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Heritage is what we do not have to preserve

As the example of Thiruvananthapuram shows, the real heritage of a place does not lie in what the municipality controls, rather, it survives within its people

The Kanakakunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram, a city steeped in heritage, both architectural and human. Photo: Alamy
The Kanakakunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram, a city steeped in heritage, both architectural and human. Photo: Alamy

The true nature of Thiruvananthapuram is that it is a narrow lane. It has a few broad roads, of course, but their heart is not in being broad. They let vehicles and people flank them, slowing down life so that people can have a good look at other people. Most spaces in the town behave like narrow lanes. In a narrow lane, people stare at what they have always seen, and, when they see something new, they need to do something more than just stare; so they stare with an opinion.

On a given early morning on the clean winding lanes of this town, an impossibly old woman may pick flowers from her own tree, serious men may go somewhere in their white mundu; and young girls, as always, look as though it has just rained. There is much street joy in this town, which is a sprawl of low-roofed homes in a forest of coconut trees. Thiruvananthapuram looks like the past of an Indian city. And when you realize suddenly that all this will go one day, you may get a familiar ache. Isn’t it inevitable? All this beauty and quiet will be replaced by tall lean apartment buildings with a triangle or sphere on top, as though to suggest architect Hafeez Contractor had thought of it.

We are trained to believe that such a longing for the survival of what is cultural, beautiful and aesthetic in a city is noble; that it is humane to be disgusted by real estate developers who transform old into new. But then is it true? Is the pain we feel for the mortality of heritage as virtuous as it seems at first glance? What is the price regular people pay to keep a city centre beautiful? Are they outpriced, have they been cordoned off in faraway uglier places from where they have to emerge to work in beautiful places? Is the urban antiquity of a city a symptom that the cultural elite have held their forts, that they have not been toppled by modernity? Does the fact that the old money of Thiruvananthapuram still lives in its heart, holding large swathes of commercially valuable land, mean that the economy is not advanced enough to create a new class of elite? Isn’t it true that the charm of this adorable town is also a sign that it is a difficult place for businesses to thrive?

Progress is not aesthetic because aesthetics is not the objective of progress, no matter what the beneficiaries of aesthetics may say.

But then it is hard for the lovers of heritage to let go. The destruction of what is old, hence beautiful, reminds us of our own decay and mortality, and, for this and for many other reasons, we will find ways to protest or even preserve the old structures and cultures. That is why every time an Irani restaurant in Mumbai sells out to become McDonald’s or KFC, a type of people mourn the transformation. They curse the power of capitalism even though an Irani restaurant, too, is a symbol of capitalism, old and cute but still capitalism, which had once destroyed an even more ancient way of life.

There is something farcical about heritage conservation, about ancient beautiful buildings whose modernity is hidden within. All things considered, is it not true that the real heritage of a place is not in what the municipality controls, but in what survives in its people? The enduring heritage of a place is in manners and ways of standing and types of humour and exquisite proverbs, and marriage vows, and also in gods, and, of course, high-carb food.

The real heritage of a place is not what people feel should be preserved but what its people do not feel the need to preserve because it is almost eternal.

In Thiruvananthapuram, there is paradisiacal food, and art is not what people who cannot do science do, and people know their rights. Barring 2 hours of peak traffic every day, most vehicles follow rules as though they have ceded from India. At the traffic signal, they stand behind white lines, they let people cross the road, and though you may find it hard to believe, it is true that on occasion they even leave a whole lane free for stray cars that want to turn right. And they do not honk. This, too, is heritage.

There is probably a point in the per capita income and the human development index of a society when its people will suddenly decide to stop behind the white line at the signals. And the fact that Thiruvananthapuram has gone past that point, and that despite its backward economy its human development index is almost First World, is a consequence of its heritage. This, in turn, was created by the region’s early capitalistic prosperity, which combined with religious morality to promote the theory that all humans have equal rights, which eventually led to powerful social and political movements, and universal education and health.

The real destruction of Thiruvananthapuram will not be the razing of beautiful homes and a million coconut trees, but when all its people stop thinking in Malayalam and begin to be ashamed of who they really are. In any case, when there is a battle between heritage and human nature, heritage usually loses.

There is a hugely enjoyable way of perceiving heritage which is similar to a very common philosophy of enjoying life—accept mortality and fully extract every moment through all the senses. Like the value of life is in its transience, the value of urban heritage too is in the inevitability of its disappearance. Immortality is the end of meaning. As you walk down the moist narrow winding lanes of Thiruvananthapuram, as you feel the pain of a future when all this will not be around, you can feel the fortune of being right here in the gentle drizzle among these cordial homes.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous. To read more of his columns, go to

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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