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Why do our cities breed loneliness?

By N Suresh
September 16, 2014 12:35 IST
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'The sense of urban loneliness is felt most in modern residential complexes. To be in the neighbourhood does not make one a friendly neighbour, so while one may appear friendly does not mean one is a friend.'

'I am alarmed at the rate at which we Indians have grown away from old systems that were ingrained in our society,' says N Suresh.

The World Health Organisation recently published a report, 'Preventing Suicide, A Global Imperative,' stating that India is the suicide capital of the world.

India in 2012 had nearly 260,000 suicides, accounting for nearly a third of the global total and more than twice as many as China. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds. Most attribute the cause of suicide deaths to loneliness, depression and psychological vulnerability.

Around the same time, Julian Baggini wrote (external link) a wonderful piece in The Guardian newspaper: 'Playable Cities: The city that plays together, stays together'.

While the current fad in Asia is about making smart cities, Baggini asserts, 'Forget about smart cities, Playable City ideas -- like Bristol's water slide or its temporary play streets -- are a human response to the coldness and anonymity of the urban environment.'

Now compare this to our Indian cities. We have come a long way from what once India was -- a country that prided in its joint family system, community living and sharing that was always integral.

I see the change in my own neighbourhood. Once a thriving old area, a wadi where each knew the families not only in one's own building but those living from one end to the other. All the children played together. A whole gang would fight with each other in power games, but also stood up for the other if any elder or perceived 'enemy' interfered. The timings for meals, waking up, sleeping and playing hours were the same. Almost every child, barring the odd 'intellectual' would come down to play.

Come festival time and every child, from every building participated, in fact there was a fight every year for individual and team events. The competitions varied from races, drawing, essay writing, fancy dress, dance and singing events. There was sense of secrecy among the various groups, sense of healthy competition but most of all a sense of togetherness. Everybody participated.

It wasn't that only children participated in these festivals, there were fun fairs, wherein families showcased their cooking and crafts talents, Navratri when not just for Gujarati families, but all communities participated in putting up dances.

Every Sunday, one family would take responsibility of taking the whole gang of children to a garden, park and eating out.

On holidays, the older and younger children would go to watch movies, select a particular day and go for 'Ganesh darshan' to all 'sarvajanik' mandals across the city. The sense of belonging was strong. The urge to bunk homework and go out and play was intense.

The sense of sharing extended to all occasions, like when someone would lose a family member and within minutes the elders would rush to the side of the family, youngsters would try to slowly get the child to play to forget their sadness. It was not that some stray parent didn't try to disrupt these group activities, but then the group spirit and community strength was strong.

Slowly with the changing times, the whole scenario changed.

Families stopped contributing for something like the Ganesh festival, forget participating. Things that were taken for 'sharing' are now seen to be inquisitive. Neighbours think twice before sharing good news, forget bad news. The sense of secrecy and not wanting to go beyond one's own family is increasing alarmingly.

Hence, not surprisingly, the bonding and sharing of one's highs and lows is now not being done within one's own neighbourhood, peer group and it obviously will not be done with one's colleagues.

The sense of urban loneliness is felt most in the modern residential complexes. To be in the neighbourhood does not make one a friendly neighbour, so while one may appear friendly does not mean one is a friend. I am alarmed at the rate at which we Indians have grown away from some old systems that were ingrained in our society and were actually therapeutic. How we took them for granted and did not ensure we adapt them to modern times.

For example, while we blame the government for corruption and potholes, the whole society, residential complexes will not come together and talk through the solutions.

Now this is what Baggini has written about in 'Playable cities.' Firstly, he says that the problems of living are created by cities 'can only be addressed by collective action.' The more important point he makes is, 'The sense of well-being of communities cannot be left to local authorities; citizens need to take control of their own surroundings.' By following this, the last point is that the optimism one feels that 'we can do more than just tackle problems one by one. By encouraging public activities that actively bring joy, we can create a happier, more cohesive urban future.'

One thing we need to understand that like in every family, things are only magnified in a community. So while there may be ego-clashes and all sorts of personalities, the result can be achieved only if everyone is accommodated and their strengths used for the common good.

And I do think we are getting to be a somewhat impatient and individualistic society. We rush to judge each other and not give time and space to the person to fail, learn from those failures and understand that the person can have something else which can be her/his calling. If the age group as seen in the report for suicidal deaths is 18 to 29, then socially and more so economically it is a negative impact on our country. This age group is young, able and healthy. And it is not that these victims or potential 'targets' have even attempted psychiatric treatment.

In a country where mental illness, consulting for depression and counseling is seen as a blot, all the more reason we need to follow Baggini's concept seriously and instead of building smart cities, which again divides society on class and income levels, we need concepts that bond us across class, caste and incomes.

We are not a homogenous society in India and urban spaces have exposed the disparities in our societies. Instead of learning to adapt and adjust with the community and society as a whole, we seem to be wanting spaces that are restricting -- wanting to be in neighbourhoods of only a particular class, income, professions and status. This has adverse social and psychological impact on people and society on the whole.

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N Suresh