16 September 2008

Capital Vignettes: Book Review

Capital Vignettes: A Peep into Delhi's Ethos
RV Smith
Rupa, Rs 295

There’s no doubting RV Smith’s credentials as a Dilliwalla: one who knows his gola kabab from his shammi and his Niazi brothers from his Nizamis, and can tell a story about every one of the city’s streets to boot. Smith’s columns about Delhi have been a permanent fixture of the Statesman and the Hindu for many years now, and my impression was that his speciality is Old Delhi. And indeed, much of the book is taken up with tracing the half-remembered, half-legendary lives of nineteenth century figures who inhabited such-and-such a haveli in such-and-such mohalla of Shahjahanbad. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that Smith’s more recent geographical reference points are such unsung West Delhi localities as Mayapuri and Subhash Nagar. A roti-making dwarf in Ashok Nagar, an authorized opium shop in Karol Bagh, and Jat origin myths about Dwarka make for the some of the freshest writing in the book.

Unfortunately, Smith’s brief seems to involve being “historical”, tearing the reader away from this promising present into a deliberately hazy, rose-tinted past. Even people he’s seen first-hand are made to evoke tales of Mughal times: talking of a blind seer called Hafiz Nabina Doliwaley (who died in 1947) leads him seamlessly to the famous mystic Sarmad (who lived in the1600s), while Zulfiquar the kabab-maker (circa 1980) reminds him of the legendary Maseeta whom “even Mirza Ghalib respected”.

Other pieces combine textbook history with anecdotes strung around an ostensible theme. When this is something fairly concrete – for example, Queen Victoria’s connections to Delhi – it can be quite fun. In less than a page, we learn that the dal is called Malka Masoor as a tribute to Her Majesty’s “fondness for that lentil soup”, that Swami Shraddhanand’s statue in Chandni Chowk was a replacement for an older bronze one of Victoria, and that in her post-Albert years, the monarch had an affair not only with the now-famous John Brown but also a Munshi Abdul Karim who had been dispatched from Delhi to teach her Urdu.

But all too often, the “theme” dissolves into a series of madcap meditations, unfortunately delivered in all seriousness. In “Red Roses and Suraiya”, for instance, Smith ranges from “a hotel on Ring Road”, where the Garhwali guard makes him think of tribal warfare, the “lanky Negro” gives him “a whiff of Africa”, and the “fat Turk” triggers a lament about the death of “oriental beauty”, to a record shop in the Walled City where he manages to traverse three seasons, Baiju Bawra and Suraiya, in the space of one dream-like encounter. This kind of thing can be seen in two ways: as a charming form of storytelling that replicates the quality of post-dinner conversations with a sentimental grandfather, or as an attempt at stream-of-consciousness whose meandering could do with a ruthless editor. Readers of the latter variety are likely also to be bothered by the cringeworthy titles (“Ghoonghat of Rural Life”), the many typos and often non-existent syntax. If you’re willing to be indulgent, though, you might end up enjoying the ride.

An edited version of this review was published in Outlook Traveller magazine, September 2008.

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