A city of contradictions, where ancient traditions and modern aspirations jostle for space, Delhi has often been compared to a phoenix rising from the ashes. Its three thousand years of eventful history have witnessed the rise and fall of several empires, a process that continues today.
City improbable brings together writings by immigrants, residents, refugees, travelers and invaders who have engaged with India’s capital over different epochs. Babur shares his earliest experience of the city and Amir Khusrau praises the fine lads of Delhi ; IBN Battuta and Niccolao Manucci record the glories and follies of prominent rulers william dalrymple and Khushwant singh provide intriguing accounts of the threshold period that saw the coming of the British and the waning of the Mughals. Poets and storytellers – MEER TAQI MEER GHALIB, YASHPAL, KAMLESHWAR, RUSKIN BOND- narrate their versions of the city. Contemporary Delhi is featured in a variety of vignetters: the bureaucracy, the emergency, the anti-Sikh violence, lovers and joggers in Lodi Gardens, the city’s Sufi legacy as well as its changing cuisine.
Khushwant Singh is one of India's best-known writers and columnists. He began his career as a journalist with All India Radio in 1951. Since then he has been the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, the National Herald and the Hindustan Times for several years. He is also the author of several books, including the novels Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale, Delhi: A Novel and The Company of Women; the classic two-volume History of the Sikhs; as well as numerous translations and non-fiction books on Delhi, nature and current affairs. His autobiography, Truth, Love and a Little Malice, was published in 2002.
Khushwant Singh was a member of Parliament from 1980 to 1986. Among other honours, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 by the President of India, but he returned the decoration in 1984.. in protest against the Union Government's siege of
Some contributors to this anthology, especially the younger writers, wonder if Delhi can ever be anybody’s native city. People come here to earn a living, to study, or were born here and so had no option. But if one had a choice, would one really choose to live here? Does this ancient city, once described as the mistress of every conqueror, inspire love or loyalty?
Having spent much of my life in Delhi, I can tell you that here is as much to love about the city as there is to loathe. What is loveable makes a long list, but so does all that is loathsome about it. Let us first look at the things that make Delhi unique among the capitals of the world. It has a longer history and more historical movements than any other metropolis. Relics uncovered in an around Delhi date well beyond the sixth century BC. As for monuments, you will find one in every square kilometer. It has more mosques, mausolea and memorials than any city in a Muslim country. There are few mosques anywhere that can rival Delhi’s Jama Masjid in size and grandeur. See it from a distance at sunset on the minarets scouring the gradually darkening sky. If the fine fingernail of the crescent moon is spotted, cries f joy are heard from neighboring rooftops, a cannon is fired and garlands of white lights frame the perfect outlines of the Royal Mosque. It is a never-to-be-forgotten experience which will even make a non-believer acclaim the glory of god Allah-o-Akbar.
Another mosque that will stay in a visitor’s mind is Moti Masjid or pearl Mosque in the Red Fort. It is as small as the Jama Masjid is big and very appropriately named meant for private worship of the Muslim ruler of Delhi who lived in the marble palace alongside it, it is like a jewel box of virginal white. There are a dozen others of great architectural beauty but we must not overlook the other Muslim monuments for which Delhi is famous. The best known is the Qutub Minar, raised as a victory tower in the eleventh century AD. It is a slender, tapering edifice of beige and red sandstone, lavishly embellished with verses from the Holy Koran. There are many buildings in the world taller than Delhi’s Qutub Minar, but few to match its excellence. Then there is the mausoleum of emperor Humanyan, built by his widowed empress. Stand at the entrance gate to gaze at the perfect proportions and you will understand why it was chsen as the model for the world’s most beautiful monument, the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Delhi also has many beautiful modern buildings. There is the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the Secretariats, Parliaments House, and India Gate. You can see them in all their glory in the last week of January, around Republic Day, when they are festooned with lights. For the most splendid view, position yourself at India Gate as the sun goes down over Raisina Sarojini Naidu exult: imperial city, dowered with sovereign grace and it remains grand, though it is no longer imperial, nor has it a sovereign, but a democratic city dowered, hopefully, with secular grace.
More than man’s contributed it is nature’s bounty that has made Delhi the eternal capital of India. A broad river, the Yamuna, second only to the Ganga in sacredness, marked its eastern boundary, and a rocky ridge, the end of the Aravalli range, its western end. Between the river and the ridge rose several cities, each one the seat of the empire of Hindustan. As it population multiplied, it spilt over the river and rocky ridge till it spread over thirty square miles, to become, after Calcutta and Bombay, the third largest city of India. While the buildings came up, nature and man joined hands to add to the city’s treasures Delhi has more trees per square kilometer than any other big city. Most of them grow wild and are the gifts of nature, but a succession of rulers also laid out gardens and orchards wherever they lived. Little remains of these historical gardens besides their names: Hayat Baksh, Qudsia, Roshanara, Mahaldar Khan and other. The most significant contribution was made by the British. When they made blueprints of New Delhi, they provided for extensive planting of trees. As roads were laid out, saplings were planted. They chose, shade giving trees banyans, neems, jamuns, Arjuns, Mahuas Maulsaris so that we now have broad, tree-lined avenues in central Delhi. After independence, our own rulers opted for quick growing trees: jacarandas, laburnums, gulmohars and the completely useless eucalypti. However, between the old and the new, there is not a season when one or the other tree is not in full flower. The year starts with the semals (silk cottons) followed by the corals, chorizzias, flame of the forest, jacarandas, amaltas (laburnums), gulmohars and lagerstroneias (jaruls). After a short racess the floral cycle beings to move again.
Delhi’s greenery contributes to its rich bird life. The Bird Watching Society has listed almost five hundred distinct species of birds, resident and migratory, which can be seen in and around the city every year. There is never a moment when you look up and do not see flacks of birds circling and streaming across the sky. In the evenings as they go to roost the loud chorus of mynahs and parakeets drowns the roar of traffic. In Delhi’s bazaars and railway stations cheeky bank mynahs sometimes wriggle their way between people’s feet.
But you don’t see that kind of thing as often as you used to. Delhi has become a very polluted and congested city. It has more cars than Bombay, Calcutta and Madras put together. So there is more poison in the air than in other cities. That and the reckless use of pesticides have taken a heavy toll of insect, amphibian and bird life. In the rainy season, no frogs croak, no fireflies or moths are to be seen. Vultures have disappeared, sparrows have become scarce. The incidence of asthma and bronchial ailments has shown an alarming increase, and if residents of Delhi manage to survive it is because of the greenery around them.
The not-so loveable aspect of Delhi is entirely manmade. Delhiwalas are about the most inconsiderate of the human species you can encounter. They think nothing of throwing their garbage into their neighbours homes or on the road. They observe no road rules and are ever eager to overtake others, blow their horns and get into violent arguments. On an average four to six people are killed every day by cars and buses. About the same number are murdered in cold blood. Thefts and burglaries are a daily feature. Molesting women in buses is a common practice. At one time Dilliwalas were known for their courteous speech and interest in poetry, good food and clothes. They were proud of their poets Meer Taqi Meer, Ghalib Zauq and Zafar. Sons of the rich patronized courtesans living in Chawari Bazar to listen to mujras and banter Urdu Poetry with them. The paan chewed was wrapped in gold and silver paper. They wore brocades made by a family of royal dress designers living in Nai Sarak, and they got their sweets from the Shahi Halwai (Royal Confectioner) in Chandni Chowk. Even they used bawdy language to address each other, to put down somebody, they’d say ‘Chullu bhar paani mein doob mar’ (Go Drown yourself in a palmful of water or imli ke patte pe hug (Shit on a tamarind leaf) (the leaf being smaller then the nail of the little finger).
All that went the Muslim elite, who migrated to Pakistan in 1947. Their place was taken by a flood of Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab. Understandably, these new entrants were eager to rehabilitate themselves, make a fast buck and show everyone how well they had done for themselves. Hearty eating, good living in a large bungalow with a fleet of cars, an ostentations display of wealth became the culture of Delhi’s rich.
The most loathsome aspect of Delhi is the new caste system that has evolved the caste hierarchy of the bureaucracy, because Delhi is essentially the city of babus and politicians. You are judged by your status in the civil service: steno, upper division clerk, under secretary. Likewise, politicians have their own hierarchy and means of letting everyone know how important they are their cars have special number plates, their windscreens proclaim they are MPs, they have red or blue lights flashing on the roofs of their vehicles. The Brahmins of this hierarchy, known as VVIPs, have armed escorts and when they drive past, other traffic comes to a deferential halt. In short, they are a bloody nuisance because they make you feel small.
Draw a balance sheet of what is loveable about Delhi and what is not, and you will find that its plus points equal its minus points. So if you happen to be living in Delhi, why uproot yourself a go somewhere else of which you know less, and which may not be worth knowing either?
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