Vol 1 Issue 2 | July-September 2021

Under The Snake’s Belly

Story by Salil Chaturvedi | Art by Charbak Dipta


यह शहर जब सोता है

यह शहर जब सोता है

ना जाने मुझे क्या होता है

नज़र जाती है फुटपाथों पर

सोती हुई उन लाशों पर

जो सुबह जग जाती हैं

किसी काम में लग जाती हैं

पहाड़ सा एक दिन चढ़ती हैं

पर कहीं नहीं वो बढ़ती हैं

शाम फिर फ़ुटपाथ पर आती हैं

ख़ुद कफ़न ओढ़ सो जाती हैं

शहर के जाल में फँसती हैं

और अपने हाल पे हँसती हैं

पर आँखें इनकी नम होती हैं

यह लाशें कभी ना कम होती हैं

Poem from Salil Chaturvedi’s collection of Hindi poetry titled ‘Ya Ra La Va Sha Sa Ha’

While working on The Working Trees project – a photographic project that explores the intersection of urban poverty, livelihood and ecology (https://sustain.round.glass/urban-jungle/branch-offices-working-trees-delhi/) – I spent hundreds of hours over a two-year period on the roads of the National Capital Region of Delhi. During these photographic sojourns in Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad, I found that the megalopolis was being relentlessly dug, drilled and re-built. There seemed to be a concrete plan for the city! It was during this time that I was alerted to the emergence of a large scaly creature inhabiting the concrete jungle of the city. A creature that had a wide belly, and a tremendous appetite.

On travelling to some other cities, I encountered the same enthusiasm towards restructuring, and of course, the same slithering entity that was eating everything in its path, even parts of the sky!

And yet, under the belly of this creature there was a different reality. Poor workers, recently migrated from rural areas, milled about, sweating it out, sometimes making their ramshackle dwellings, or taking a brief nap between work shifts. This story emerged from a conversation with one such worker who had come to the city with great hopes of changing his family’s fortune.

Over the past decade, India has witnessed a breakneck pace of urbanisation. Indeed, the story of urbanisation is a global one. To Bill Gates’ surprise (and mine) China has used as much concrete in three years as the US has used in the entire 20th century! (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/03/24/how-china-used-more-cement-in-3-years-than-the-u-s-did-in-the-entire-20th-century/)

According to estimates, the year 2007 was a landmark year for human population – it marked the first time in human history that more people were living in highly dense urban areas than in rural ones. By 2050 more than two-thirds of the world population will reside in urban areas, leaving behind their agricultural roots.

Currently, one in three urban dwellers live in slum households. So, is living in the urban jungle working out for everyone?

UN-HABITAT analyses have shown that the incidence of disease and mortality is much higher in slums than in non-slum areas, and in some cases, is even higher than in rural areas. Intra-city inequalities have risen as the gap between the rich and the poor widens.

The Ouroboros

While Charbak illustrated the story, Orijit Sen suggested that we depict the creature in the form of Ouroboros, an ancient alchemical symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail. The symbol suggests the cycle of life in cultures ranging from Egypt to Vedic India. In modern cybernetics, it evokes feedback loops in which the output signal influences the input through its response to the new situation.

How our cities respond to the feedback loops of ‘infrastructure development’ and its effects on the lives of citizens remains to be seen.

– Salil Chaturvedi

Salil’s collection of Hindi poetry titled ‘Ya Ra La Va Sha Sa Ha’ is available from https://store.pothi.com/book/salil-chaturvedi-ya-ra-la-va-sha-sa-ha/