‘The Big Small Town: How Life Looks from Chandigarh’ by Aarish Chhabra turns ‘the mundane into the magical’

Filling a void in the world of books, ‘The Big Small Town: How Life Looks from Chandigarh’ by Aarish Chhabra was released in Chandigarh on Tuesday, finally providing a narrative on the story of a fast-changing Chandigarh, from a slow paced small town to a fast growing ‘big’ small town.

Aarish Chhabra

Journalist Chhabra, in conversation with author-critic Nirupama Dutt, started off by clarifying that “this is not a book about architecture”. “If you search online or ask a bookseller for a book about Chandigarh, you will end up with a tome on Le Corbusier. That’s fine, but there are people inside those buildings!” Dutt underlined how this is arguably the first book of its kind. Simply put, it’s a collection of articles – stories, experiential pieces and essays — published as part of a column branded ‘By The Way’ in the Hindustan Times between 2013 and 2017. The writer, Aarish Chhabra, is a journalist since 2008, and has worked for The Indian Express as well.

The book deals with an array of topics, from politics to people to the general trivialities of life, all connected somehow to life in Chandigarh or how life looks from here. It was released on Tuesday at Chandigarh Press Club by senior resident editor, HT, Ramesh Vinayak.

“But life in this city can seem so beautiful, at times, that it becomes perfectly drab. This book aims not to be like that. Because it does not take itself too seriously! You are free to do that, though — take yourself and this book seriously, that is!” jokes Chhabra.

In the conversation, Dutt set the pace by going down history lane: “Chandigarh was built to replace Lahore after Partition; however, it became a place known for its alienation for a long time.” The alienation that Dutt mentioned is well documented in the book and how the city is moving away from it. “Increasingly, houses in Chandigarh have started to gain their own character, subtracting the alienation, and adding elements that define the modern urban India of today, not the imagined city that Corbusier had made,” writes Chhabra in one of the columns.

Dutt asked him how he chooses his topics and he cited the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and “the sound of the deadline passing by” as motivation. He then added that he tries to write about current affairs but by linking them to a larger picture and human emotion.

The book is divided into six parts, one of which happens to be ‘The Pak Love.’ When asked about it, Chhabra said, “Look, if half of Punjab was not on the other side, there would have been no city called Chandigarh.”

Aarish Chhabra-04

The book has come up as a new genre, said Dutt. “It offers you more than Chandigarh’s architecture and how it is to be managed. It is a deep insight, offering to tell you beyond what is visible.” Dutt asked him about why he plays the small town boy from Abohar, which he is, even when he is now part of the city;s cultural circles, to which I replied: “That gives me the liberty to get away with saying things. I am part of the local circles, yet I am an observer. That’s a great place to be in, if you want to write about it!”

Vinayak described Chhabra as a “traveler turned into a chronicler” whose curiosity has turned “the mundane into the magical”. “His writing tells that Chandigarh has come of age in a tone which is soft and subtle. The book shows a Chandigarh that I never knew,” said Vinayak.

He mentioned a chapter titled ‘A lungful of petrichor’, which talks about a rainy evening spent stuck in a market corridor with rickshaw-wallahs who are as much a part of this city as anyone else. “That’s the kind of writing that was missing about Chandigarh. Well, not anymore,” said Dutt.

The book is published by Unistar Books, and is at leading bookstores and online on Amazon and other sites.



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