Excerpt from the book (as read in film), with permissions from Wylie Agency and Harper Collins:

The city of Leonia refashions itself every day; every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio.

It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia’s true passion is really as they say, the enjoyment of new and different things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleaning itself of a recurrent impurity. The fact is that street cleaners are welcomed like angels, and their task of removing the residue of yesterday’s existence is surrounded by a respectful silence, like a ritual that inspires devotion, perhaps only because once things have been cast off nobody wants to have to think about them further.

Leonia’s rubbish little by little would invade the world, if from beyond the final crest of its boundless rubbish heap, the street cleaners of other cities were not pressing, also pushing mountains of refuse in front of themselves. Perhaps the whole world, beyond Leonia’s boundaries, is covered by craters of rubbish, each surrounding a metropolis in constant eruption. The boundaries between the alien, hostile cities are infected ramparts where the detritus of both support each other, overlap, mingle.

The greater its height grows, the more the danger of a landslide looms, a tin can, an old tire, an unraveled wine flask, if it rolls toward Leonia, is enough to bring with it an avalanche of unmated shoes, calendars of bygone years, withered flowers, submerging the city in its own past, which it had tried in vain to reject, mingling with the past of the neighbouring cities, finally clean. A cataclysm will flatten the sordid mountain range, cancelling every trace of the metropolis always dressed in new clothes. In the nearby cities they are all ready, waiting with bulldozers to flatten the terrain, to push into the new territory, expand, and drive the new street cleaners further out.

About the film

This short film by Dark ‘n’ Light was visualised by the very talented Gaurav Ogale—artist, diarist, and visual chronicler, with voice-overs by Jisha Menon, Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies, Stanford University. Leonia was conceived after we interviewed Prof. Menon about her book Brutal Beauty: Aesthetics and Aspiration in Urban India for our podcast, The Subverse, in 2021. In her book, amongst other things, she explores artistic engagements with obsolescence and waste.

The interview made us recall Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, published in 1972, which features Leonia—a city of waste and expelling. Invisible Cities is a remarkable work of geometric and mathematical precision, a tale of 55 cities, with 11 classifications, conjured by Venetian Marco Polo, and recounted to Kublai Khan in a garden.

Fantastical, bizarre, and enticing, he draws us, and the Mongol emperor into a tessellation of cities suspended on spider webs, with subterranean twins, and even a city of sadness. A literary and combinatorial game and jigsaw puzzle, the book inspired us on our own quest through a maze of waste and pollution, street cleaners and waste pickers, and its real-world echoes.

For more on Gaurav Ogale, you can find him on Instagram.