Sunday 26 October 2014

Delhi is not far

Delhi was once a paradise,

Such peace had abided here;

But they have ravished its name and pride,

Remain now only ruins and care.
- Bahadur Shah Zafar

Last month I read two contrasting books about Delhi. The first one was Twilight in Delhi (Rupa, 2007-first published in 1940) by Ahmed Ali (1910-1994) and the second one was Perpetual city-A short biography of Delhi (Aleph, 2013 by Malvika Singh). The former is already established as a classic and should be on the must read list of anyone who is interested in understanding the history of the heritage city. It beautifully captures the way of life in the erstwhile city of Shahjanabad (what we now call as Old Delhi) in the period before India’s independence. Ahmed Ali (who was one of the four contributor’s to the path-breaking collection of short stories-Angarey which lead to the establishment of All India Progressive Writer’s Association) wrote the book in 1939 and it was first published by Hogarth Press, England with strong support of literary giants like E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. And after reading the book it is easy to understand the reason behind their nod. The story revolves around the life of a typical feudal gentleman, Mir Nihal, and his family which stays in a large house in one of the bylanes of Mohallah Niyaryan in Shahjanabad. The  focus is  around the marriage of Mir Nihal’s youngest son   Asghar to Bilqeece against his father’s wishes  and her subsequent succumbing to an epidemic and its aftermath but it is the description and capturing of the finer nuances of the daily life of that era that elevate the book to a classic. Like all classics, its pace is gentle and those used to fast pace narratives would find the going slow. But the key is to persist and soon you will soon find yourself completely absorbed in the trials and tribulations of Mir Nihal and his extended family. At one level, the novel makes you sad as well as post-partition that way of life all but disappeared. There may still be proponents of activities like ‘flying pigeons’ and ‘kite flying’ left in old Delhi but these are more of a novelty now rather than a part of the daily routine as it used to be earlier. The book is interspersed with couplets by masters like Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Bhadur Shah Zafar and Hafiz and this adds to the flavor of that bygone era. Also it is one of the few books which have a description of the procession of coronation of King George in December 1911 when the capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta. Mir Nihal sits on the stairs of Jama Masjid and look at the procession coming out of the Red fort lamenting the decline of the Mughal Empire and cursing the ‘Farangis’.

After Twilight in Delhi (TID) ,Perpetual City by Malvika Singh (publisher –Seminar) was a bit of a disappointment. Maybe the disappointment was on account of  comparison with TID at a sub-conscious level or maybe because the  format of the series (~ 125 pages in A5 size) is such that it is difficult  to do full justice to the rich  history of the capital.It is a part of a series of brief biographies of various cities published by Aleph (other cities covered include Caclutta,Bombay,Chennai and Patna) and the author is a well know authority on Delhi (having authored 3 previous books on Delhi).The book is her personal account of stay in Delhi (where her parents moved from Bombay in the 50s) and it begins where TID ends. The author has inter-woven her personal experiences over the years with the changes she has seen in the city and the prominent personalities she met. Being herself an eminent citizen of Delhi (she is married amongst  the  First Families of New Delhi-to the grandson of Sir Sobha Singh who constructed most of the landmark buildings of New Delhi),the book has an upper-middle class skew but still people who have been staying in the capital post the 50 s should be able to identify with the  vignettes of daily life in the city    described in the book (The Steakhouse and the Bookshop in Jor Bagh, Greens caterers , Ginza restaurant  , Super bazaar, MR stores ,Coffee house in Connaught place and not to forget the only bookstore-Galgotias) and how the city gradually changed over the last 50 years.Many of these prominent landmarks disappeared over the time (Super bazaar) but many survived the onslaught of time (The Book shop)  or diversified in a different field (Galgotias) to keep up with the times.Also the flip side it that being from such an eminent family she had access to various official functions of the state including those for visiting foreign dignitaries and to all the political shenanigans and these add  value of the book. I particularly liked her description of the interior of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

So where does Delhi go from here? It is already the leading metropolis in India. It is also a city which is continuously expanding and it is inevitable that we  embrace changes which come along with this growth.But let us not  forget its rich heritage and take all possible steps to preserve the same and make the new generation aware of the legacy they are going to inherit. Towards the end the author writes that “she looks forward to passing on the experiences of her life to her grandchildren, as a counterpoint to all-consuming,cold and impersonal internet of their present and future.Both have a place.The best of both should be exploited and shared.” I could not agree more with her.

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