Saturday, August 22, 2009

Looking for Delhi

It was the 27th of July , I was Coming into Delhi at 3:30 am from Helsinki. Looking down just as I had for the whole 7 hour flight I tried to find markers in the unending ocean of lights that was, by the pilots description, Delhi.

We were coming in at some 400km an hour, maintaining level then dropping, then holding then dropping, and all the while I tried to find some thing I could recognise- CP, India Gate, IG Airport, any thing. The plane dipped sharply to the right and I looked even harder, determined to find something.

Another sharp dip, and a large river, with an almost estuarine form bottled in at a tight dam, bridges, a long sweeping curve across it, with traffic- the DND flyway, the power stations, then I saw the Apollo Hospital, Nehru place. Yes I had come home, come home to my Delhi. I watched the outer ring road, the Vasant Continental Hotel, the familiar shape of Vasant Vihar from the Eisher City Map. One last dip, and the reassuring rumble of tyres as they hit tarmac.

I still remember how in my first year at the SPA, I discovered Karol Bagh. On assignment during ragging, we were asked by a senior to get cloth dyes to make a stage set. Krishna and I were packed off, with a map, a pair of helmets, and our dear senior’s trusty scooter, and cash to make the purchases. It was one ride, with me driving and Krishna giving directions. We were stopped for not having a number plate in front, but let off after sharing a Pepsi and an assurance that the error would be rectified forthwith. We made it there and back, Koral bagh was Discovery!

But between auto rides from Maharani bagh to IP estate, and visits to South Ex and Nehru Place Mandi House and CP we slowly settled into a comfortable illusion of our own Delhi.

My Delhi, that ran from Rastrapati Bhavan, to CP on one hand with the Theatre Circuit of Mandi house and Bengali Market, and stayed stuck to the two sides of the ring road from South Ex to Majnu ka Tila on the other. This was Delhi. An out of the way place was St. Stephen’s College where all of my three other brothers went to college.

Eleven years on from the summer of 1998, my Delhi hasn’t grown much. Chandni Chowk has been added, for the Camera wali gali , and the Jalebi wala, and Chowri Bazar . Khan market and lodhi road too have found their place. But by large my Delhi is the Delhi of the South Delhi wala, for whom the rest of Delhi north of CP and west of Dhaula Kuan is some ancient forgotten world that is best avoided.

There are others like my uncle who lives in the heart of Darya Gunj for whom south Delhi is for the Dead, no self-respecting Dilliwala would live there. South Delhi was made for the dead or so it seems by the ways of the Mughal Rulers, flood plain and forest, where the spirits of the mighty and not so mighty were set free to roam in the here-after.

Delhi is like some ancient ghost to me or folklore. Hidden away, pushed to edges of our conscious lives and daily reflections. The city of Delhi lives in books by foreign authors, travel guides and photo albums.

And yet in its vastness, in its magnitude and in its centuries of being here, it offers stories, wisdom, insight and new discovery to any who cares to look.

And so it happened, a collegue of mine and I decided, ten years after my first encountering it in a book on Delhi, to find the Khirki Masjid.

How many of us know it exists? Sitting in the heart of the village which has turned it back on it, so much so that that bearded banana seller didn’t even know such a thing existed. It sits a stones throw from the swanky Select City Walk mall at the Saket District Centre. The masjid is a revalation to any one who might like to find the beginning of an explorations of an Architecture of “India” or the City of Delhi.

Hidden away behind the mass of irreverent construction that has somehow turned its back on this monument the mosque answers numerous questions that have plagued architecture since the import of alien cultural influences into our landscape.

But like much all else in Delhi, we seem to be looking elsewhere, across the Arabian Sea, or further across the English channel or even further across the Pacific.

In a curious way, just the search for it and finding it will make for a commentary on our attitudes. The short term memory and a never-ending willingness to chase images, often the first and the most easily encountered! After the Khirki Masjiid, even the the celebrated Mughal Architecture of Delhi will look like image-chasing vanity.

And as has been the fashion of empire, we have had centuries of Architectural image thrust upon us. So much so that it is hard for the colonized mind to think otherwise even when free, chasing after the images that give you the glitzy architecture of a resurgent, mindlessly consumptive, India with its catastrophic 8% growth story.

I will not go and say there is an Indian Architecture, there is a lot of architecture that is Indian. I will not say that you cannot have a modern Indian Architecture either. I think we can, if we want it. But first we must want an India, not a Singapore or Dubai or a London or New York. We must want New Delhi first, and not some sad half-assed replica of the last city you saw on your Dubai Shopping Festival trip.

Some where in our driving, fast roads and flyovers , in our great spending and gratification the city has receeded into a blankness that few of us seem inclined to hold a light to. The seven cities of Delhi, its lofty citadels and clamourous villages have all but faded from consciousness.

If you love Delhi, find it!

I miss Delhi and your post made me more nostalgic.
hmmm... interesting, but you're not making it easier to discover Delhi, for most of us. But quite frankly, what's so bad about wanting to look across the oceans, and why not... and what is this new delhi you refer to? and what un-aped ideas do you think will define it? Blah etc. etc.
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I agree we unnecessarily crib about Delhi, but do we need to look at the past six or seven cities to realise its greatness? Is it also not an escape from the current Delhi?

When we talk about greatness of Delhi, why do we need to look to the past? Delhi is a metropolis-it has still not fallen trap to Mumbai's chauvinism. It has great intellectual company, and a great art scene.etc. etc. Why not talk about these, when talking about Delhi?

We all have our own little Delhis. When I was staying in Vikaspuri, my Delhi started at Connaught Place and ended at Jankapuri. In 11 years it has expanded, shifted and re-arranged itself and I pride in myself in showing many a Delhi-born his route to a certain spot in the city which is beyond: "his / her Delhi".

This thing about looking westwards or eastwards is a blight that is prevalent in our culture much beyond just architecture. So the Indian system of scientific research is "useless" and systematically killed because we do not have the "academic or scholarly rigour" to do scientific research. Over centuries, we have been hypnotised into believing that the only the West is worth emulating.

And having traveled quite a bit within India, let me add: every city in North India (at least) wants to become a Delhi. If Delhi wants to become Singapore (or Shanghai, or Dubai or any of these, without the Sea, obviously), then so will other cities. In fact, many of these cities have already short-circuited and thus we are building "International townships" in Karnal and "World Class, peaceful and green townships" in (of all places), Kurukshetra.
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