Around 20 years ago, my father, a South Indian working in a South Indian bank, received his obligatory North India posting to Delhi, something he and my mother had been dreading. Those first days in Delhi were incredibly trying, as my parents negotiated with plumbers, electricians, maids, milkmen and every person you interface to set up a home. Each of these encounters was stressful, done in person, them speaking their rather atrocious Hindi, and broadly overpaying for almost every service. Fortunately for me, I soon left for my B-School, leaving Delhi behind but for the occasional home visit.
Two decades later, I moved back to Noida, which neighbours Delhi, with my family. It is four years since the move, and I still keep getting questions such as, whether I have adjusted, how easy it was to settle down, etc.
The fact is, settling in was largely a breeze. I keep thinking as to what changed in these two decades to make the transition and settling down smooth? Yes, higher incomes certainly helped, but it isn’t that alone. There were two other factors at play. First, I shifted into a gated complex. And second I arrived at a city where the internet and mobile phone had created a large market for app-driven services such as Uber, UrbanClap, etc.
These two matter, for increasingly, we no longer interact with the city as we did before, by visiting markets and transacting directly with its denizens. Instead we now interact and interpret the city through apps or automated service requests in our gated communities. What gated communities and apps, and our relative affluence—all of which are interlinked—have done is to make most of these daily interactions and negotiations relatively friction-free.
Where my father interacted with plumbers and carpenters, I just needed to call up the society office of my gated community or use UrbanClap. Where earlier my father struggled with contract buses, I used Uber. Unlike earlier, we now interact with people and experience the city through an invisible tech layer which now intermediates our interactions with urban India.
Binu Karunakaran, a poet, who I was chatting with about this jokingly told me that I had become an ‘Appizen’ of Delhi, as opposed to a citizen. It is an apt description for a certain kind of Indo-Anglian, flitting relatively friction-free across Mumbai, Gurgaon, Bengaluru, Pune etc. We reside in but no longer truly live in these cities, shutting out the chaos, squalor and poverty of urban India. What these sanitised interactions mean is that we now are unable to interact with and experience the city as it truly is, or as our parents or past selves did before.
It is as if we have built for ourselves a perch above and across these cities in which to reside in. When we move across cities we effectively move in this upper layer and seamlessly settle down. It also helps that increasingly Indian cities look like clones of each other. The same common brands of shops and even restaurants, hospitals and schools operate across these cities, such as a Social or a Fortis or a DPS.
And as the number of Indo-Anglians increases, we are getting broadly similar across cities.
There are regional differences, but over time the urban elite is coalescing into a cosmopolitan pan-Indian pool. We happily reside in the city and use its services, without truly inhabiting it. We use technology and exclusion to create safe sanitised spaces far removed from the squalor and deprivation of urban India. If in the ’90s only really affluent Indians could truly exclude themselves from the misery of India, today, technology allows more and more of us to exclude ourselves, or secede from the mess and chaos of India.
We thus become a group similar to NRIs, who secede themselves physically from the chaos of the Indian state but stay vested mentally in the country. They insert themselves in local politics, culture wars etc, even though they have no stake in it.
Recently, Manu Joseph published an interesting essay titled ‘Escaping India within India’. Affluent Indians, he said, pursue islands of affluence, by creating private spaces where they can exclude other Indians, largely on the grounds of wealth, but also on the basis of caste.
This isn’t unique to India. Extremely unequal societies such as Brazil and South Africa have this too, ostensibly on grounds of safety. What is interesting is how in India, a layer below the elite has used wealth, education, technology, all of it inter-related to exclude themselves from cities; to escape from India, to the Republic of Indo-Angliana. firstname.lastname@example.org @sajithpai