The urban ecologist Harini Nagendra in her book Nature in the City explores the past, present and future of nature in one of India’s largest and fastest growing cities.
The luxuriantly foaming “lakes” of Bengaluru have nudged out the capacious spread of the rain tree as the image of the much-mourned ‘Garden City’. Is this “nature’s” savage revenge for having been so rudely subordinated in the space of the city?
Harini Nagendra’s diligent, warm and perceptive book on “nature” in the city of Bengaluru begins with the obligatory shudder at the primeval ooze of the contemporary city and a “decline” of arcadia that is immediately resurrected by a search for the many meanings and histories of what was, and with some imaginative effort, can yet be. The book therefore narrowly averts falling into that well shaped repertoire of writings on Bangalore/Bengaluru which is marked by unselfconscious nostalgia.
Nagendra’s training as a biologist and ecologist puts her in good stead. Her knowledge is put to unusual use in detecting the varied forms of vegetation, patterns of living and water bodies that have shaped – as much as they have been shaped by – urban life. As such, it goes beyond the predictable counting of flora and fauna – though there is that too – to a much more vivid account of the spaces and sites of “nature.”
The book, in ten chapters, follows a strictly spatial discussion of the city from the perspective of its vegetation; whether in home gardens, slum vegetation, public parks, streetscapes, sacred spaces, or edging the waterbodies (the vagaries of the Green Belt are a notable absence). Each chapter, however, also provides a perspective of the kind of life – insect, human, feral – that is nurtured in these spaces.
Cast in a historical frame, the book begins with the very early traces (6th century CE) of the space that was carved out of forest and landscape to become the city as it did in the 16th century. It asks that its gradual transformation from an arid landscape dotted with settlements to tree-dense city by the 19th century, whether there is something unusual about Bengaluru’s pasts.
Amply aided by new tools such as Geographical Information System analyses and environmental monitoring and by older methods of epigraphical and textual interpretation, Nagendra provides a richly textured collation of the city’s biodiverse past. There are photographs – old and new – as well maps – drawn and redrawn – which appropriately remember and layer the meaning and presence of past in our times.
Some of the spaces discussed in the book are not novel: there have been books on Bengaluru’s tree life, on its tank economy and even on its garden houses. Besides, most of the materials that are used to build up a densely cross-hatched picture of the city in the past are well known. But one of the most unusual sites of focus in this book is the space of the slum, which is rewritten as a place where people enjoy and cherish a relationship with vegetation and with water that goes well beyond the desperations of quotidian survival.
Rather than merely being sustained by the fruit, fodder and fuel, which is supplied by the occasional tree, the slum inhabitants coax a new aesthetic out of the very detritus of the city.
Slums are environmental hazards writ large, (page 80) but not if one scrutinises the everyday for the traces and signs of another world, which is usefully tabulated in this book and which can only be the product of a discerning eye.
Slum gardens – often no more than a patch of pots or the odd tree – are described in loving detail. There are some startling insights that have been generated by the fieldwork data so assiduously collected by Nagendra and others, like the preferred tree species of each decade from the 1970s and 1990s.
Could the passions of the author (and, indeed, the self-reflexive tone throughout is unusual) have, however, led her away from an understanding of the city as a specific built form? To adapt that old chestnut, has she missed the city for its trees? The city, whether on the hoary banks of the Indus or at an elevated distance from the Cauvery, represents a radical estrangement from “nature.”
Hence, many utopian and pragmatic city planners throughout have emphasised this estrangement like Camillo Sitte, who famously said in the late 19th century, “This whole matter of vegetation as presumably beneficial to well being can be ruled out. There only remains the psychological factor rooted in the imagination.” Le Corbusier’s scorn for the “pack donkey’s way” is equally famous, as was the approach of Baron Haussmann.
Nagendra’s account – for all its self-reflexivity – remains blind to the city’s historic founding as a space that frees some mortals from the labours of subsistence production, and embodies specific economic, cultural, intellectual and spiritual activities in mortar and stone.
City building today, if it is markedly different from the more respectful attitude to “nature” in earlier times, is because colonialism inaugurated a modernity based on science (and subordinated in the metropolis to capitalism) which led to the economic uses of time and functional uses of space, with scant inter-generational responsibilities. Urban nature then may be a contradiction.
Today, city space is subordinate to the rapacity of the speculative capital, which does not, as T.J.Clark reminded us, “…need to have a representation of itself laid out upon the ground in bricks and mortar, or inscribed as a map in the minds of its city dwellers. One might even say that capital prefers not to be an image, not to have form, not to be accessible to the imagination… in order that it might mass produce an order of its own to put in place of those it destroyed.”
Hence my use of “nature” in inverted commas here: Nagendra’s use of the term throughout this book does not recognise that there is no such autonomous thing. In her unwitting use of the word “lakes” for “tanks” there hangs an unacknowledged tale.
We have only had various mediations and interpretations of “nature” whether as malevolent and destructive, or as maternal and nurturing (the preferred metaphor here) or, with the arrival of capitalism, an inert resource to be exploited, tamed and subordinated. The Indian city’s formless, unappealing and grotesquely unjust presence – an excrescence of sorts – is a result of this inexorable process from the 19th century.
Nagendra may exult in the “community actors” who today participate in shaping local spaces. That is indeed an ideal. Meanwhile, when state, market and even civil society – some exceptions notwithstanding – enthusiastically participate in the relentless and tyrannical logic of “rupees per square foot,” we will be left with no more than the pages of such a thoughtful book to sustain that alternative ideal.
Janaki Nair teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, and is in an academic exile from Bengaluru, her birthplace.