Woah, look at them Flyovers!

India is progressing. That much we all know. It is visible everywhere – in highly populated metro hubs as well as in slow, sleepy towns. There is only one, permanent season here. Not Monsoon, neither Summer. Nope, it’s Construction Season, year round! Shiny new malls, overly-daunting skyscrapers dot almost every town (big and small).

But, at what cost?

Vadodara has welcomed this season with a widely open heart. My grandma’s wonderful home of 20 years, in the heart of the city, was acquired five years ago by commerce-driven businessmen looking to capitalize on Booming India. It was torn down and replaced by a snazzy mall.

Recently, malls have taken the back seat to road construction in the city. It has caught the Flyover Bug that Mumbai had at the turn of the 21st century. Road improvement is definitely needed to alleviate the terrible traffic congestion that plagues the city.

However, in the process of building these, many surrounding homes have had to be destroyed. These houses belong to the underprivileged who lack both the voice to oppose and the money to bribe officials. Fine – for civic improvement, such a step is needed. Yet, these citizens are not given immediate alternative housing nor compensation to purchase one. In all fairness, the government does guarantee housing for the displaced 2 years down the line. But where is one to go in the time interim?

Progress should not be just measured via the increasing number of expensive, imported cars of the Classes but also through the improvement of the basic standard of living (a human right) for the Masses.

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Finding a Gem in your own backyard

When I used to live in India, I used to dream of Venetian palaces, French chateaus, Chinese summer homes. It took 24 years to open my eyes and see the history surrounding the place where I spent my childhood summers, the city of my birth. Often we passed by the Laxmi Villas Palace in Vadorara in rickshaws but never did I have the curiosity or the fascination to go visit it. Vadodara back then was associated just with long, lazy summers lounging in Grandma’s apartment and going shopping for pretty Gujarati dresses on R.C.Dutt road.

Laxmi Villas Palace, Vadodara

That dusty, boring Vadodara too could have its own fascinating history, beautiful architecture, and an on-site royal family never struck me.

Darbar Hall, Laxmi Villas Palace, Vadodara

It was the permanence of the backyard that strongly hindered my exploratory spirit when it came to this palace. It took a physical, permanent removal from India to get me dreaming about one day visiting the sprawling construction in the heart of the city.

Laxmi Villas Palace, build circa 1890, is gorgeous. One of the seven wonders of India, the palace is a fusion of styles – going from Italian stained glass window (the most in any private residence) to Islamic arabesque carvings. Yet, it retains within itself that charm that makes it a true Gujarati construction – that airy feeling, those open aangans (courtyards), those sculpted wooden arches.

Amusing call-back to America: The palace tour is conducted via an audio guide (in English!), reminding me of my Fall ’09 visit to the gilded mansions in Rhode Island.