People who've lived in them seem strangely dry-eyed though, having gone through a lifetime of dealing with rusty pipes, leaky roofs, stuffy kitchens and a 100 year accumulation of wild life in their cupboards.
The majority of us, however, just move on. We tut-tut when they go down, but happily waltz into the shiny modern apartments and malls that take their place. Is this an exclusively Indian phenomenon?
To ascertain this, I met up with a cheerful lady in in a diaphanous red saree for pani puri on 8th cross the other day. Her long flowing black hair was barely held in place by a crown of gold. She beamed at me in a most motherly manner, while using her tri-coloured flagstaff to pole-vault gracefully across a puddle to reach Rajanna's chaat trolley. After we ordered one masaaley and one pani sweet, we proceeded to converse thus:
"Mataram vande, my child. Rajanna avre, solpa khara haaki." (Mr Rajanna, lay on the green chutney)
("Kottey! kottey..!") (Giving, giving)
"Maathey, why is the west so obsessed with preserving its architectural heritage, whereas we, as a nation, are largely unbothered?"
"Thoo some easy question ask I say."
"Seeee.. Western culture is visible and tangible and therefore needs to be preserved thus. India's is not. We look down our noses at everything ephemeral, such as brick, stone, life... and this pani puri.
"I don't know about this really. It's lovely to say and all, but do we really believe this, deep down? How many of us are truly detached from life and the yen for aquisition?"
"Yen aa? Rupiss no?"
"Shh. No really, Even my thaatha, who'd say "Yennathai ozhachchu, paadu pattu, saaptu, thoongi.." (Whats the use of working, toiling, eating, sleeping..) was probably just saying it for effect. We're just complacent and unbothered, is what I think."
"True, but not necessarily in a bad way. We just don't see merit in preserving stuff that has outlived its value. What is not used crumbles to dust sooner or later. "
"As if. Just because you are Bharat Mata I should believe everything you say uh?"
"Hello I am new age Bharat mata. Bharat akka even. But look around you. The only Indian architecture that has been preserved culturally, is that which is still in use. Places of worship, government offices, rice-paddy terraces, etc. The rest of it - the forts of Rajasthan, the ruins of Hampi, the great baths of Mohenjo Daro - are all preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India, who probably do it out of sheer force of habit. I'm sure even the ASI wouldn't have been this gung-ho about preserving stuff, if it hadn't been formed in colonial times. "
"So why aren't we, as a culture, motivated enough to do it ourselves?"
"Boss I think we have our own ways of dealing with history and preserving our culture. We are not big on physical reminders. Our detatchment from material things has infact often been misunderstood as unbotheredness. History in my opinion (as new age Bharat mata), is meant to be learnt from and let go of."
"But Mummy Indie, our history is precious. How would we remember, if we don't have icons to represent it?"
"You don't need physical icons. Especially redundant ones. Besides, if all your ancestors were this hoity-toity about ringing out the old, you'd be sitting on 40 centuries of redundant architecture! Rulers regularly demolished and rebuilt entire kingdoms to suit their current needs. That's part of life. You can't expect an entire country to preserve 200 generations architectural heritage just because your highness wants iconic evidence of it! Maaad I say. Take pictures, make movies, document it, compose songs about it. Grumble about it if you want. These are Indian things to do."
"But can't we at least preserve the facades of our buildings and modernize the insides, like the west does?"
"Thats just silly. Why should a city look like it did 200 years ago, when everything about it has changed? It's like stuffing a dead pet. "
"Err I guess you have a point, but doesn't culture need an anchor? Something that stands as a reminder of its unique identity, something that will remain static over generations, for people to relate to?"
"An anchor can only be dropped when the sea is deep enough. The west has anchored itself on architecture that represents the zenith of its power, which it attained about 150 years ago. New India is only 60 years old after all, hasn't reached the peak of its power yet. I'd probably guess that buildings that survive 50 years after we reach our heyday, stand a greater likelihood of being preserved."
"So you're saying western preservation efforts are all about power in the end? And that India will start preserving icons that represent the peak of its power, whenever that happens?"
"That's what I'm saying."
"But hello, you're contradicting yourself. You just said we are culturally ephemeral and aren't into all physical reminders."
"Uff. Boss, India is land of contradictions. Leave off now. As it is I have a permanent headache with this stupid crown. Chumma don't eat my head and worsen it. Want to split one dahi puri?"
"Thank god you're pretty ma."
"Ei, suryanige torchaa? (For sun only torch showing aa?) When ledis-god only is standing in front of you, which other god you will thank I say? If you fools had drawn me a chappal, I'd have hit you with it, insolent fellow. Ri, ond dahi haaki." (Sir, put one dahi puri)