Interview With : Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Author, Historian, Academic, Feminist and 2016 Fulbright-Nehru Senior Sch
Updated on: 11 Jun 2016
The historian speaks of the book she is writing on Gurgaon, and the difficulties of biographing a 'growing, fast-changing child'
Historian, academic, feminist and 2016 Fulbright-Nehru senior scholar, Veena Talwar Oldenburg is all set to "biograph a child"—Gurgaon city. Even in the shade of the foliage that surrounds her beautiful home, she sparkles like an explorer returning with news of a miraculous discovery—one that will fill the pages of The Chronicles Of Gurgaon: From Mythic Hamlet To Millennium City, scheduled to be published next year.
Having authored The Making Of Colonial Lucknow: 1856-1877; Lifestyle As Resistance: The Case Of The Courtesans Of Lucknow and Dowry Murder—The Imperial Origins Of A Cultural Crime, Oldenburg, 69, prides herself on her ability to tell a story. It's not hard to understand why as she breaks into rich personal anecdotes and impassioned discussion on the significance of the city, the challenges of her project, the impact of the personal on the intellectual, and her motivations, with tell-all spirit. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Let's start with the question you've been asking everyone in the city—"Why Gurgaon?" What captivates you about Gurgaon, and what inspired you to write about it?
When I got introduced to Gurgaon, it was just a wild place. (It was) barren, it had poultry farms, villagers walking around, and women with faces utterly covered...I never believed that a city would rise. It was so bleak and minimalist—one little village shop, one dhaba (roadside eatery), and one grocery store. Blankness. And then, it erupted. As if a tsunami had hit it, the blankness began to be filled up. I use words that are almost geologically too swift, but it was an eruption. I used to call it "the concrete hiccup". But slowly, I began to defend Gurgaon.
People would say, "Oh, that Gurgaon—Pani nahin hai, bijli nahin hai, infrastructure nahin hai…" (There's no water, electricity, or infrastructure…) But hum toh hain! (But we are there!)
And I'm an urban historian. Sitting here, I said (to myself), here's a city growing up, right in front of my eyes, and the urgent need that made me write about my home, Lucknow, began to stir within me. Defending Gurgaon mutated into a wish to describe it, to narrate it, to tell its history, to sort of balance out the picture.
The city has been written and talked about extensively in local, national and even international press. How is your take going to be different?