“I wanted my city to grow and prosper, but I did not realize that my quiet garden city would explode like this,” said Bhoopalam Srinath, 54, whose clothing store on Mahatma Gandhi Road faces a new Metro station. “The boulevard was the heart of the city. It has gone now.”
Gone, and soon forgotten, many fear.
As the frenetic pace of India’s economic transition reshapes landscapes and lives, people in cities across the country are grappling with feelings of loss and anxieties about what might replace their old ways. Social historians say they are trying to collect and archive stories about what is disappearing before Indian cities and culture become unrecognizable.
Some historians are recording people’s memories of old neighborhoods, cultural institutions, political events and struggles. Others are helping businesses preserve their archives, or using crowd-sourcing Web sites to gather people’s recollections.
“We are in the throes of change. Everybody is trying to cope with it in different ways,” said Indira Chowdhury, who heads the Center for Public History at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, which is recording the oral histories of residents who live and work along Bangalore’s new Metro route.
“People often begin with the framework of ‘everything was better earlier, things are worse now.’ They speak about loss. But in recalling an earlier era, people begin talking about the other cycles of change that the city has embraced in the past. That helps them cope with the present turmoil and not fear change.”
Srinath took part in an urban oral history project in January conducted by Chowdhury’s department and spoke about the changes his 44-year-old store has seen. Another participant, a coffee shop owner who was facing closure, recalled supplying coffee to about 25,000 Italian prisoners of war who were kept in the city during World War II. Others remembered watching the Italians play soccer with local teams, and the proliferation of pizzerias in the city after the war ended.
In other cities, including Jamshedpur and Kolkata in eastern India, neighbors are getting together to record their memories and preserve photographs of their changing neighborhoods. A few big businesses have hired historians and archivists to capture and preserve their early beginnings and their role in nation-building soon after India attained independence in 1947 from British colonial rule.
Just over a decade ago, Bangalore was the model of India’s success story — a center for outsourced jobs and a launching pad for IT entrepreneurs, with a young, educated workforce. Its promise drew hundreds of international high-tech companies.