Neighbourhood Watch

Shougat Dasgupta 1

The scale of urban migration means that the very nature of our cities is changing, says Shougat Dasgupta. Instead of being scared, we should be embracing the shift.

Neighbourhood WatchImage courtesy: Getty

I have spent most of my life in cities to which I have no claim other than temporary residence. My perspective has been that of the perpetual, if privileged, outsider. It’s a common enough modern condition; the major cities in first world countries teem with deluxe economic migrants—young people with expensive educations who have generously remunerated jobs, gathering together in bars to compare the lengths of their workweeks. They’re part of a mobile, adaptable, cosmopolitan tribe for whom cities blur together, so they find themselves living contentedly in LonSanFranNewShangKongLin.

Migration for economic reasons remains the chief motivation for people to leave their countries of birth. The United States’ creation, after September 11, of its Department of Homeland Security, and the tens of billions of dollars it now spends each year on securing its borders and deporting illegal immigrants, has not changed its essential attractiveness to economic migrants. According to analysis of World Bank and United Nations data by the Washington DC-based Pew Research Center in December 2013, 20 per cent of the world’s migrants, or some 46 million people, live in the US.

It’s not just the US. Nearly 70 per cent of international migrants live in countries classified as “high income”, compared to 57 percent in 1990. Indeed, in percentage terms, countries such as Australia and Switzerland, at 24 per cent, and Canada at 18 per cent, are host to significantly higher proportions of foreign-born residents than the US (14.5 per cent) and the UK (9 per cent). Another trend since 1990 has been the increasing numbers of migrants to high-income countries from so-called middle-income countries, a classification that now includes India in its lower reaches. The Pew Center estimates some 60 per cent of economic migrants, or 135 million people, were born in middle-income countries. More economic migrants, 14.2 million, were born in India than anywhere else in the world, including China and Russia.

According to the UN, there are more people migrating over international borders than ever before. Oddly, though, the proportion of the world’s population described as international migrants—distinct from refugees—has remained unchanged, at about three percent, for 20 years. For all the hundreds of millions of people crisscrossing borders, the proportion of people brave or desperate enough to leave their countries of their own volition to start afresh remains tiny. It takes an unusual, if not rare, hardiness to pack up and move.

Few people, in essence, can cope with life as outsiders.

Those who can, or want to, coalesce in cities. There is a scene in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, in which Sammy’s father, a compromised Pakistani politician (played by Shashi Kapoor), points out that London is a “cesspit”. What can Sammy possibly like about it? London, or at least the inner-city area in which middle-class Sammy and Rosie choose to live—though they can afford better—is beset by race riots, poverty, violence and crime. But Sammy is not without hope. “Well,” he tells his father, “on Saturdays, we like to walk along the towpath at Hammersmith and kiss and argue.” It’s the beginning of a short disquisition on metropolitan pleasures: of weekend afternoons in bookshops, or at the theatre, or at the “Alternative Cabaret in Earls Court in the hope of seeing our government abused”, or, “if we’re really desperate for entertainment we go to a seminar on semiotics at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts]”. It’s a rousing defence of city life. “Neither of us is English,” Sammy says, “we’re Londoners, you see.”

Kureishi’s London in the 1980s—antic, resistant to authority, carnivalesque, mixed, above all ad hoc, a casually formed and mutable community of outsiders—is distinct from the country around it. In a speech in 1993 (ironically in defence of greater integration with Europe), John Major, then prime minister of the United Kingdom, cobbled together a vision of “timeless” Britain. “Fifty years from now,” he said, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers … and—as George Orwell said—‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ … Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.” Major’s Britain—England, really—is inimical to Kureishi’s London: one “unamendable” where the other is protean; one a sun-dappled rural idyll where the other is unrestrainedly urban; one faithful to what has been before, while the other craves the new, the mixed, the composite culture of a city marked by migration.

Numbers show that the world’s great hissing, rattling conurbations are self-contained, alongside but apart from the national entities they exist within. Some 37 per cent of London residents are foreign born, giving it an entirely different ethnic make-up to the rest of Britain. New York is similar. In large Canadian cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, over 40 per cent of the population is foreign born. Of course, in the Arabian Gulf, in cities such as Dubai or Doha, a preponderance of the population, anywhere from 70–90 per cent, is foreign born.

But if you think about cosmopolitanism as a culture, as something new created from the chaos of miscegenation, then the forced, ersatz cosmopolitanism of somewhere like Dubai is unsatisfactory. The foreigners there are guest workers with no stake in the city or in the United Arab Emirates more generally; most guest workers are captive labour, their passports held, their movement curtailed, their opportunities for integration non-existent. As for Canada, it is a society built on immigration— first European and then global. The weight of cultural accretion isn’t the same as in the UK, or even the US. In other words, there are no unamendable essentials, in Major’s phrase; no long shadows on county grounds and invincible green suburbs with which to contend.

On the other hand, London, as Kureishi (or Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, or Nirad C Chaudhuri, or VS Naipaul, or any black British writer you care to name) reimagined it, was a city in the throes of an extraordinary metamorphosis, shucking off its imperial confidence for something uncertain, something provisional. Colin Wilson, the English writer, original “angry young man”, panty fetishist and brilliantly crazed occultist, observed in The Outsider, the most famous of his 110 books: “… the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality”. Wilson may have been writing in the 1950s but it is as if he is describing Major’s blinkered world; nearly a decade after Kureishi and Frears made My Beautiful Laundrette, and nearly half a decade since Islamic fundamentalists burnt copies of The Satanic Verses in Bradford, the prime minister still thought of England as a land of warm beer and dog lovers. “For the bourgeois,” wrote Wilson, “the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying … For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly.”

A city made up of migrants, of outsiders, cannot be, as Kureishi showed in his films and such novels as The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, rational: it cannot be orderly. The migrant is so disorientated by departure, so pained by loss and grief, that just to function, just to survive is enough. Samuel Selvon, in the final pages of his 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners, describes the tension of his Caribbean migrants’ struggle, the fear and despair: “… he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country. As if he could see the black faces bobbing up and down in the millions of white, strained faces, everybody hustling along the Strand, the spades jostling in the crowd, bewildered, hopeless. As if, on the surface, things don’t look so bad; but when you go down a little, you bounce up a kind of misery and pathos and a frightening—what?” This is the trauma of emigration, the trauma of history and memory that in WG Sebald’s novel The Emigrants, translated into English in 1996, led to suicide. Selvon though finds room for his outsiders, his emigrants, to hang on to hope, however forlorn: “Daniel was telling him how over in France all kinds of fellars writing books what turning out to be best-sellers. Taxi-driver, porter, road-sweeper—it didn’t matter … He watch a tugboat on the Thames, wondering if he could ever write a book like that, what everybody would buy.” It’s not surprising that Selvon’s character dreams of writing, of finding a way to control, to bring some order to the chaos to which the outsider is condemned, which he brings with his arrival.


If the battle to claim London for its once imperial subjects has been largely won (though the British establishment looks much the same as it ever has), immigration, its chaos and disorder, is more fraught a subject than it has perhaps ever been. Europe, which for so much of the 19th and 20th centuries haemorrhaged its people to the Americas, has since World War II had to deal with the fallout of its imperial adventures. Its post-European Union wealth and stability, relatively enlightened immigration and welfare laws (at least in the north) and geographical advantages have made it, for many migrants, a more attractive destination than even the US. While September 11 has not significantly slowed the pace of international migration, the growth of radical Islamic politics, which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Libya and Syria and Yemen) have served only to exacerbate, is more evident in Europe than the US. The “Rushdie affair” should have made this plain almost three decades ago.

Here is the test of what it means to be a cosmopolitan society. The smug cosmopolitanism of the well-off—the kind I referred to before—offers no challenge to the prevailing order. Rather than being outsiders, high-salaried economic migrants are at home everywhere, buffered not so much by wealth as by comfort and the avoidance of political engagement. Europe’s mostly home-grown Islamic extremists, on the other hand, self-selecting from the seemingly endless ranks of disenfranchised young men, are engaged in a struggle over identity as much as ideology.

This tension between material comfort and political engagement, between a deracinated international class and their fellow economic migrants who are less able to, and less willing to, subsume their alienation, is the subject of Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In the figure of a young Pakistani in the United States—like Hamid a graduate of Princeton and Harvard—is manifested the migrant’s dilemma: the simultaneous embrace and rejection of his new home. The anomie of the economically privileged migrant is striking when set against the certainties of religious fundamentalism. The international class, mobile and well compensated, may espouse tolerance, or secularism, but one suspects its real concern is to cling to the gravy train. Its only ideal is a self-centered devotion to maintaining the status quo.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, cultural critic Slavoj Žižek spoke of the liberal, permissive European as a manifestation of Nietzsche’s “Last Man”—“an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment”. Upping the scorn, Žižek added of the contemporary European: “Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one another.” What Žižek is bemoaning is the loss of an outsider sensibility, of a willingness to confront chaos in order to create something new. That antic, carnivalesque spirit Kureishi noted in 1980s London, despite the rioting (perhaps because of the rioting), is missing in European cities calcified by prosperity. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Frears, who with Kureishi made seminal films about immigrants fighting to make a new city in their own image, also directed Dirty Pretty Things in 2002, about immigrants (albeit illegal) who at the end opt to leave London. It’s a movie about despair and exploitation in that city: hope lies elsewhere now.

Layout 1

In India, we have long harboured a colonial-inspired suspicion of cities. The real India, we are always told, is to be found in its villages. This despite our history of wonderful, vivifying cities. Well, the villages are emptying. People want the opportunities cities provide, the radical freedom of being an outsider. This is not to downplay the manifold frustrations of Indian city life. Satyajit Ray’s superb Calcutta trilogy—Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha, and Jana Aranya; Mahanagar, the first film he set in that city, is another example—is a portrait of the optimism, energy and drive set alongside and against the moral degradation necessary to thrive in the city. Pratidwandi, in particular, deals with the failure of revolution as the idealism of the Naxals (outsiders if there ever were) dissipates into violence; and of the desire in the face of a brute, uncomprehending city to turn tail and run.

Still, only a third of Indians live in cities. In many of those cities we retain a parochial suspicion and fear of outsiders, of behaviour that we consider strange and do not recognise as our own. About three years ago, for the first time in its long history, China became a predominantly urban society, with over 50 per cent of its people living in cities. An affecting 2009 documentary, Last Train Home, showed the toll the inexorable drive towards urbanisation has taken on one poor Chinese couple who work in a factory, cut off from their village, their growing daughter and their values—everything they’ve ever known or taken for granted. The annual trip home only emphasises their alienation. Yet their daughter, despite her parents’ unhappiness, abandons her own education to seek work in the city, drawn by that same desire for independence, for freedom from the social bonds of village life.

India is headed in this direction. Perhaps our instinctive distrust of outsiders and the upheaval they cause is fading. In February, Delhi proved that if the urge to create something new is strong enough, then even the most forbidding city can trust an outsider, despite all the warnings of anarchy and chaos, and elect him to power. Global cities are vast agglomerations of outsiders. Our response cannot be to cling to old certainties, to parrot smug pieties. Instead, as the punks always knew, we may just have to rip it up and start again.



Shougat Dasgupta has been a journalist since 2002 and is former books editor at Tehelka.

One Comment

  1. Apoorva August 27, 2015 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this. Incredible new way of looking at heterogeneity and conflict. Amit Chaudhuri said that “Calcutta defines newness for me,” and I wrote after reading it that cities were a state of mind, the opposite of places where there was no newness, no stories. This piece articulates those complexities so much better.

Leave A Response