Maximum Cities: London, Paris and New York Are Dying-The 21st Century Belongs to the Fertile Chaos of the Third-World Metropolis. Rana Dasgupta Heralds the Arrival of an Alternative Vision of Modernity

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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 Rain-dance 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 [pounds sterling]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. …