Are there any native inhabitants of Delhi at all, or are they all ‘outsiders’?

To many it might appear to be an overdose of Delhi, but for a city that has constantly reinvented itself, Malvika Singh’s short biography of Delhi, Perpetual City has not come a day too late. Like the city, its windswept roads and its sun-kissed monuments, Malvika’s sweet little book warms the heart of a Dilliwallah. Now Dilliwallah, as I understand it, is quite a misnomer. You can find Delhi in all its avatars from Lal Kot and Siri to Tughlakabad, Ferozabad, Deenpanah and on to Shahjahanabad and beyond. But today in 2014, it won’t be easy to find a Dilliwallah in Dilli!

Why, even the city’s nomenclature is flawed. What is called Old Delhi is actually younger to many parts of New Delhi by almost 800 years. And what is usually referred to as New Delhi is at times older to some areas by as much as half a century. Ask the residents of the Walled City in areas such as Matia Mahal, Ballimaran or Chandni Chowk, and they will claim to be original Dilliwallahs. They have been the inhabitants of the kuchas, the havelis and the serais for around 400 years. Hence, across many generations, they have enjoyed the right to be called Dehlavis. Some use it in their name too.

However, try and say as much to a handful of old residents in and around Nizamuddin Basti-Bhogal and they will give a knowing smile, claiming, as some of them do, that they have been in Delhi since the time of Nizamuddin Auliya, the Sufi, whose prognostication, “Hunuz Dilli door ast” sadly came true for the Tughlaq king, Ghayasuddin. Venture to South Delhi, to the area around Mehrauli. Many claim their ancestors have been here since the time of the Sultanate, or better still, the Tomars! They are the ‘real’ Dilliwallahs! The rest, according to them, are all immigrants, or worse, upstarts. It may well be partially true, but aren’t all of us immigrants here? Just depends on how far back you go in time.

Some came with the Aryans, others later. Some settled during the reign of the Chauhans, others during the Sultanate, still others during the rule of Shahjahan, and still others during British rule when Delhi again became the Capital of India in 1911. And today in 2014, the trickle of immigrants continues. The sprawling metropolis is a magnet that draws people in all the time. Some find white collar jobs, buy flats, start families. Others move on to shanties and unauthorised colonies. But can any one of these people working and living in Delhi call himself a Dilliwallah? Nope.

And then the biggest paradox. Delhi teems with millions and millions of people. Yet unlike, say, Kolkata, Mumbai or Chennai, there are few who call it their home. Millions stay here and earn their livelihood, yet the city is a little more than a ‘rain basera’, a night shelter. Come Diwali, Eid or Christmas, Delhi is deserted by thousands who head ‘home’ to small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu. Same when a resident gets married; the entourage goes ‘native’. Never mind that Zauq, the court poet of Bahadur Shah Zafar, once said, “Kaun Jaye Zauq Par Dilli ki galiyan chhor kar?”.

Delhi is treated shabbily, very shabbily. No Dilliwallahs here. Everybody is either Bihari, Bengali, Punjabi or ‘Madrasi’ (that easy if inaccurate stereotype for people from the South), but nobody is a Delhiite.

In fact, not just on festive or special occasions, the city’s residents keep ‘away’ from it all the time. They build little avenues, little ghettos of their own, the Bengalis, the Madrasis, the Punjabis, the Muslims, the Sikhs and what have you. Inside the little pockets of isolation are celebrated festivals of the specific region or religion; outside, the world goes on as usual. It is like wearing trousers to office and coming back home to slip into tehmat, dhoti or mundu.

No wonder, not many feel for the city and its vast history. Or Delhi’s ability to rise, like the proverbial phoenix, from the ashes. Or its medieval monuments, each one of them a statement in grandeur. Malvika’s book which provoked me to think about Dilliwallahs, will, hopefully, give residents urgent reason to take pride in the city. And maybe, convince some to call it their own.


Beyond languageJanuary 17, 2014