Moving around Gurgaon just a few weeks ago, I had the strange feeling that I was in the midst of a ghost town. Signs of a city in decay were all around. Abandoned cranes sat idly beside the skeletal frames of half-built skyscrapers, which were steadily collecting dust. Rocks, dirt, and debris littered all sides of the road, which itself was cracking up and falling apart. And not a tree in sight, as if some sort of post-apocalyptic malaise had set in and rendered bio-diversity redundant.
And yet, what an unusual sort of ghost town this would be. For it can be said that Gurgaon has yet to really live as a town. It is instead better seen as an empty promise, or, at best, a promise so far unfulfilled. So what kind of a ghost town is it that dies without ever truly coming alive? Indeed, Gurgaon hasn't lived in the sense that one would expect the proverbial ‘ghost town’ to have lived. A ghost town’s best days are always behind it. Its residents long ago deserted it, and history itself has left it behind. Its presence is spectral, the cracked and crumbling walls and general urban decay point to a past that was, a past disconnected from today, even if the materiality of built form persists (as in the picture above).
Gurgaon, in contrast, is and always has been, since its neoliberal conception, a city whose best days were to be ahead of it. It was promised as the "millenium city," a city for the "new" India's bright, confident, and prosperous future. Its investors and tenants were heavily staked to such a temporal imagining of Gurgaon, an imagining powerful enough to radically transform Gurgaon from a sleepy industrial village surrounded by farmland into a transnational showcase of resplendent architecture and privatized urban design.
But cruising just weeks ago through its half-built (or half-decayed) skyline on the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway, the gargantuan sized billboards on both sides of the road appear even more haunting, as their sanitized images of high-rise condominiums set in idyllic environs and postmodern corporate office buildings surrounded by lush green campuses form a stark visual contrast to the parched post-industrial landscape of the “new” Gurgaon. The images on the billboards are accompanied by words: "world-class living, just a stone throw away from the city....a world connected to your dreams..." They are designed to evoke a feeling of escaping Delhi, or perhaps even India. And this is why many have chosen to relocate here; not only does it provide a safe (but not too distant) retreat from the chaos and clamor of Delhi, but it is also a mere ten minute drive from Indira Gandhi International Airport. For NRIs and investors from America and other western countries, Gurgaon provides a way of entering India without actually being in “India.” It allows transnational elites to live amongst, but never really with, the majority of the inhabitants of this country. And in this sense, the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway isn’t merely a road, it’s a portal. As one leaves the airport and crosses the expansive toll gate into Gurgaon--with its inverted apex always hidden on the other side of where you enter from--you become teleported to a space and time that is not here and now, but “elsewhere” and “coming soon.” This is precisely what these billboards are advertising--this promise. And it is at most only a promise, because the actual landscape of the city is nothing like what the sanitized images and idyllic conditions might imply. It is the residents of Gurgaon, those spectral agents who reside in this ghost town, that are deeply invested in such a promise. And such an investment is not merely financial. Though the financial aspects are impossible to over-emphasize.
Gurgaon is a ghost town in reverse. Its temporality is disconnected from the present. Its urban space is spectral. It is a simulacrum under construction, or perhaps the better word would be de-construction. To understand the fragmented spaces and disjointed times of this city is also to understand the virtuality of the global economy at its urban frontier. I understand Gurgaon not merely as a suburb of Delhi, but as a symbolic and material embodiment of the city's latest avatar: “neo” Delhi. This is a Delhi transformed by the ideology of neoliberal urbanism, which I take to be the intentional and unintentional design of a new spatio-temporal experience of the city. The crucial link to make here is not between two distinct urban spaces, Gurgaon and Delhi, for they bleed into each other increasingly. Rather, the crucial connection has to do with financial fetishism and urban form, between the speculative fuel that drives the global economy and the built environment that materializes in urban space. That such city spaces and financial speculations are half-hazard, schizophrenic, unstable and unsustainable, only underscores the larger critique of neoliberal urbanism that needs to be made at this time of great global recession.