Learning to belong
PAVAN K. VARMA
I DO not ‘belong’ to Delhi, so why should Delhi belong to me? Can a person belong to any one city, and, can a city belong to any person? A city like Delhi symbolises a vast anonymity. An individual is part of a personalised world. Where do the two meet? What is that cross-section at which the city loses its objectivity to become for an individual an extension of his self? And, what is that point at which an individual transcends his own personal world to embrace the larger objectivity of a city?
These are difficult questions to answer. I was not born in Delhi. My parents were not born in Delhi. My grandparents were not born in Delhi. How then do I claim this city to be my own? I first came to Delhi as a one-year old child in 1954 when my father, who was in government, was posted to the new capital of India. My first memories are of growing up in Man Nagar, now called Rabindra Nagar, a residential area only inhabited by other government servants. Man Nagar was then almost at the periphery of New Delhi. Outside its gates was the seductive wilderness of Lodhi Gardens.
New Delhi was a small city. It was the city of Lutyens and Baker, largely homogeneous, a bureaucratic city symbolising power rather than money. Its inhabitants were few, the municipal pressures on them fewer. When the first traffic lights were erected, people were amused. Raj Path was then still remembered as Kingsway, Queen Mary’s Avenue had not yet been christened Pandit Pant Marg, and a new name for Connaught Place was decades away. Absorbed in its new-found importance, New Delhi was essentially more a hierarchy than a city, presided over by the privileged layer of senior bureaucrats, established politicians and old money.
In my early years, I do not recall a visit to the old city, except to catch a train from the Delhi railway station. Shahjahanabad, defined by the towering minarets of Jama Masjid and the ramparts of Red Fort, and distinctive for its labyrinthine alleys, galis and kuchas, was opaque to me. This was both understandable and (for me) ironic. Understandable, because New Delhi stood as much for continuity as a complete rupture with the past. The continuity was self-evident. New Delhi was one more city in an unbroken history that had made Delhi the city of several empires and kingdoms. The rupture was less proclaimed, but equally transparent.
New Delhi was built to expressly break its association with the older city ruled by the Mughals. When in 1911, it was decided to shift the British capital to Delhi, both Lutyen and Baker initially wanted to integrate the old city with the new in a manner that would allow the former to retain its essential character and yet stem the chaotic commercialization and industrialization that was destroying it. As historian Narayani Gupta writes in Delhi Between Two Empires (OUP 1997): ‘A long processional avenue was planned from the fort through Delhi Gate, past a park and a boulevard with the houses of Indian princes lining both sides. Another was to cut through the side of Jama Masjid from the proposed King Edward Memorial Park, and bear southwestward to the new railway station, whence another road was to lead to Kashmiri Gate.’
These roads were never built. Thus it was that the sharp contrast between an expansive residential area and an over-congested commercial slum was formalized and perpetuated. Shahjahanabad was deliberately left to die as a neglected memory of a rejected past. And New Delhi was created as a ‘new’ statement of imperial intention, even if its architects, in an act of benign indulgence, took some architectural motifs of the past and incorporated them in the red sandstone buildings on Raisina Hill.
The irony is that my first serious cerebral discovery of Delhi had little to do with New Delhi, where I had grown up, but with Old Delhi, which I had never visited as a child. In the early ’80s, I began to research the life of Mirza Ghalib. The book that finally emerged (Penguin 1998) was really a portrait of the old city in the 19th century using Ghalib’s life as a focus. I have often wondered why I wrote this book. I had studied history but was not a historian. I loved Urdu but had no formal training in literature. But I was fascinated by the period in which Ghalib lived.
The Mughal empire was then in its death throes, although the British, the de facto rulers, still pretended to bow before the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, whose writ did not run beyond the Red Fort. It was a period when Delhi went through the trauma of 1857. It was a time when, within its wall, Urdu poetry came into its own. It was a phase of great cultural achievement and unprecedented political decline.
This period fascinated me but I hardly knew the city in which it unfolded. I was a product of the wide boulevards of New Delhi, not the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad. My exposure was to the bureaucratic insularities and certitudes of the new city, not the genteel impoverishment and neglect of the old. Yet, my first emotional umbilical chord with Delhi was through the many years happily researching its previous incarnation: Shahjahanabad.
The biography of Ghalib led to a second book on the old city: Mansions at Dusk – The Havelis of Old Delhi. My research on Ghalib had taken me innumerable times to Shahjahanabad. On such visits, I was able to see the plight of the old city. I was witness to the relentless destruction of a habitat which was once home to a cultured nobility, who lived in beautiful havelis, the end product of a definitive architectural tradition. I was deeply concerned that if no attempt was made to chronicle what the city once was through the little that remained of its past, soon there would be nothing remaining in the present to reconstruct that past. Thus began the idea of the book on the havelis of Delhi. Sondeep Shankar, a well known photographer, became a ready ally. Every weekend, for more than a year, Sondeep and I would travel to the old city and marvel afresh at its many seductions and the pace at which they were being destroyed.
The Havelis of Old Delhi is a sad book. It helped chronicle the lifestyle and idiom of a bygone era, but it could not stem the indifference of the powers that be. Meanwhile, New Delhi continued to grow phenomenally, far beyond the expectations of any town planner. Undoubtedly, New Delhi will always remain the apex bureaucratic citadel and the unquestioned political capital of India. In this sense, it can never change.
But over the years, it has become much more than just a city of politicians and bureaucrats. Today, it is a commercial city too. A new middle class, confident of its entrepreneurial skills, has made it a home. Industrial units have begun to dot its suburbs. Money power has begun to jostle with political power, and very often the two are inextricably linked. New residential areas have come up far beyond the periphery of Lutyen’s vision. People from all over India have made the city their home. The old middle class, monetarily frayed at the edges, has given way to the new rich. The expanding city has swallowed up entire villages. For the first time, it has spread its tentacles across the Yamuna. I recall my father in the early ’60s trying desperately to locate Defence Colony. When we built our home in Vasant Vihar in the early ’70s, taxi drivers would refuse to go beyond Moti Bagh. I will never forget a scooter-walla turning to me and saying: Kahan jangal mein le ja rahe hain?
Iremember too that to catch my school bus, I had to cycle to Moti Bagh since the bus did not venture beyond Moti Bagh. Today, New Delhi’s residential suburbs extend for 20 kilometres beyond Vasant Vihar which has become a mainstream residential area. There are other things that have changed in New Delhi. I distinctly remember the pleasure of sleeping out under a star-bedecked sky during summer. There were no mosquitoes. We never slept under mosquito nets. There was no water shortage. I have no memory of any power cuts.
Like its newer incarnation, Old Delhi too is a picture of both change and continuity. In spite of the onslaught on the basic character of the city, its essential features have not changed. Shahjahanabad is a historical city. It can be mutilated but it cannot completely obliterate its past. Undoubtedly, from a gracious feudal city inhabited by not very many more than a 100,000 people, it is now a commercial slum. The lovely Nahar-i-Bihisht once flowed through the centre of a streetlined avenue called Chandni Chowk. Today that street has become so crowded that one can hardly walk.
There was a time when the old city was so quiet that the ‘tuk…tuk…tuk’ sound of the karigar (artisan) beating silver and gold into vark (thin foils) could be heard clearly within a radius of a furlong. Today over the din of traffic and small factories running lathes, one has to shout to converse. Not too long ago (in fact in the earlier part of the last century), through the summer months at about five in the evening, when the worst heat of the day was on the wane, a bullock cart laden with water would start its leisurely, water-sprinkling journey from the Town Hall, passing by the Fountain Chowk, Jama Masjid, Chawri Bazar, Hauz Qazi and other important areas. The entire city would wake up around this time from its leisurely afternoon siesta. Today, innumerable industrial establishments work through the night, be it summer or winter. The old city is physically there, but only as a settlement without a soul.
My third book on Delhi (Harper Collins 1993) had its origins in a request by Raghu Rai, the well known photographer. Raghu had been photographing the city for many years. He asked me to write a text to accompany his photographs. I wrote the text in first person, as a sutradhar who was in Delhi when Indraprastha was built, and who also was there to witness the first British viceroy enter the newly built Viceregal Lodge atop Raisina Hill in 1931.
The narrative has a parallel theme. It begins with dawn and ends at dusk. The opportunity to write about the city through a highly personalised and subjective prism reinforced my sense of kinship with it. Perhaps for entirely irrational reasons, I now began to look at Delhi not only as an object of research but as something personal and familiar, a process not very different from a car acquiring a human personality after long years in a family. For me the city became an individual with a soul, a territory with a personalised story, a persona which I could relate to at a private meeting point. This private world, of man and city, is inseparable now from my relationship with Delhi.
The Millennium Book on New Delhi, which I helped edit, was my first project specifically on New Delhi. It was Home Minister L.K. Advani’s idea to have such a book. He felt that New Delhi had grown and evolved from a small colonial city built by the British as a statement of their imperial might, to a cosmopolitan metropolis presiding over the destiny of a free India and the world’s largest democracy. He wanted a book on the self-conscious personality of New Delhi.
I vividly recall the first meeting on the planning of this book which took place on a cold December morning in 1998 in the ornate conference room of the Home Ministry in the North Block under the chairmanship of the then Home Secretary (and the chief editor of the book) B.P. Singh. I was the youngest among those who had been called to give ideas on the book. Not surprisingly I was asked to draw a draft outline on the structure of the book. The outline was written on a golden afternoon on the last day of that year during a holiday in Simla. The book, which had contributions from Khushwant Singh, the late Professor Ravinder Kumar, Sunita Kohli, Mark Tully, Madhu Jain and others, was published by Oxford University Press and released by the President of India in February 2001 at perhaps the only book launch ever held at the Ashoka Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
If I sit down to draw a balance sheet on my association with Delhi, do I have no more to show than an involvement in writing four books on the city? I know the relationship is much deeper. I do not know if the city belongs to me, but I do know that I have no other place I can call home. Even though I was not born in this city, I grew up in it. It provided the background to my childhood, and the foundation on which I structured my later life. It is the city where I met my wife. It is the city where my children were born.
My forefathers came from a small district town near Varanasi called Ghazipur. A poet so recalled his association with Ghazipur:
Ye galian mera bachpan yahan se guzra hai/Kahanian jo suni thi yahan pe soti hain.
(My childhood has passed by in these alleyways/The stories I heard then continue to sleep here).
Perhaps that is my bond with Delhi. And I know for sure that even if I remain a perpetual aspirant to ‘belong’ to it, for my children, who were born here, there can be no other home.