The Empire’s Old(er) Clothes

[Part of a Series. Introduction: For Movement]

Porto, Portugal, June 9th, 2009

Porto, the second city of Portugal, reminds me constantly of Bombay. Not in the way I thought it would, or the way I think the Portuguese would like it to. Mothership cities of Empires past are moments of origin. Origins in search of which the colonies were to be re-made. We are post-colonial now, though my fingers would rather type past-colonial in a Freudian slip that I wish was true. Still, the edges of empire have frayed since Indian began shining, Singapore and Dubai became newer horizons and the peripheries of the cities at the centres of Empire became more visible. Yet cracked original moulds are moulds still. Even as no mothership city – Paris, London – ever manages on closer examination to be the origin we once imagined it to be, their centres still hold inklings of the moulds. A sweep, a façade, a boulevard, a constant air of entitlement, a setting of terms, an unthinking confidence. Cracked moulds are moulds still. Enough, at least, for an slightly-unresolved-though-vaguely-global Indian imagination like mine to lower its gaze and hunch its shoulders just a little. Then, of course, I catch myself, remember to think rather than feel, auto-critique my moment of doubt, intellectually collect several counter-arguments and shine once more. And this is why I avoid, whenever possible, traveling to Europe – the baggage allowance isn’t enough to cover all the shit it rakes up inside me.

Porto’s centre, however, just quietly and gently reminds me of Bombay. Literally. Not of a mould or an origin, but of now. Of the Bombay I saw a few months ago, a year ago, two years ago and that I will see a month from now, a year from now, two years from now. For the first time in many trips to Europe, I look around and see an Indian city. In this city without Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Indians, I find myself feeling at home, staring at the edges both of empire and of capital in every direction, in every time.

European cities do centre-periphery the proper way. The edges of the cities stretch endlessly with immigrants, working class and poor housing and endless bus and train rides to “the city.” The centre of the city is where spectacle lives, and the rich live clustered, protected, and usually gated, on one of the front row seats in one or another cardinal direction. The poor still live in the centre of Porto. In narrow lanes and crowded streets but in the centre and by the river, as of now a little protected from revitalization, renewal, growth and development. The buildings, save for a central plaza that tries to gleam a little, have the not-so-gentle decay that typifies so much of south Bombay. I almost forget we’re in Europe. It seems almost possible to relate. Surely people who live in buildings with elevators that have the same musty smell as lifts in Mahim, where you pull the iron grate shut before the lift rises, where the stairs are made of stone tile with that pebble-mosaic pattern I haven’t seen since I was ten and the apartments have faded brown carpeting… surely, the people who live in these buildings I recognize .. surely we have something other to talk about and to share than empires and colonies?

Automatically, I ask a friend when the rent control acts were passed. He seems surprised that I know Porto has rent control, but no city keeps its poor at its heart without some historical ceiling that tries to give them something to hold onto [abandoned hearts like Detroit don’t count]. It turns out that Porto had not one but two rent freezes. Rooms near the centre can be had for double digit rents per month. Viola. The Bourgeoisie European centre comes undone. I think of the battles for and against rent control in Bombay and I look around, trying to imagine the how similar and different the fights must be here.

But Porto is now a city of Europe and the European Union. Before the East was allowed in, Portugal was one of the poorer countries of the Union and so money flowed towards it. You can play spot-the-capital in the city’s streets where infusions of EU money are thinking of slowly changing things. The airport gleams in glass. The new subway-metro system shines. The city across the river – Gaia – has begun to try and sell its land and its view of Porto’s riverside centre to increasingly bourgeoisie restaurants and second homes for Europe’s wealthy. An endless number of malls – called Shopping Centres using the English words – have sprung up all around the city. Sound familiar?

But for now there is only one word that comes to me when I think of the city: sarkari. I try to explain to my friend whose city this is what the word sarkari means in all its aesthetic, economic, cultural and political layers. Literally, it is an adjective that describes something related to the sarkar, or the state. Actually, it is a time period as well as a state of mind; an aesthetic as well as a politics; a nostalgia for something that has still not gone away but that arguably never was; and that it is, at least in my head, also, in part, a memory of when cities didn’t just belong to money. Sarkari, I realize, has come to represent, for me, a time before capital flowed freely into Indian cities. A time of more recognizable inequities, injustices and more local villains, of inefficiency and a poverty that at least gave the poor the right to claim dependence, for whatever it was worth which was often little but sometimes more than they have now.

We are sitting in a café he frequents. Unlike the modern facades of post-Baudelarian Paris, the Café Aviz has a big counter, sixty-cent coffee, old men talking politics, endless hangers-on, wooden counters and a bust of a wandering king. It’s an adda. There are cafes like this all along the centre of the city. They are India Coffee Houses, the kind that manage to be the same in a different street in every Indian city. The one in Delhi owes Rs 23 lac to the Municipal Corporation. I went to my first queer organizing meeting on the India Coffee House terrace. Last week, the second Delhi pride parade planning meeting was there. Yet again, they say it might close. This time, when the edge of capital is not nearly so near, it might. I sit in Café Daviz, a café whose coffee costs as much as the chai at the India Coffee House, and think of the centres of cities that still make space, where left over coins at the bottom of your bag will tide you over. I wonder what it would take for Indian cities to aspire to this kind of Europe, this faded but gentle and open centre that doesn’t shine but so deeply comforts.

Perhaps the old centres and peripheries no longer hold. Perhaps in the new peripheries, empires and colonies aren’t as easy to pull apart. Perhaps part of me realizes that Delhi and Mumbai might soon have more money than Porto. Porto is a Europe I have never seen before. Portugal is a West I have never seen before. This is a city of the Empire that only the colonies can explain and befriend – its own centres feel estranged from it. I look around and can see the struggle the city will go through in the next few years if money returns to the city. I wonder if it is right for me to hope that money does not come.

3 thoughts on “The Empire’s Old(er) Clothes”

  1. Hi, beautifully written, evocative prose. Thanks! What would be worse I wonder, an India Coffee House that shuts down unceremoniously, becoming forever a sealed box of memories inside the heads of the old faithfuls, or a gentrified India Coffee House, rescued by a nostalgic benefactor…this decision of course may never be offered to us, and herein lies the difference between the metropole and the periphery, the cracked (?) mould and the actually cracking postcolonial city.

  2. “shabby chic”, thats what a friend i made on the ryanair flight to porto ( who was returning home from oxford) called it, almost ‘self’-deprecatingly, when she saw the expression on my face struck by the strangely familiar look and feel of this city.

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