A kayastha’s view


SEMINAR’S letter seeking contributions to this issue on Delhi refers to ‘Your city – where it is at, how it has changed and grown, and whether it has changed its identity.’ Many solemn books on Delhi have been published over the years to confirm in stodgy detail what amateur eyewitnesses have long taken to be self-evident – that Delhi has, of course, changed enormously since the inauguration of New Delhi in 1931 and, more so, since 1947.

In 2001 the extravaganza of The Millennium Book on New Delhi, edited by B.P. Singh and Pavan K. Varma, OUP, was published. It deals with many of the issues now sought to be raised by Seminar and the bibliography of even that unscholarly volume lists some 80 titles. People have not only written on the monuments and history of medieval Delhi, but a great deal on the 20th century city, including its obsession with politics, and the fact that jackals could be heard on the outskirts of Barakhamba Road in the 1950s and nilgai roamed until later in the scrub now occupied by Pragati Maidan.

Many other details could be filled in to show how Delhi has changed: the expansion of the population from less than a million in 1946 to more than 12 million by 2000; the fact that you didn’t need to boil or filter drinking water until the 1970s; could eat kakri and chaat from pavement vendors without falling terminally ill; could walk on grassy sidewalks in leather-soled shoes without damaging your heels and shins, as you would now on concrete pavements; could enjoy a boat ride on the Jumna rather than be driven to attempting to do so in a fragment of the stinking moat below the Purana Qila, and so on.

Delhi is vast, and it is said to be a microcosm of India; it is inhabited liberally by people from all parts of the country and shared by all. Seminar’s letter refers to ‘Your city’ – but apart possibly from the politicians who infest the city and have appropriated the prettiest real estate in it for themselves, do people still think of themselves as Dilliwallahs, as the Mathur Kayasthas of Delhi once did?

Born of Mathur parents, and having had an association with Delhi for as long as I can remember (i.e. from circa 1940), I have periodically thought of myself as an authentic Dilliwallah. Although much of my childhood was spent outside Delhi, we were annual winter migrants to the city over sixteen years when I joined Delhi University and stewed for the next five (1954-9). Thereafter, I was based outside Delhi for the next eleven years as a student and then a publisher, and have been a publisher here since 1971. My genes, college days and profession have conspired to tie me to the city and coloured my view of it, so in this brief piece I will restrict myself to what flows from these three elements.

One of the traditional conceits of the Mathurs of Delhi is that they consider themselves the highest form of a high species – perhaps less flamboyant than the Mathurs once based in Lahore, but infinitely more refined as speakers of a tongue untainted by Punjabi; a cut above those in Rajasthan, who servilely served provincial rulers and said hukum; somewhat similar to members of the community in Agra and Lucknow, but free of the small-town smugness of urban U.P. The Mathurs of Delhi also considered themselves Dilliwallahs par excellence, forgetting that the city is now barely aware of them.



My father’s family was originally from Peepalmandi in Agra, but with innumerable relations in Delhi; my mother’s family was once based in Chelpuri and Chiraykhana in the Old City – always referred to as shahar by insiders, and never as Shahjahanabad. Early in the 20th century some Mathurs from these mohallas colonized spacious houses with large gardens in the Civil Lines area, mostly a swathe of land with ber orchards enclosed by Commissioner’s Lane and Usmanpur (now Jumna) Road. Many of them were lawyers, some became civil servants, others taught Urdu and Persian in colleges, and some concentrated on enjoying good food and music. Qudsia Bagh and the Jumna across Bela (now Ring) Road were abiding factors in their lives – the river kept the area fragrant and comparatively cool, its sandy banks yielding walks and melons.

Some Mathur families were persuaded by the early developers of New Delhi to move to the new city. They clustered around Connaught Place, on Barakhamba and Curzon (now Kasturba Gandhi) Roads, and areas like Babur Road and Hanuman Road. All retained strong connections with their kin in ‘Shahar’ and the Civil Lines, and all the major shopping – whether for clothes, jewellery, spices, paan, tin boxes, books and stationery – was still done in the Old City.



You couldn’t bypass Shahar. The entry into Delhi was always by train, at the Old Delhi railway station (the New Delhi station was largely ceremonial until the 1950s). There were usually prolonged unscheduled halts of the train at the Ghaziabad and Shahdara railway stations and, invariably, on the old iron bridge spanning the Jumna, from where passengers had the classical view of the dhobis of Delhi washing and drying clothes on the river bank. The last phase of the journey was exhilarating as the train chugged through the Salimgarh fort and skirted the walls of the Lal Qila: the sense of entering a great and historic city was palpable.

The journey to a home in very central New Delhi was done in a tonga or two, with tin trunks and holdalls and baskets piled high. The route was well-trodden, the streets the tonga clattered through celebrated: it went past the Public (now Har Dayal) Library, down Nai Sarak, then Chawri Bazar, past Qazi Hauz and on to Ajmeri Gate (through which the tonga went, the horse’s hooves echoing), past Delhi (now Zakir Husain) College and eventually down and up the Minto Bridge slope (where the tonga moved at the pace of a pedestrian and a gleaming Connaught Place came into view). Old Delhi was not only an essential and hallowed part of the route, but also the place where people indulged in sharp practices (with elegance), sharp talk and, generally, were city-slickers in a city they ardently believed to be the acme of creation.

As late as the 1950s the most trusted doctors in Delhi were located in Chandni Chowk or Daryaganj, and the great tailor was Mohammad Umar, who functioned in a lane not far from Atma Ram’s, the best bookshop in Delhi, and in the Kashmiri Gate area. You didn’t know good cuisine unless you had eaten in Shahar, and of the four stylish hotels in Delhi, only the Imperial was in New Delhi: the rest – the Cecil, the Swiss and Maidens – were in the Civil Lines area. When a West Indies cricket team first toured India, it was housed at Maidens, which rocked with calypso rhythms for the likes of Wallcot, Weekes, Gomez and George Headley.



And yes, people went to Shahar to see and ride in trams, perhaps the ricketiest, slowest and oldest trams in the world, but the only ones in north India. Not even Lahore could boast of trams. Shahar remained the heart and soul of Delhi throughout my days in Delhi University. Our movements circumscribed by poor public transport (perhaps the only element of continuity in Delhi), the lack of personal scooters, motorcycles and cars, an outing from the campus usually led to Kashmiri Gate or the Jama Masjid area: we often walked there, and the route to Chandni Chowk meant using the high pedestrian bridge across the railway track near Kash Gate and often emerging from that exercise covered with soot from the puffing steam engines below as they pulled wagons to or from the Old Delhi station.

Until the late 1950s even those living outside the city walls knew Shahar reasonably well. New and Old Delhi together still formed a comparatively compact unit, with New Delhiwallahs making regular forays into Shahar and the Civil Lines areas: Moti Mahal was a premier attraction, and the bar and nightclub at Maidens’ the fanciest in town. The Ring Road hadn’t yet come into being, so people couldn’t ignore the Old City.



The journey to the university meant rides through Daryaganj and past Lal Qila, frequently involving prolonged halts in these areas as buses were changed. During these halts one got to know the dhabas and stalls near the bus stands, and, if a suitable bus failed to turn up, the journey was often continued on foot or temporarily abandoned in the galis of the Old City. Commuters thus got to know the book-shops in Daryaganj and Nai Sarak, and the kabariwallas near the Jama Masjid. These meanderings also prevented some of us from forgetting the Urdu script entirely, for the hoardings and signboards in the Old City were still mostly in Urdu and it was reassuring to be able to decipher them.

The cohesive, urbane combine of New and Old Delhi no longer exists and while Delhi has grown into a vast city over the last few decades, its different parts don’t seem to make up a whole. The area covered by it appears to have reverted to what it was before Shahar came into being – a collection of disconnected villages, each with its own ways and mannerisms, and altogether more provincial than the stylish, integrated city of not so long ago.

The village I inhabit, roughly extending from the Lodi Gardens to the Purana Qila, with Khan Market, several schools and Sujan Singh Park as its focal points, and the IIC, IHC, Humayun’s Tomb, the Oberoi Hotel and Taj Mansingh at its periphery, is agreeable enough, but it’s not a distinctive civilization, as Delhi once was. It is, nevertheless, a central area in a city that has expanded thirty kilometres afield in all the cardinal directions, and is visited by and known to people living in the outbanks. But most of the outbanks are less fortunate and remain strangers to each other.

There is, thus, no such thing as a Dilliwallah any more, and this absence seems to be part of the present, amorphous identity of the city. There are Londoners and New Yorkers, Parisians and Mumbaikars, Mysoreans and Hyderabadis, but the inhabitants of Delhi are now anonymous. Even the Mathurs have stopped calling themselves Dilliwallahs. How can it be otherwise if you live in GK II, your spouse perhaps a Sikh, your son an investment banker in New York, your daughter-in-law an Italian and your grandson unable to digest a decent, spiced kabab made of goat meat?



While the Dilliwallah may have gone into oblivion, the other Kayastha conceit – of being traditionally literate and literary and, generally, good pen-pushers – has prospered in the changed environment. The Mathurs were quick to take to the new educational system introduced by the British and soon entered professions that needed the skills so acquired. Pedigree Mathur that I am, I became part of a comparatively new form of pen pushing in 1961 – publishing, and from my publishing peep-hole have not only witnessed and participated in the flowering of publishing in Delhi over the last few decades, but also been struck by the spectacular growth in Delhi’s educational system and intellectual infrastructure which catalyzed publishing.

India’s educational system is much derided, no doubt with good reason, but the good should not be interred with the bones: one of the good things is that in the hurly-burly of the last five decades, as Delhi shed its old scales and didn’t quite refashion itself as a cohesive whole, it also became India’s premier educational centre and a magnet for the country in this area. If Delhi has more automobiles than Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai put together, it also probably has more authors than in these cities put together, and produces books in a similarly excessive proportion.



This wasn’t always so. Until the mid-1960s Bombay was the major publishing centre in the country, with Calcutta and Madras not far behind. The best book printers and binders were in these cities, and even in 1971, when the OUP opened its office on Ansari Road, its bigger books were usually typeset there or in Pondicherry. With every major publishing house shifting base to Delhi around then or soon after, the skills needed to make a decent book rapidly developed in the region, and Delhi now leads the field both in printing and publishing.

Initially it was Ansari Road in Daryaganj that hosted the publishing renaissance, and manuscripts from Delhi University that nourished it, but matching the expansion of the city further south and the growth of author-yielding institutions in other parts of the city, publishing too is no longer concentrated along the rim of the Old City. Penguin are now in Panchsheel, OUP on Jaisingh Road, IndiaInk in New Rajendra Nagar, Permanent Black in Patparganj and Ravi Dayal in a back-room facing a garden and a pomegranate tree in Sujan Singh Park.

While the Delhi I knew and sometimes felt I belonged to has been obliterated, its new and, in many ways, much nastier incarnation has nevertheless nourished me enormously with the ideas its contemporary scholars, thinkers and writers have generated. A live but violent and corrupt Delhi is not a pleasurable creature to endure, but for a publisher in India, ‘If on earth there is a place of bliss/It is this, it is this, it is this’ crazy city.