Lavasa, the Dream City that Became a Ghost Town

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Lavasa, the Dream City that Became a Ghost Town

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

I

have always believed that most cities and towns have a theme song that evokes the emotion that is the closest to the sentiment a place embodies. This belief was strengthened when I recently visited Lavasa. Because for the entire duration of my stay in this fascinating, haunting, and disturbing vacation spot, there was one Adam Lambert song that kept playing in my head on loop – and much to the annoyance of my friends, on my phone.

“My heart is a ghost town…”

Lavasa for me was a wonder world, a strange new land that promised the lavish joys of a foreign vacation. A friend termed it as the vanity vacation for those who believed they ought to be in Europe but had to settle for India.

In a lot of senses, Lavasa kept that promise.

Inspired by Portofino in Italy, Lavasa has everything from cobbled promenades to immaculate waterfronts to beautifully designed open-air seating areas. There is an endearing appeal in the way it tries to recreate the feel of quaint European towns (with an American Diner right in the middle of it) with a striking lack of self-awareness or irony. It feels like a Lego city, imagined and built by a child who has only recently discovered the joys of building things out of thin air.

The analogy isn’t entirely out of place, given that Lavasa was a billionaire’s dream that eventually turned into a nightmare for all its stakeholders. It has all the displays of the petulance of a spoiled child, of an arrogance that presumed that money could buy and build anything. I came back from the hill city to be greeted by a deluge of news reports which detailed the crumbling of Ajit Gulabchand’s cherished dream, terming Lavasa a ghost town that was forced to drag the burden of debts and failed ambitions of all its stakeholders.

From beautiful lakesides to lush green landscapes overlooking the town, there is nothing Lavasa does not have going for it.

I did not need a financial or technical lowdown to know that Lavasa was indeed a ghost town. When I arrived in Lavasa, it was bustling with people, teeming with noisy families and honeymooning couples. And yet, the town felt empty. There was a haunting sort of loneliness that pervaded Lavasa’s distant corners, a kind of a ringing hollowness that resonated through not just the unfinished concrete structures that dot the town like a set up for a B-grade horror flick but even the places that were frequented by tourists. The promenade was crowded but felt dead, and the neatly stacked red-yellow apartment fronts conveyed a sense of lonely sorrow much more than the extravagant luxury they were supposed to exemplify. It made you feel sorry for the people who invested their money in those empty showpieces and it made you feel sorry for the city that housed them.

Lavasa was conceived as a planned hill city. So obviously, it also imitates what the best hill stations in this country are known for. From beautiful lakesides to lush green landscapes overlooking the town, there is nothing Lavasa does not have going for it. And yet, it falls painfully short of being anything close to even the tiniest, most unassuming hill stations in the country. And not merely because Lavasa is an environmental nightmare.

It is because when I went for a boat ride in Lavasa, I got value for my money – a comfortable boat that took me around a gorgeous lake. But when I went for a boat ride in Bhimtal, a hill station half the size and supposed magnificence of Lavasa, the comfort and the beauty were complimented by stories and local folklore about the origins of the lake that our boatman threw in free of charge – stories that Lavasa doesn’t have and probably never will.

Lavasa is a kind of ahistorical pastiche of so many places that actually belongs nowhere. A neverland minus all the romance, all the mystery – pat and denuded of all context.

The hill city is a monument to the kind of excesses that this country is prone to, a monument that hoped to survive on the promise of luxury and extravagance and of course, aspiration and perfection that could be packaged and sold as tourist attractions. The problem is that tourists are not inhabitants. They are floating vacationers and self-absorbed revellers who have no emotional connect with the city and add no value to a place, aside from keeping the facade alive. And the people who chose to invest in this hot property because it was “trendy” or “smart” or a great “vacation getaway” can hardly be the ones expected to make emotional investments in the foundation of the town.

What ails Lavasa is not just a financial miscalculation. It is the disregard of the fact that cities are much more than immaculate constructions and well-planned localities. They are living, breathing organisms that are born off and thrive on the humanity that lives within them, the imperfections, the economic inequities, the variety of people who choose to make them their home, the history they bear witness to and the stories that form the foundation of the legend that brings them to life. Things that Lavasa with all its money and ambition could not evidently buy.

In a lot of ways, experiencing Lavasa in itself is a lesson in humility, a lesson in the fact that money may raise cities but it cannot infuse them with the souls that keep them alive. Lavasa’s story is not just a story of an environmental disaster or an economic nightmare, it is a cautionary tale of the failure of human hubris and a reminder that it may be easy to build a perfect city, but it is damn near impossible to buy its heart.

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