamb in peace. A true moral commons requires more than the positive feelings of kindness and compassion; it requires the tolerance of disgust and fear, of the basest human emotions. The vermin wild is the horizon of our sympathy for a menagerie that we can barely bring ourselves to look at directly; aren’t cockroaches mostly seen in our motion sensitive peripheral vision?

Despite the invectives of the law and order conservative, thriving cities tolerate a seedy underbelly of sex, crime and subversion. The vermin wild is the natural extension of that attitude to the nonhuman world. We don’t have to stomp on every cockroach.