30 September 2008

Here's Someone I'd Like You To Meet: Sheila Dhar

A Quality Introduction

The first instalment of my Back of the Book column for Time Out Delhi, about books set in Delhi.

Here's Someone I'd Like You To Meet: Tales of Innocents, Musicians and Bureaucrats is one half of Sheila Dhar's book, Raga'n Josh: Stories from a Musical Life, Permanent Black, Rs 395.
Ordinarily, books that are described as having a “sense of place” are ones that successfully illuminate some particular corner of the universe at some particular time. Sheila Dhar’s sparkling memoir, Here’s Someone I’d Like You To Meet, is a rare exception. Dhar’s book, like her life, straddles several worlds, sketching each with deft strokes. They might all be Delhi worlds, but they are completely different from each other.

Dhar begins with her childhood in Number Seven, Civil Lines, a sprawling bungalow built by her barrister-at-law grandfather to house his even more sprawling family. Her affectionate portrait of the patriarch and the whole Mathur Kayastha clan contains some astute commentary on a traditional, pre-colonial elite’s successful transition to modernity. “Guests to tea were served cakes and sandwiches instead of samosas and barfi; in the evenings there was Scotch whisky and soda… instead of keora sharbat”, and daughters were given an English education.

On the other hand, joint family hierarchy remained inviolable, marriages were invariably arranged, and daughters-in-law were expected to behave. At the heart of this careful cultural jugglery was a gendered division that many of us might recognize from our own families: the Westernized grandfather could publicly dismiss his wife’s rituals and observances as superstitious nonsense, but everyone knew that “in his heart of hearts he was relieved that his wife asserted the old tradition”.

The second strand of the memoir deals with musicians. Dhar stitches different times and places together with effortless ease: the impromptu baithaks of her family home, her early introduction to the aura of classical music through of her father’s involvement with Delhi’s music circles in the 1950s, and her own adult cultural world, centred round music classes, All India Radio recordings and Bharatiya Kala Kendra concerts.

Dhar’s chronological narrative is paralleled by a spatial trajectory through the city: childhood in Civil Lines, married life with her economics professor husband in a decrepit University bungalow, finally ending up in “a magnificent government house on Race Course Road” complete with jacaranda trees and parrots, after her husband became Indira Gandhi’s adviser. Each of these spaces, in turn, opens up a different phase in the life of the city – and the nation. If her childhood contains connections to an older time, where leisure time meant walks by the Jamuna, then the Delhi University years brilliantly delineate the emergence of a national cultural intelligentsia in which Carnatic musicians in the newly-established Department of Music vie with Bengali professors’ wives for the attentions of visiting Americans. The transition to Lutyens’ Delhi allows us to accompany an irreverent insider into 1970s bureaucratic and political circles, with sidesplitting accounts of ministerial wives and Rashtrapati Bhavan dinners.

But it is when Dhar describes her impersonation of Bhaggo Dada ki bahu at an official party that one realizes what made her so admirable a Dilliwali: her clear-eyed recognition that these worlds are impermeable for most people, and that she has had the rare privilege of moving between them. Acting the homely Old Delhi housewife at a starchy New Delhi political dinner was a way of playing these worlds off against each other – but in the warmest, most playful manner.

Published in Time Out Delhi Vol 2, Issue 9, July 25 - Aug 7, 2008.

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