Maximum cities

London, Paris and New York are dying – the 21st century belongs to the fertile chaos of the third-wo

Is the third-world metropolis taking over western culture? Tsotsi, a film about Johannesburg gangs, released in the UK this month, took the 2006 Oscar for best foreign- language film. Another Oscar went to The Constant Gardener, an account of dark forces at work in Nairobi whose director, Fernando Meirelles, shot to international fame in 2002 with his portrait of a Rio favela, City of God. The Raindance Film Festival last October climaxed with a screening of Secuestro express, a film about abduction gangs in Caracas. And at the end of 2004, two bestselling books explored the fiercely competitive under- and over-worlds of Mumbai: Suketu Mehta's Maximum City and Gregory David Roberts's Shantaram, which will be released next year as a major Hollywood motion picture directed by Peter Weir.

These are the early symptoms of a huge shift in the west's perception of the world: the third-world metropolis is becoming the symbol of the "new". This is all the more thrilling for its improbability: surely, those suffocating slums are too exhausted, too moribund, to bring forth futures? Yet it seems to me this is exactly what is happening. If, for the better part of the 20th century, it was New York and its glistening imitations that symbolised the future, it is now the stacked-up, sprawling, impromptu city-countries of the third world. The idea of the total, centralised, maximally efficient, planned city has long since lost its futuristic appeal: its confidence and ambition have turned to anxiety and besiegement; its homogenising obsession has induced counter-fantasies of insubordination, excess and life forms in chaotic variety. Such desires find in the third-world metropolis a scope, a speed, a more fecund ecology.

Why would it be so? For a start, the rumours crackling in from the third world have ceased to be quaint. Indian and Chinese business people rattle assumptions by buying up major corporate assets in America and Europe; there are stories of Asian billionaires buying houses at record-breaking prices in Belgravia. There is a dim awareness of something monumental happening far away, of extraordinary wealth creation that goes beyond mere imitation. Perceptive observers see something awe-inspiring in outsourcing - a western, metropolitan outlook could not have imagined a world so devoid of centre, so unsentimentally flattened out by technology and capital. Some have heard rumours of "medical tourists" flocking from the UK to Delhi and Mumbai to get operations that the National Health Service could not provide; and, simultaneously awed and appalled, they wonder what kind of minds, what kind of scale must exist in those places for such plans to be dreamed up. All that was "backward" swings round to the front, full of vast and uncanny promise.

But the stories do not just come from far away, for the third-world city has infiltrated even the most intimate and secure of western refuges. Dismissive talk of Chinese "sweatshops" that would never meet EU regulations does not change the fact that so many contents of every western household are "made in China". Most Europeans and Americans are so ignorant about how things are made that the production of the objects in their lives seems a kind of Asian alchemy. There is more: the third-world city has many economies, not just one, and even these they are exporting. Large parts of western cities are now gleefully given over to an international pirate economy of CDs, DVDs, computer software and branded goods manufactured in Lagos or Shenzhen at almost the same time as the Parisian and Californian originals, and almost to the same quality.

There are other, less delightful, infiltrations. While £30 "Louis Vuitton" bags have obvious charms, who can say the same of illegal immigrants and terrorists? The west once seemed to enjoy immunity from the violence of the third world, but that division is becoming blurred. The fascination of Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears's 2002 drama about illegal immigrants in London, rested on the troubling sense that the third-world organ-stealing industry might now interface with the cool order of western healthcare systems. Good or bad, however, it is all the same: the image of the third-world city floats insistently behind the most startling new formations in the life of the west, and the secret of everything "we" are turning into seems increasingly to be held not "here", but "there".

What is more disconcerting is that third-world cities have got to such a place without following the rules. According to the time-honoured process of "development", cities and states attain maturity only when they have standardised the population into one language and cosmology, contained poverty, made clear divisions between different kinds of land use - humans and animals, factories and residences - and imposed a unified code of law. Clearly, these things have not happened in Mumbai or Shanghai, and yet those places are producing things that anyone can look up to. Western tourists have been commenting for decades on the ingenuity they find in third-world streets - "I never knew there were so many ways of making money" - but now they see the improvisational ethos of these bricolage cities elevated into a form of global ambition, and realise that the unlikely potential of the third-world city was never unlikely at all. It is conceivable, in fact, that the cities from which the grand thoughts of the future will flow may look entirely unfamiliar to Americans and Europeans.

This seems more likely still when you contrast the intense vulnerability of western cities to blasphemy and difference with the radical variety of third-world cities. The happy fiction of Europe's robust liberalism is questionable, as it fails even to accommodate a single group of dissenters: politically articulate Muslims who wish to assert a different vision of social life and law. Compared to this, my adopted city of Delhi, which has its own disputes and violence, seems positively tranquil, especially when one reflects that it must balance the life demands of 15 million people, with so many languages and cosmologies, and such varied notions of commerce, law, healthcare and education, that they cannot really be seen as a "population" in the European sense at all. "When will all the camels and cows depart? When will all these strange human varieties finally be banished and India become modern?" tourists ask. They forget two crucial truths - first, that Europe's centuries-long project to banish all life forms it could not understand or empathise with was a destructively violent process; second, and most importantly, that Delhi already is modern, and this - all this - is what it looks like. It is an alternative kind of modernity: a swirling, agglomerative kind that seems, at this point in history, to be more capable than western modernity of sustaining radical diversity - to be better-equipped, perhaps, for the principle of globalisation.

This brings us to the most perverse suspicion of all. Perhaps the third-world city is more than the source of the things that will define the future, but actually is the future of the western city. Perhaps some of those tourists who look to the third world for an image of their own past are reflecting uneasily on how all the basic realities of the third-world city are already becoming more pronounced in their own cities: vast gulfs between sectors of the population across which almost no sympathetic intelligence can flow; gleaming gated communities; parallel economies and legal systems; growing numbers of people who have almost no desire or ability to participate in official systems; innovations in residential housing involving corrugated iron and tarpaulin. But perhaps we are not yet ready to contemplate the possibility that our sudden desire to map the universe in books and films is because it will orient us better for survival in London, New York or Paris.

Our fast-moving media culture, groping always for any image of the "new" that can be used to produce more astonishment, operates in a zone slightly ahead of know-ledge. The rise of China may for many remain a fantastical rumour, but as the blind sense of such large-scale shifts accumulates, it becomes possible for the media to peddle a novel form of futurism: a strange and dazzling hypermodernity that bewilders western understanding.

It should be said, however, that the images we see in these books and films are not generally pretty. The media's grandest and most successful spectacles are invariably full of danger; and this one is no different. In the erotic delectation of these yawning life forms, which rise up with such titanic ambition, with such indifference to the history of western ethics and aesthetics, is the terror, the exhilaration of a death wish.

Rana Dasgupta lives in Delhi. He is the author of Tokyo Cancelled (Harper Perennial) and is currently at work on his second novel

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Trident