The age that was
ANJOLIE ELA MENON
WHEN I write of the Delhi that I have known for half a century it will inevitably end up being a ‘nostalgia piece’, but I think this would be true if one were to reminisce about any major city in India today. Once beautiful cities have metamorphosed into unplanned urban jungles where almost everything new is ugly.
The first memories of my very early childhood are of Delhi Cantonment where my father was surgeon in the military hospital. Fifty-five years later, as with many cantonments, it remains the last bastion of calm, orderly cleanliness where old trees still stand, bugles sound in the distance and somewhat run-down but friendly bungalows bear testimony to an age that was. Everyone went around on bicycles and tongas were available for women to go to the market. Baird Place, where we lived, was set in a vast crescent of similar houses that have hardly changed over the years. In army houses what was important for us kids was the number of climbable trees in the compound. Here we had mango, jamun and three neem trees, a peepul and lots of ber and guava. A small tree house was built for us out of old crates where much of the household linen would mysteriously appear, not to speak of provisions from the pantry.
The cookhouse or baborchikhana was detached from the main house, but connected by a tiled roof passageway. There were three wood fired chulas with an oven underneath, a ‘dooly’ which was a wire netting fronted cupboard for keeping vegetables and also the cook’s stash of bidis and a bottle containing the dregs of the saab log’s whisky sodas!
A rickety wooden table was the only piece of furniture. Yet from this primitive kitchen amazing meals appeared. Not only delicious desi fare, but cakes and custards, pies and the flakiest pastry imaginable. For all the frugality of an army household where every bit of garden produce was used and processed into jams and pickles, one remembers a table always laden with marvellous food. Apart from occasional expeditions to Connaught Place and the rare treat – dinner at Moti Mahal – life in the cantonment was totally self-contained.
Years later in the mid ’50s, when my mother died tragically, the family moved for a year from Baird Place to my aunt’s house on 12, Willingdon Crescent. My uncle, Rashid Ali Baig, was then chief of protocol. The vast estate of Rashtrapati Bhavan was open to us to cycle about in and we swam in its wonderful swimming pool. This house, number 12, was later to be occupied by Mrs Gandhi and it was while she lived here that Sanjay died and his body was laid out in the familiar central atrium.
It hardly occurred to us at the time that we were part of an extremely privileged set and we took for granted the vast acreage of lawns and gardens with their myriad birds and gorgeous flowering trees… gravel on the driveway, the faintly fishy smell of the untreated Jamuna pani that kept those lawns watered, the seventeen servant quarters with malis, dhobis, ayahs and cooks on call, the gwala-on-the-spot who would bring a bucket of fresh milk to the kitchen in the morning… sleeping in the lawn in summer under mosquito nets, the smell of wet khus filling the house with cool sweetness… in the winter thick rajais and wood smoke, sitting on charpois peeling pine nuts on winter afternoons while grandmothers knitted and pickles ripened in the sun.
Ours was a family of inveterate picnickers and amateur archaeologists, so visits to all the famous monuments and some derelict ones were de rigueur. One could still climb to the top of the Qutub and we knew intimately all the tombs and ruins around it, including the eccentric ‘Norman ruin’, built by some homesick Englishman a couple of centuries ago. Our favourite spot for moonlight pictures was an abandoned Lodi period mansion called the Bistadari building. This lay within cycling distance in the kikar jungle on the other side of Kitchner Road (now Sardar Patel Marg).
We learnt to ride and it was possible in the ’50s and ’60s to trot down the tree-lined avenues of Akbar Road or Safdarjung Road. The Delhi Gymkhana Club became the favourite watering hole of our gang and one grew to know every book in that library. I was amazed to find some titles have not changed their position on those shelves for the last 50 years. Here, well-chaperoned girls would be subtly paraded on Sunday mornings while the band played and many a match would be made on the tennis courts. When Lutyens’ Delhi was the only Delhi one knew, it seemed like paradise on earth.
The ’50s marked an important watershed in the social history of Delhi. India was struggling to find a national identity and unlike Bombay, which was already cosmopolitan, the efforts of Delhi to find a style that suited the new compulsions of nationalism and post-independence pride were somewhat self-conscious. New institutions were being created and the norms for these were being laid down. These were the Nehru days and the beginning of the great era of Nehruvian diplomacy.
The Ashoka Hotel was built on a grand scale to accommodate the visiting delegations. Bulganin and Khrushchev, Queen Elizabeth and Tito, Chou En-lai and the Shah of Iran and many other important heads of state paid visits at this time. Panditji was extremely keen to ‘Indianize’ the type of hospitality to be offered. I remember my aunt Tara Ali Baig played a great role together with Indira Gandhi in deciding the new pattern for state banquets at Rashrapati Bhavan. Garlands replaced bouquets, Indian food was introduced, toasts drunk in orange juice in keeping with Gandhian mores, and bharatanatyam dancers entertained the guests after dinner. Several other modifications were devised to replace the old viceregal style, the best of which was that the ladies were not asked to withdraw after dessert!
There was a strange amalgam now of the austere values of a socialist republic and the remnants of the Raj typified by the grandeur of its monumental architecture and imposing ceremonies. In devising new rituals for the nation’s ruling class the incongruities were abundant. A small anecdote to illustrate this is not amiss here. As surgeon to the president it was my father’s duty to inspect the grounds and buildings of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Following his nose one day, to his utter astonishment he discovered six cows tethered to the gilded taps and fixtures of one of the grand bathrooms, steadily munching from the large marble bathtub. However, there was little he could do because he was informed that these constituted the First Lady’s personal herd and that she liked to milk them herself.
Panditji and his young daughter Indira were closely watched by Delhiites in matters of style, both sartorial and otherwise. Fortunately for Delhi, and incidentally for India, there was a small band of dedicated women who took it upon themselves to preserve and develop handicrafts and the handloom industry, without any remuneration. Among them were Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Shona Ray, Kitty Shivarao, Forrie Nehru and the indefatigable Prem Bery who ran the Cottage Industries Emporium for several decades. ‘Cottage’, as it was affectionately called, was not just a place to shop and hang out in, but became the arbiter of good taste and certainly dictated the lifestyle flavour of the times.
Chic women shed chiffon for Kanjeevarams, the young wore handloom saris, large bindis and Kolhapuri chappals. Homes were draped in handloom and tribal weaves, the floors covered in chatai, terracotta was all the rage and brass lamps replaced the chandeliers of yore. In those days the odious word ‘ethnic’ was never bandied about but a trend was definitely established which made it smart to be Indian. The bandgala replaced the three-piece suit and shocking pink and parrot green were no longer considered vulgar. Thus a distinct Delhi genre came to be which would ultimately ripple outwards.
After a brief sojourn in Bombay we returned to Delhi in the late ’50s. We lived in 71, Lodi Estate which was eventually demolished and now houses the new Intach building. My years at Miranda House marked yet another Delhi chapter in my life. The university was a world unto itself. The colleges and facilities were relatively spartan but the faculty was superb. Our interactions with St. Stephen’s, which was in those days an all-male college, more than made up for the cloister-like atmosphere at Miranda House. We did several plays in collaboration with them. A sack-like version of the salwar kameez was in fashion but my friend Shama Zaidi and I got hauled up for appearing in college in pherans and churidars, the latter considered most unladylike. Pants were, of course, banned.
In those days, Husain used to live in Naaz hotel in Jama Masjid and a group of us would often bunk classes to be taken to lunch at the Flora restaurant for a major pig-out. It is then that he organised my first exhibition in the garden of 71, Lodi Estate. Chandni Chowk was exactly half- way between home and university and my fascination for the culture of the bazaar that inspires my work even today had its genesis in my frequent walks through its galis. I knew my way around that whole area from Dariba to Khari Baoli, and often ended up in Paranthe Wali Gali to savour its splendours with a few like-minded friends. One had to ward off would-be eve teasers with an open safety pin. Predatory males, however, continue to be a part of the subculture of Delhi’s streets.
Each passing era in Delhi has been witness to a changing set of players. In the early ’60s the cultural life of Delhi was charmingly amateurish and somewhat dilettante. Charles Fabri, a Hungarian émigré and his brilliant Punjabi wife, Ratna, presided over the art scene. They both wrote on art and the whole milieu had the flavour of a salon. Karl Khandelavala, Helen Chamanlal, the sisters of Amrita Shergill, Sir Malcom Macdonald, the British high commissioner, the dashing Count Ostorov and the French ambassador were among those who formed a small coterie of art lovers. Characters like Elizabeth Sass Brunner lent colour with her quaintly bohemian get up (usually a table cloth worn like a poncho). Roerich was much feted and talked about since he was Pandit Nehru’s favourite artist and state patronage was important in those days. There was only Dhoomimal Gallery, which was part bookshop, and of course, Kumar Gallery, that young artists avoided because they were extremely rude to us. Aifacs, founded by the intrepid Bhabesh Sanyal, was the only venue for exhibitions and soon became a meeting ground for artists.
Satish Gujral lived in a barrack at Constitution House and my father took me reverently to meet him and his beautiful young wife Kiran. The Lalit Kala Akademi was in its infancy. The rising intellectual star of the time was art critic Richard Bartholomew, who ran Thought magazine, and as its secretary, steered LKA through those early years. People like Karl Khandelavala and Mulk Raj Anand lent dignity and stature to the institution which, unfortunately, fell into disgrace and obsolescence as the years passed.
I was married in 3, Akbar Road just after the ’62 war broke out. There were restrictions on the number of guests so it turned out to be an austere affair with a tea reception the next day at the Rose Garden in Gymkhana Club. What was so different about the Delhi of those days was that there was no ostentation. ‘Society’ consisted mainly of bureaucrats, service officers, diplomats, a smattering of artists and writers and a few established families from Civil Lines in Old Delhi. There were no nouveau riche people; in fact almost everyone we knew tended to be nouveau pauvre instead. Even the politicians of that era shied away from public excess and practised a khadi culture. Delhi was yet to grow into a city and had the air of a genteel overgrown village.
After a gap of several years I returned to Delhi with husband and young kids in the late ’60s. My father was now in a splendid house on Motilal Nehru Marg. Having been in a small flat in Bombay as a young naval wife, I savoured consciously, for the first time, the utter luxury of life in a Lutyens’ bungalow. The splendour of our growing years seemed to be encapsulated in this brief sojourn. There was a small pavillion in the garden where we lunched in winter and dined by candlelight on summer nights. The sheer scale of that way of life allowed an open house and a constant flow of friends, lavish meals and conversation.
Indira Gandhi was now firmly in the saddle and Pupul Jayakar, as the ‘czarina of culture’, was setting new standards, very different from the amateurism of the ’50s. By the early ’70s, all the great new embassies had been built in Chanakyapuri. Vigyan Bhavan had become the venue for conferences and national events and the Republic Day parade, showcasing the new India, had become an institution.
Some colonies such as Sunder Nagar, Defence Colony, Nizamuddin, Golf Links and Friends Colony had begun to have a life of their own and Connaught Place ceased to be the centre of town. Meanwhile, the city was growing imperceptibly in a totally chaotic manner. Builder settlements developed in all directions swallowing up the old lal dora villages in their wake. A big land grab operation was on. With the land sharks at work, the Municipal Corporation was totally out of its depth and by the time the authorities began to wake up to the impending urban disaster, they were able to do too little much too late.
Where jackals had howled in the ’60s, now hideous accretions mushroomed, devoid of proper roads, lighting or sanitation. Though the first flyovers were now being built to cope with the pressure on arterial roads, and the ring roads were built, it became evident that Chanakyapuri and Lutyens’ Delhi were a separate city – still beautiful, well maintained and privileged – while out there beyond, citizens were expected to fend for themselves. So they created little walled and guarded ghettos and were responsible for their own security, hygiene and civic amenities. It was with dismay that we returned to Delhi in the mid ’80s to find that the sedate bureaucratic city we knew, where the babus held sway, had become an unkempt, badly administered pseudo metropolis.
By the ’90s, a loud and noisy population of nouveau riche puppies had taken over this other Delhi, flouting all those values that the Dilliwallahs had held dear. Worse still, this loudness and vulgarity began to impinge on ‘establishment’ Delhi as well, fed by the growing corruption and money culture that had begun to be all-pervasive.
Many five star hotels, eateries, restaurants, discos, boutiques, shopping malls and cineplexes had sprung up to cater to the needs of what have come to be known as the page three people and their wannabes. From the bleak days of only Doordarshan on TV, now more than 50 channels belt out the new pop culture. Weddings have established new and innovative levels of ostentation and vulgarity. The Delhi of today is rambunctious and clearly out to enjoy itself with its penchant for fast cars and constant entertainment.
However, among the many institutions that were created over the years, a few well-conceived and well-administered ones are worth mentioning. There is the Triveni Kala Sangam, founded and still run by Sundari Shridharani, for many years a haven for artists and intellectuals. Then, the India International Centre, which was wonderfully designed to endure by that great Delhi architect Joe Stein and ably presided over by Kapila Vatsyayan. The India Habitat Centre, which was perhaps Stein’s farewell gift to Delhi. A beautiful example of monumental modern architecture, it is fast growing into an important hub for intellectual discourse and activity. In the wilderness of puppydom and the onslaught of McDonaldization, these institutions provide much needed oases of reason, restraint and excellence.
Today, politics continues to be at the heart of everything in Delhi. Soon, Lutyens’ Delhi will be completely taken over by ex-prime ministers as one house after another gets converted into a memorial or is allotted to them or their heirs. Sadly, the Teen Murti House where Nehru lived was turned into a museum. These are symptoms of the immature sycophancy and lack of a sense of history that characterizes life in Delhi. This house should have been (like 10, Downing Street) the permanent residence of the prime minister of India. Perhaps one day it will be.
The turn of the century brought Delhi to the brink of disaster. The years of civic neglect and an ostrich-like refusal to acknowledge the mess resulted in burgeoning pollution, making the city a dangerous place to live in and one of the most polluted in the world. Many of the very rich had moved out to country mansions, euphemistically called ‘farmhouses’, in order to escape the pollution, but for the middle classes and the poor who live in the ever-expanding jhuggis and jhopdis, life became untenable. It was only in the 21st century that the government began to react but even now the remedial measures threaten to be overtaken by the still exploding population, even before they can take effect.
Yet we live in Delhi now, out of choice. Sometimes we wonder why. It seems to get hotter and dirtier each year, the traffic is impossible, people are rude and every Dilliwallah thinks he runs the country. In my studio in Nizamuddin West I work in the shadow of the great dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, part of the continuum of the hoary history of this city. When I walk around Humayun’s tomb at dawn, a dust storm gathers, bringing the smell of wet earth. A koel screams its brain fever song from a neem tree growing against ancient walls. This then, is where I want to be.