25 August 2008

Living Image: Old Delhi in literature

An essay for Time Out Delhi, on changing literary depictions of Shahjahanbad over the last century:
Photograph by Abhinandita Mathur
“Anything about which one knows that one soon will not have it around becomes an image,” wrote Walter Benjamin. While Shahjahanbad is nowhere near disappearing from the face of the earth, the death of its spirit has been much lamented in twentieth century writing, and there is no doubt that much of the throbbing, pulsating life that coursed through the city’s veins at the start of the century no longer exists, except in memory.

The creation of New Delhi in 1931 relegated Shahjahan’s once-magnificent city to the status of “Old” Delhi, which came to be perceived increasingly through the developmental lenses of “congestion” and sanitation rather than as an organic settlement with its own vision of what a city is. But even as political power and cultural patronage moved bag and baggage to New Delhi’s tree-lined avenues, the bustling galis and kuchas of the walled city – and the quieter bungalows of the Civil Lines – became for many a writer, a window into a “more authentic” Delhi.

Among the earliest twentieth century literary attempts to document the disappearing life of the walled city was Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (1940). Set in the period 1911-1919, Twilight draws on a fund of memory to fill out a portrait of life in Delhi in loving ethnographic detail: the pigeon-flyers and the kite-fighters, the kababchis and the kulfi-sellers, the beggars and the healers, the poets and the qawwals. It is a love song to a dying world – a world that may have been feudal, flawed and untenable, but whose ideals one still cherished, whose purity one admired, and whose once-incandescent beauty was not easily forgotten.

Certainly, for someone who helped found the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Ali displays very little enthusiasm for the transformations of modernity. Instead, we read of the “grating noise” of trams, of engine smoke blackening the evening sky, of Chandni Chowk being disfigured by the demolition of the central causeway and the cutting down of shade-giving peepal trees, and most painful of all, the death of the old culture: “The richness of life had been looted and despoiled by the foreigners, and vulgarity and cheapness had taken its place. That relation which had existed between society and its poets and members was destroyed”.

Glimpses of a similarly conflicted relationship with a once-glorious but colonised past and a decolonized but forever corrupted, inauthentic, present appear in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day (1980). Moving between a 1970s present and a 1940s past, Desai’s allusions to “Old Delhi decadence” conjure up a contrasting vision of New Delhi as a place “where things happen”. But Desai allows for no easy choices. Hyder Ali and Raja, who represent Old Delhi, with their poetic flourishes and delusions of grandeur, are treated with as much ambivalence (“verses that… had thrilled her then with their Persian glamour”) as the diplomat Bakul’s smug efficiency (“smoothed” by “the bland oil of self-confidence”).

Desai’s Old Delhi, interestingly, is not the walled city but the Civil Lines, a European enclave of sprawling colonial bungalows to which upper-class Indian families started moving in the 1910s and 1920s. The Civil Lines of Clear Light, however, is a much lonelier place than the one remembered by Sheila Dhar (Raga’n Josh: Stories from a Musical Life, 1995), whose barrister grandfather spearheaded just such a move of her Mathur Kayastha extended family, from “the congested lanes of Chailpuri in the old city” to the “spacious and elegant” houses whose new Anglicized lifestyle awed relatives visiting from the walled city. “It was noted with envy and admiration that breakfast in these households consisted of eggs, toast and jam, instead of vegetable bhujia with paratha, and that even the women had begun to use spoons, though only little ones, to eat.”

And yet, for all the billiards, bridge and Scotch whisky that had replaced chess, ganjifa and keora sharbat, Dhar’s sparkling memoir of her 1940s childhood reveals many connections to an older style of Delhi life. The ustads who first taught Dhar classical music came from the walled city – Mohan Baba from Neel Katra, Bundu Khan from Suiwalan – and family outings were planned as if from Sheher – “walks by the Jamuna, trips to the Qudsia Gardens, picnics at Okhla in the mango season”.

By the 1950s, however, the separation between the old city and the new was complete. Madhusudan, the narrator of Mohan Rakesh’s seminal 1961 novel, Andhere Band Kamre (translated as Lingering Shadows [1993]), rents a room in Qassabpura, but spends his waking hours in Connaught Place, wondering whether he will ever live in the style of his friends Harbans and Nilima, in their Hanuman Road bungalow “with paintings on the walls”. For Thakurain, his landlady, Connaught Place is a distant “outing” – she excitedly remembers having gone there once, “on Independence Day with Thakur Saheb.”

In one of the book’s most devastating scenes, Madhusudan writes a newspaper feature on “the streets of Delhi” whose mention of Qassabpura’s dilapidated houses results in the Municipal Committee threatening to pull down Thakurain’s home. Old Delhi was no longer about poetry and music, or even delusions of grandeur – it was a dirty, congested, “breeding ground for epidemics”, full of houses of “the sort that should be condemned!” Rakesh’s novel coincided with the 1962 Delhi Master Plan’s schemes for “decongesting” Shahjahanbad and its declaration as a notified slum.

Even nostalgia, if it existed, now served as an excuse for demolition. Jagmohan followed up his Rebuilding Shahjahanbad (1975) with his infamous attempt to “clear” sections of the old city during the Emergency. It was not until the 1990s, with William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns (1993) and Krishna Sobti’s magisterial Dil-o-Danish (1993) that Old Delhi began its slow return journey to being a site of history and romance, leading to an increasing interest in it as “heritage”.

It remains to be seen what writers in the 21st century will make of a city that must now negotiate a path between preserving havelis and thriving trade, a path that will hopefully allow for both cycle-rickshaws and the Metro.

Published in Time Out Delhi Vol 2 Issue 4 (Jan 25 - Feb 7, 2008)


APURVA........NAAM TOH SUNA HI HOGA!!!!!!!! said...

Its an awesome article. I follow your writing on Mumbai Mirror. Just found your blog and cant wait to read all the posts..!!.. reading your stuff is a great experience..!!.. always well researched!! Looking forward for more words!!!..

Trisha Gupta said...

Hi Apurva, thanks very much for your generous comment. Always great to hear from a reader, and I'm glad you enjoyed this particular piece -- it's a subject close to my heart. Do keep reading, and writing in.