Recently, I found myself witnessing the refurbishment of a modernist architectural gem, a private residence in Chandigarh, designed and executed by Pierre Jeanneret, who worked in collaboration with his far more famous older cousin, Charles Jeanneret, aka Le Corbusier. The house was completed in the early 1960s, even as the great planned city of Chandigarh was coming up around it. In the early 1960s, the house would have looked like a folly, a bizarre indulgence, its straight, post-Bauhaus lines and Corbu-curves overlooking a fledgling garden dotted with saplings, with nothing very much beyond the boundary wall but vast expanses of open land, newly laid roads leading from nowhere to nowhere, a massive lake being dug out of the soil of the territory that would soon be cleaved out of Punjab into the state of Haryana. For many years Chandigarh would be both liminal - serving as the capital of both Punjab and Haryana - as well as a backwater, the city of those double-loser Partition victims who couldn't find a foothold in that other - only slightly less backwaterish - place that was New Delhi.
Walking around the house it occurs to me that here is one metaphor of India over the last 70 years. A barren piece of land, dotted perhaps with a few villages - a blank canvas to the eye of the nation-builders; the filling in of this land with a vision, one quarter Indian, three-quarters imported (Corbu da had offered the plans, of what later was realized as Chandigarh, first to Mussolini and then to Stalin); the glorious incongruity of swooping concrete and sleek, sexy modernist design which then gets overlaid by desi reality, with the grunge and grime of daily life, of local politics, with machine-gun nests festooned with barbed wire during the years of the Khalistan movement; the initial minimalist design, with its undeniable flair, rigour, humour and playfulness being challenged by the tsunami of nouveau riche sensibilities that rises even among the old rich; the extra extensions, the grandiose marble atrocities, the narrow pill-boxes outside the gates of the big, sprawling modernist and faux-modernist kothis; outside, just in the state of Haryana, the worst female-to-male sex ratio in childbirths, the craziness of Dera Sacha Sauda, the drug gluttony of Udta Punjab, the waves of Jat agitation; a little ways further south the asphyxiating cauldron of November New Delhi.
Time runs its slow battering ram through the most impeccable of plans and structures, and sometimes not so slowly either. On one side of the garden a crew comes and eagerly takes away the dust-encrusted window frames of the old kitchen from the 1980s - the wood is still good and can be reused. Tomorrow someone else will take away the pile of bricks from the dismantled kitchen extension to help build his little house in the poorer suburbs. As the winter evening draws in, the masons meticulously recreate the straight lines of the chhajja over the kitchen that's been pushed back into the house, while others rebuild the small platform that abuts the kitchen wall. As the Bihari master mason smooths the wet concrete, a young assistant, perhaps barely eighteen, shovels a mound of fresh mixture into his bowl and carries it over to the master. His feet, in rubber chappals, slap on the cold, wet ground. It occurs to me that this is exactly how the house would have been built nearly sixty years ago, only the assistant in those days would not have had slippers on his feet.