Friday, June 8, 2007

Delhi Silhouettes

Littering the rocky, arid plains below the humped Aravalli hills to the west of the Yamuna River are the remains of seven cities, from where chieftains, sultans and emperors ruled Hindustan. One can wander past the ornate victory tower, the Qutab Minar, built some eight hundred years ago, and the magnificently carved mosque next to it in the citadel of the sultans of the salve dynasty. Walk down the modern road northwards to the massive walls of siri, the great 14th century city, which were reputedly so wide that two chariots could be driven abreast along them; and go eastwards a few miles to the mighty fortifications of Sultan Ghiyasuddin’s capital city, Tughlaqabad, now desolate, overgrown with thorn bushes, its broken walls and fallen pillars baking in the heat of the sun, the few remaining rooms oppressively dark and silent. The river has moved far eastwards, leaving it dry and parched. Closer to the river, further upstream are the battlements now sadly ruined, of the elegant yet sturdy fort called the Purana Qila, the old fort, citadel of Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor.

Further upstream, and closer to the river, are the ravaged remains of Firozabad, another city, plundered and vandalized over three hundred years ago when the vast, splendid city of Shahjahanabad, the city of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, was built net to it: this was the seventh city, and the greatest, most vibrant and varied, a city whose energy swelled and poured far into the night, amidst flaming torches, laughter and the never ending sounds of people conversing, of hawkers calling, and, ever so often, the muezzin’s call to prayer, form the great mosque, the Jama Masjid, floating over the city almost like a benediction. Even today, long after the Emperor and his court have gone, the vitality of the city lives on, renewed by successive generations, in different ways. The sapphire blue sky is often dotted with brightly coloured kites, while flocks of pigeon’s wheel and swoop across it as the citizens play the games that were played centuries ago by their forefathers, with the same enthusiasm and gaiety. The British built two cities when they came here as colonial rulers. The first of these was not the capital of India, but the administrative center of the region, built North of Shahjahanabad, for the british had grown to disturb the city and also to see themselves as rulers, who consequently had to distance themselves from the district towns the British built elsewhere, with large bungalows set in dusty compounds.

The capital city the British built is to the southwest of Shahjahanabad, the gracious imperial city of New Delhi. The focal point is the low Raisina Hill, from where what was then called the Viceregal Lodge gazes proudly, in regal splendour, at the two buildings flanking it, the Secretariat, formal, with ramrod straight pillars, austere and yet with elegance which can only be called royal. This was true imperial splendour, meant to overawe the subject: a metaphor of the benign, if always stern paternalism the British fancied they had brought to India. Above one on the imposing entrances to the North Block of the Secretariat they carved what could be their message to the subject masses: ‘Liberty will not descend to people; people must raise themselves up to liberty’. Sic transit Gloria mundi.

To the south of the Viceregal Lodge are the cool bungalows of the satraps of the Raj, with deep verandahs, patios and pillars, set in acres of green gardens. All is hushed and quiet, except for the birds singing, and the occasional swish of cars. A second metaphor, perhaps a little more private, of the Raj.

Independence has made only a little difference to the ambience of this gracious, sanitised still is the set of power, but the symbols have changed. There are the cars, usually white Ambassadors with winking red lights and an array of antennae followed by jeeploads of men in khaki, or, depending on the stature of the person in the car, in black who journey the wide roads sirens wailing, at an astonishingly high speed. These are the people, the power mendicants themselves, seen usually in official receptions or ‘functions’ as they are called each surrounded by scads of men in khaki, or as mentioned, in black, all of them carrying fearsome looking weapons of indeterminate make and character.

There is actually yet another city, which has grown around the city Lutyens built, a city which is brash, tumultuous, chaotic, violent and also very warm, lovely and engaging – this us the city which stretches from Rohini in the north, through Janakpuri in the west to Vasant Kunj and Sangam Viharin the south and across the river to Pratapganj and Shahdara. Here slums live cheek by jowl with steel and glass high-rise buildings, the nightmarish traffic flows and eddies past loud bazaars, the most sophisticated departmental stores and pavement shops. In skirts, noisy and murderous, the sylvan quietness of institutions likes Indian Agricultural Research Institute, National Council of Education Research and Training, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Indian Institute of Technology.

North of the narrow galis of Shahjahanabad, beyond the wider streets and more obviously laid out spaces of the first city the British built, is the University of Delhi where the frenzy of the traffic which is so much a part of the metropolis fades as one enters the tree-lined roads which go past buildings of mellow brick, set in gardens. The center of this very laid-back ambience is the old Viceregal Lodge, now the University offices where the vice chancellor and other dignitaries have their offices.

To the east of the University, running through the city almost to its southern outskirts is a rocky outcropping, covered for the most part with low trees and thorn bushes, called the Ridge. It provides blessed relief from the city, and takes one away to a different time frame, to a world of quietness broken only by birdsong and the occasional voices of people strolling through the trees. This too, is Delhi, and integral part of it, as it has been since the city was first established.

There can be no categorization of the city. It does not fit into any one pattern. From the crowded bazaars of Karol Bagh, saris and textiles spilling in brightly colored profusion on to the pavements, to the sophisticated glitter of the markets in south extension or greater Kailash, the prodigal display of wares in Lajpat Nagar, to the classically clean lines of Lutyens’ New Delhi, and the dense throng of people, vendors, cobblers, hawkers, tailors, silversmiths and sellers of sweets and other eatables in the galis of Shahjahanabad, there is a variety that few cities in the world can match. There is something for everyone here – as indeed there ought to be in one of the greatest capitals of the world.

A complex city with many faces, with a gravitas of historical tradition and the brashness of the arriviste, sensitive and violent, a vortex of political and economic power, and of academic enquiry and a growing richness in the arts. There is a vitality – often a raw vitality – which informs life here. That is what persists through the ages, and it is this which will take it through the ages, and it is this which will take it through the century that is coming, and to many others.

Delhi’s perspective is not of a mere century. It has seen emperors, kings, courtiers, generals, prime ministers and party leaders. It will see so much more, in the years when the present day splendour of the magnificent buildings designed by Lutyens, the modern steel and glass towers and the dreadful new houses with their pastel colours and curlicued balconies crumble and become part of the ruins that are all around, half destroyed landmarks in an even greater capital city, with new contemporary symbols of its strength and power for buildings are, for all their splendour, evanescent – what ultimately remains is the vitality and the strength. That is what Delhi hands down from generation to generation.

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