I have a theory about City Beautiful. According to many, it may not be true or may be a bit over the edge but a theory it is. So here it goes.
Chandigarh, for all practical purposes, is a deeply traditional, even conservative city, no matter how modern its exterior. Yes, it was proclaimed as the “modern city” of new India and still is the heart of all that happens in North India. However, scratch the surface and what you find underneath the extremely cool, hep exterior is a closely-knit conservative society.
The “real residents” of Chandigarh, those who define the city and its character, are those who have been living in the city almost since its inception. They have been here since the beginning, and with their progeny, will be here ad infinitum. Given the size of Indian families ,with all the aunts, uncles and distant relatives thrown in, these families add up to a significant part of the total inhabitants, or those who matter anyways. These families more or less know each other and among themselves own most of the businesses and properties of the city. They all grew up together, in and around Chandigarh, in a handful of famous local schools and colleges- St John’s, Carmel Convent, Sacred Heart and colleges like MCM, GCG or DAV for Boys. Even after some excursions out in the wilderness, read Sanawar or Nainital, all the prodigal children came home calling to comfortably settle down in the laid-back life of Chandigarh. With the next generation, the horizons have expanded and the excursions out of the city generally mean a few years’ trip (educational or otherwise) to either Australia or Canada. Yet, at the end of the day, most come back to take over the family business or property and, armed with their expanded horizons, to take them to the next level. So, I guess, it will go on.
Is there something wrong with this kind of a societal up? Not per se except that, it gives the city its unique flavour, the underlying characteristic of which is snobbery. For all practical purposes, Chandigarh is a city functioning with a few coteries as the focal points. These are closely-knit, veritable centres of power, and entry in any of these is virtually impossible. There are few preordained schools where their children study, few restaurants they frequent and some social gatherings they grace- all owned, run or managed by one of them. Of course, others, the public, too use and visit these schools or social places, but very clearly as outsiders. Stand outside any of these schools as the crowd gathers to pick up the children in the afternoon and the demarcation is obvious. No doubt, there is scandal, gossip, and all such ailments of modern socialising but within the hallowed circle of these cliques. An outsider is deemed to be so in all respects.
If you are a part of country’s elite bureaucracy, regardless of your “outsider, transferable” status, you get a de facto admission, even though it is need based. However, make no mistake; it is purely owing to your IAS/IPS/IRS etc tag. Without these, you are a persona non grata. Even if you try to break into any of these cliques with money as your ticket, chances of success are not high for you are the nouveau riche wannabe. Owning fancy cars alone clearly is not good enough.
Having stated my theorem, let me clarify that this “old timers and old established family” characteristic is by no means unique to Chandigarh. Every city has them. What sets Chandigarh apart is the way this defines and rules the city’s ethos. I spent a considerable time in the city as a student and at that time, I was totally oblivious to this aspect of City Beautiful. Perhaps as hostel residents, we were all “outsiders” and had limited exposure to Chandigarh in its totality. However, when I came back to this city much later as a working woman with a family, the “outsider” status loomed large. Is it all in my mind? Maybe, maybe not. In any case it is worth some introspection by the denizens of City Beautiful- both the outsiders and the old timers.