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The future is Indian

01 of February '22

Ahmedabad first crushed us and then devoured us. Already in the cab from the airport, and we were riding in a run-down Hindustan, Vítek, my Czech companion, and I felt the rising tide of excess. Bengaluru, from which we had flown, with its thousands of IT engineers, ostentatious wealth of start-up owners, smart buildings and design festival, seemed to be the advertising poster of the new India.

Ahmedabad is a completely different oriental fairy tale. Like from Tadeusz Kulisiewicz's travel sketches from the 1950s. Phlegmatic cows with exaggerated, almost cartoonish horns lumbering through traffic at their best. Sun-drenched and poverty-stricken crowds gliding along high sidewalks, on whose curbs they sit as if on park benches, lining their feet with the wheels of speeding vehicles. The crowded, undulating storefronts of stores and stores, jazzy and overwhelming, and between them, out of sheer folly, ashrams squeezed in here and there. On the scale of a shrine with a front garden, or as small, single-room temples. Invariably painted in a single color, mostly pistachio or pink, like monochromatic, outlier absurd models. Spun out of millions of details that, like an anthill or the facade of a baroque church, seem to move slightly under the influence of sun and shadow. The city, like Gujarat, the state of which it is the capital, is a space of orthodox Hinduism. "Why do you need other gods when you have thousands of them here?" - says our driver. If you're looking for proof that Indian clichés don't come from nothing, head to Ahmedabad. "We're a dry state - we don't drink alcohol here," he says. - states the chauffeur, turning his head back and winking at us. For throughout Gujarat, and especially in its richest city, an underground life thrives, as it does wherever religious orthodoxy meets a suspiciously fascist-smelling need to unify the masses under a single standard. Finally in power is Modi, a prime minister who wants a break with India's colonial past, for which English and British-built institutions and systems - from taxation to education - are still the common language. Only that Modi wants to impose on this giant patchwork of cultures one language, his own - Hindi - along with a series of laws limiting diversity. Meanwhile, the chauffeur is eager to talk about the local underground. Liquor stores, gambling parlors, lupanars. Skolko ugodno. After all, he distributes respectable customers to various attractions on a daily basis. "And who benefits from this? Tourists?" - I ask. "E, ladies... - the moustachioed man grins - in our country there is no shortage of people with money!" - and throws in the local equivalent of the saying "Who can forbid a rich man?". Vítek sends me an ironic smile, stating "Welcome home!" in Czech, as I suddenly got a whiff of modern Eastern Europe with its sudden efflorescence of bigotry and hypocrisy. Or perhaps not so sudden again, if one recalls Milan Kundera's series of Sorbonne lectures collected in the book "The Veil. Essays in Seven Parts." Habsburg, Prussian or Tsarist culture of caping before a bureaucrat, a ruler, a strong mustachioed man with gray-dusted temples. And rivers of money flowing in underground troughs. From pocket to hand across the office, palace, police headquarters.

Vítek and I are conducting workshops for two groups of students at the young Anant National University, which has sprouted from a respectable private giant in the form of CEPT University founded in the 1960s by B.V. Doshi, the mastodon of Indian architecture and Pritzker Prize winner. A group of professors went to AnantU driven by a mission to foster education among lower-middle-class youth. The parents of these students cannot afford not only to send them to study in London or even Warsaw, but even at CEPT, and only a handful of the less well-off can count on scholarships anywhere. AnantU is indeed growing: construction is underway around the plot of land on which the first building of the complex, shaped into a square with a large inner courtyard, stands. A Japanese-designed dormitory and new teaching buildings are being built. Meanwhile, we eat lunch in the school's pergola-covered courtyard. Cloisters stretch around it, partially hidden behind openwork walls of sliding blocks. These galleries protect from the sun and at the same time provide communication in the building, which ends up standing in a warm monsoon climate. At their intersections are extensions with large work tables and distinctive tall stools designed by Balkrishna Doshi himself. We sit with Vítek, who talks about his project to combine augmented reality with printed graphics and texts. We're surrounded by a garland of students who huddle around us as if we were some kind of sadhu, holy men who, by chance, landed in the courtyard of their school during a morning levitation session. Between rounds of lectures and workshops, young people come up to us for advice. A girl in a green T-shirt asks what to do next with her career after postgraduate studies, a boy in a traditional pajama shares his dreams of studying in the United States. My design thinking workshop is a brainstorming session in subgroups on fixing the malfunctioning elements of Indian reality. I asked nearly thirty students to list the main ills of their daily lives on different scales. They threw up a lot of them: from the poor quality of dorm life and the poor hygienic conditions of their families' lives to pervasive corruption. In subgroups, they work on individual problems. Discussions, disputes, fiery tirades erupt. True Indian creative energy is thrown out in raised voices in various English tinged with local accents that sometimes make it impossible for me to understand o-what-kaman. Only one group decides on an architectural theme, the rest set off to fight for a better country. The girls are in charge: some rise from their plastic chairs in exasperation, raising their hands in the air and gesticulating. Sometimes their hands close into fists. Excitement builds in the room, like the buzzing of a nest of wild bees before they pounce on a cartoon bear. It's the fervor of changing the world. Their world.

In the afternoon, they finish their presentations, drawing until the last minute, determining roles, who should say what. Committees of girls with boys attached. Still discussions and lights out in the rapidly falling tropical evening. Soon we're sitting with Vítek over lemonade in a hotel cafe styled like a colonial country club. As befits a sahib. We are exhausted and stunned. My Czech companion shakes his head, resting his hand on the cold glass. "Jeez, I had a group of just princesses and only one run-down boy. They all smelled of oils and were probably pimped out with something, like some kind of Scheherazade!". "Your room was badly ventilated and you got dizzy from the oils?" - I ask, taking a sip of mango lemonade. Vítek is much younger than me. His innovative project of combining print and the augmented reality capabilities of a smartphone or phone is a graduation project from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. The Indian princesses clearly impressed him. Fortunately, my room was well ventilated, and the princesses looked more like Nadezhda Krupskaya in states of thickest and darkest hair. Some took over the world with millennia-old cosmetic patents, others with ruthless enthusiasm. Tremble patriarchs!

My futurological musings over a glass of lemonade find confirmation the next morning. Snehal, dean of AnantU's architecture department, invites us to visit Doshi's studio. The visit is made possible by the two's long friendship: Snehal started as his student, then assistant and employee, and finally lecturer at CEPT. In the cab, I ask her about the ninety-three-year-old architect. Vítek, too, excited, as I gave him a lecture about Doshi, also mentioning Tadeusz Barucki, who met him in the 1960s, and who, upon hearing that I would be visiting Ahmedabad, sent me a photo taken of him in the garden of his house more than half a century ago. The studio is not visible from the street. It is shaded by a dense, manicured garden shading the cradles of half-buried oblong rooms. All around, the new Ahmedabad is flourishing: over the street, on the other side of which five-story buildings are piled up, stretches the under-construction overpass of the city railroad, its passengers will easily see the smallest detail in the lurid garden. Residential buildings have sprung up all around, and the studio now looks like a mainstay from the days when Doshi bought this plot of land among the fields in the distant suburbs for nothing. Through a half-open gate that is meant to invite mere mortals into the semi-public garden intended by the author, we enter a winding, shady alley leading us away from the street. From between the fancifully twisted tree trunks comes ethereal music on sitar and tabla, most likely from speakers hidden discreetly somewhere. Through a reception desk hung with mock-ups and Doshi's signature project posters, we enter a stuffy conference room. Behind the glass we see a patron talking on the phone. After a while, he comes in. Tall and erect, looking to be in his sixties with a surfing past. He tucks his long hair behind his ear with a modest smile. Sitting down on the stools he designed, we talk about Poland and how it has changed after the fall of communism. Then Doshi complains a bit with a sad smile about contemporary politics and how neoliberalism is destroying the spirit of community in all classes of his society. He talks about how the lessons of his social projects have never been applied to official state policy regarding the constitutional obligation to provide a roof over the heads of millions of citizens. I ask about the future. The architect puts his hands on his chest and makes a saddened face. Finally, he replies: "And here and around the world we see how many things are spoiled by old people clinging to power. How they want to maintain the old orders at all costs, or restore those that didn't work, which gave power to people like them in the past..."- he suspends his voice, and I see dust particles slowly floating in the air. "I think the future should be women. Maybe they'll do a better job of fixing this world." Snehal squints her eyes and nods slightly with a mysterious smile.

There are roughly one billion three hundred million people living in India today. More than 48 percent are women. According to many sources, they tend to live harder there than women in other Asian countries, especially because of the oppressive marriage and inheritance laws still in place. Poland has a population of just over 37 million, and the Central Statistical Office forecasts that by 2050 there will be seven million fewer of us. We have one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe, and the rules for paying Social Security are based on the so-called intergenerational contract, according to which the descending generation pays for the previous generation. I wonder when it will turn out that we have no way out. That the Christian bastion of chubby conservative blondes and progressive blondes will have to open up to thousands of gods brought by millions of oil-smelling enthusiastic and enterprising children of the Indian subcontinent. Because after all, who will pay for our pensions?

Jakub Szczęsny

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