6 January 2009

Column - Welling Up

Between the Lines

In the back of the Delhi Public Library is a garden. Or is it one? There is not much by way of grass, no benches to sit on, and even in this season, when the city’s roundabouts bloom with municipal vigour, no flowers. Sprawled across the non-existent lawn, like some swooning elephant, is a mammoth piece of machinery. I walk closer to inspect this strange beast. That’s when I finally see the faded foundation stone embedded in the wall behind – declaring the Open Air Reading Room now open. 1984.

The Delhi Public Library was set up under a UNESCO pilot project for public libraries. The iconic building with the arched pink façade is an uneasy receptacle for Nehruvian dreams of knowledge as freedom. The frayed old books are packed into their shelves, forced to stand up straight in their tired blue uniforms. Only the shiny covers of magazines announce newness. 1951.

Last week, walking into the Water Diviner, Sheba Chhachhi’s installation for the 48c public art ecology project, I enter a kind of vault below the library. There, in the bowels of the building, are more tired blue books… but no longer standing. Piled in dusty heaps on every level of this stepped well-like basement, they seem to have finally come to rest. As I descend through the cobwebbed half-light, there is a long rectangular light box with a map of Shahjahanbad on which water channels are marked in blue. It turns out this space was once a swimming pool for British officers. The lion’s head fountain at the entrance to this room is part of that avatar. 1905?

A man enters the installation with his friend and comes up to the white-uniformed 48c volunteer. Aap zara samjhayengi, yeh kya hai? The girl speaks of water, how our urban ancestors kept it close to their hearts, and how it has disappeared from our lives. She points out the blue strips in the lit-up map. The man nods sagely. Then his gaze travels down the steps to the screen at the bottom, on which you can see an elephant floating underwater. He blinks involuntarily. It’s dead.

Above, in the auditorium half an hour later, Sohail Hashmi tells us about a well not far from where we sit, from which he drank cool, sweet water, up until the late 1970s. One of some six hundred public wells that once supplied water to Shahjahan’s city. He speaks of the neher that ran through Chandni Chowk, shaded by trees that got chopped down after they were seen to have shielded the men who shot Lord Hardinge. And how Daryaganj got its name from the canal that used to run down its centre. This is the first time I’ve attended a talk about Delhi, in Delhi, that hasn’t been in English. There are several glimmers of recognition in the audience. That city gate, it no longer exists. Where does the name Farashkhana come from? How do I find that well you mentioned? Aisi koi kitab hai, jisse hamein knowledge mil sakti hai? People are asking about an inhabited place, not a mere space of history. Amid the dead water channels, above these entombed book chambers, something is beginning to flow.

This column appeared on the back page of Time Out Delhi, Vol. 2 Issue 20, Dec 26 - Jan 8, 2008.

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