What is the quintessential symbol of modern Bengaluru: the Malleswaram coffee house or the construction worker from Mandya? The glitzy IT park or the taxi driver who migrated from Tumkur? It’s fairly obvious which of these would be celebrated by city guides and Instagram reels.
All across India’s urban landscape, those who build our homes, pick our garbage and facilitate our fast-paced lives in myriad ways often remain invisible. French graphic novelist Simon Lamouret attempts to penetrate this veil of invisibility with The Alcazar. It is the story of an upcoming apartment complex, The Alcazar, somewhere in Bengaluru and the many lives that intersect with the building’s construction. Mehboob, his wife, Salma and the couple’s relative, Rafik, are helping to build and guard it and live at the site.
They are among the 4.3 million migrants who live in Bengaluru, according to Census 2011 (the highest for any city other than Mumbai). Mehboob’s life is typical of the migrant experience. He “escaped” a life of farming, a major life expense—debt from his marriage—forced him to take up the construction job, yet he dreams of being “his own boss” someday, even if it means returning to the village.
Though Lamouret’s background is in design and architecture (he used to teach the foundations of perspective at a college in Bengaluru), the book’s approach is surprisingly often journalistic. There are nuggets about the gender pay gap in construction work (Mehboob earns 30% more than Salma); the site engineer is a young man straight out of college named Ali, whose pay is only slightly more than the labourers’; the person with actual influence at the site is the chief mason, Trinna, a shady operator.
Despite these glimmers of insight into the world of real estate, the book falls short of offering a compelling narrative with well-rounded characters. Very little of Mehboob’s or Rafik’s life outside the construction site is accessible. Their identity is confined to the site. So the book reads like a series of snapshots or vignettes from a construction site. In fact, the most moving passages are the ones in which Mehboob or Rafik casually dream about a life far removed from cement and brick. In one panel, Rafik claims he once held a car’s steering wheel. That should be good enough to snag the role of an app-based cab driver.
While the narrative pace and depth isn’t necessarily top-notch, the art is. The recurring double-spread panels that track the progress of the building are stunning, registering fine detail and marking the steady replacement of tree cover with concrete. Ultimately, the best thing about the book might be that Lamouret mustered up the courage to step into a construction site. Books that delve into the lives of migrant/guest workers who make and remake our cityscapes are somewhat rare. And without a finer appreciation of their stories, our understanding of the cities we live in will forever be incomplete.
Ajai Sreevatsan is a Delhi-based writer and journalist.