Where the streets have no name

Raja Murthy January 25, 2017 1:13 PM (UTC+8)
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Under the fading first full moon of 2017, the village of Sergudi rested from a January day’s work and cares. The harvest festival week was quiet like the night, India’s demonetization sacrifices having dimmed the annual Pongal celebrations. But through good times, bad times, strange times of similar dwellings in history, run the timeless threads that knitted the early cradles of communities: the villages.

With necessity being mother of invention and evolution of lifestyles, this becomes time for more of the planet’s population to return to rural roots, to use distance-dissolving Internet communication technologies to work away from cities, to de-urbanize, de-stress our world.

For here in villages live ignored answers to urban stress, poisoned air, rush time choked roads, chasing endless cravings and car parking – of increasing millions packing into the shrinking, suffocating, sky scraping, security-seeking real estate called the Big City.

India lives in her villages, said the man called the ‘Mahatma’. More out of choice than Gandhian principles, my mother has returned to live in her native village Sergudi, in the ancestral home that my city-born younger sister has thoughtfully preserved.

Planet Earth’s existential crisis is locked in a vicious circle of growth pangs – growth in inevitable proportion to population growth, with proportionally growing problems. A New York or a New Delhi with 100 million residents boggles the mind but is nearing possibility. City planners have their logistic limits.

So it seems time for rediscovering roots and restoring population migratory balance, of a time when a few more of the world return home to the heartbeat of the hamlet – of regaining a less complicated life where the streets have no names.

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Peterswood village, home to Enid Blyton’s Five Find Outers and dog, somewhere in a fictional England of 1943 to 1961. Their popular mysteries – from Mystery of the Burnt Cottage to Mystery of the Banshee Towers – introduced to over a billion children across decades, across generations, a life beyond the petro-powered fumes of urban existence. Influences in budding minds can leave lifelong impressions.

The airy countryside-centric Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton’s William, Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter were my childhood reading diet – and continue being a lifelong learning process in my writing profession: for the master secrets to attention-holding writing are in the works of great authors writing for children.  A child’s limited attention span demands story telling with simple words – an effective simplicity like the less complicated life of a village, whether a Sergudi or Peterswood.

Whether in Peterswood, William Brown’s village of no name, Billy Bunter’s Greyfriars School near Friardale and the River Sark, or P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings home of the Elmsworth tribe – the great wordsmiths of simple, strong writing shared a love for the village life. And I was among the fortunate few whose childhood covered both urban and rural existence, the best of both worlds.

School holidays were in my grandparents’ village in Southern India where my mother now lives, her return to the ancestral home delighting old village residents who knew and respected my grandparents.

1949: Best selling children’s author Enid Blyton (1897 – 1968) working at her home in Beaconsfield with her eldest daughter Gillian. The village was epicenter of her ageless books that sold over 600 million copies and translated into 90 languages.

In January 2016 and 2017, after over 30 years, I visited the village I knew as a boy, to visit my mother. After three decades, Sergudi retains much of its original character. Living through all the changes the world has seen since 1985, the village has managed to evolve without losing traditional moorings – an anchor of stability in the kaleidoscopic impermanence of life.

After the Sergudi village visit this January 14 to 18,  I see more clearly how villages are the often unnoticed mundane solutions to urban problems growing with population growth: finding affordable good housing to pollution perils like urban heat islands (UHI) – the geographical hot spots generated from heat energy of people, vehicles and daily machines of life in mega cities like New York, Tokyo, Paris, London, a fast growing Mumbai.

Circa 1800, the world already had the smart answer to modern day plans for ‘Smart Cities’ – only three percent of the world’s population then lived in urban areas. The Industrial Revolution’s lost road was finding a balance between the village and the city, of preserving the uncomplicated life while running the complex factory assembly lines. By 1900, nearly 14 percent of humanity lived in cities, and by 1950, 30 percent of the world’s population had urban addresses.

Urban areas accounted for about 52 percent of the world population by 2015. Tokyo-Yokohama grew to 37.8 million residents, the largest urban area population ever recorded. A United Nation report expects another 2.5 billion people to live in cities by 2050, with nearly 90 percent of the urban population increase to be concentrated in Asia and Africa.

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“The Full Collection of Enid Blyton” said an entry in the customers’ request book at the newly opened Writer’s Café in Mount Road, Chennai – blending the 173-year old Higginbothams, India’s oldest bookshop, into an elegant hangout for writers and baked creativity of the excellent square-shaped Margarita pizzas. I bought a copy of  ‘Blandings Castle’, an anthology of  P.G. Wodehouse’s Elmsworth stories set in rural Shropshire, one of those addresses that Wodehouse called the “nearest earthly place to paradise”.

Getting away from concrete jungles, and returning to a simpler, healthier working life in rural paradises

The rural paradise silently invites as a route of out of urban nightmares – like a daily four-hour commute in suburban trains with hardly room to stand, three families sharing a two-room apartment, with running tap water available two hours a day. Urban planners are due to find their 21st century administrative enlightenment in reversing a working population flow back to “rural paradises”. Or perish.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted urban air pollution becoming the biggest environmental cause of premature deaths.  Both developed and developing countries will suffer, and by 2050, China and India alone could account for 3.6 million premature deaths a year from polluted air. Richer countries will be victims from exposure to ground-level ozone in big cities, because of their ageing populations – with elderly people being more vulnerable.

New solutions with a new outlook are born in periodic timescales of the human journey, and so too will be return to villages of those can manage their working career without being in the Big City. Corporates and organizations would experience the beneficial reality-check of supporting, encouraging professionals whose work can be done away from office to settle in a rural address – a life enhancing option at least for those wishing to be far from the madding crowd.

High rise buildings seen in a high density urban area of Hong Kong. Climate change, which causes rising sea levels and is linked to natural disasters, is a fundamental threat to development, the World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim said on April 23, 2015, adding the focus on mega cities was ‘vital’ since the mode of urban development could determine how the world combats climate change as disasters could bring massive impact on populated cities. 

De-populating cities becomes possible than ever before with a Global Village enabling Internet technology. Urban development planners can look for ways to reversing the working population flow from over-stressed urban islands back to villages – the micro communities easier to manage than logistic nightmares of administering mega-cities with population larger than that of many countries. Over 4100 cities have population over 150,000, en route to mega cities with over 3o million residents.

Mumbai, now a mega city, was once a collection of island villages. Often, the answer to a problem knocks on the door and stares us in the eye but we turn away saying, “I have a problem and looking for an answer”.

 

Raja Murthy
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
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