Three books, on Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, highlight how India’s cities have changed over the years, leaving a trail of impressions.
There are more books written about Delhi than any other city in India. That it is the capital of the country is not the only reason. As Malvika Singh (who has herself written three other books on different aspects of Delhi) says in her book Perpetual City, “Of all the world’s great cities washed by the tides of history, and there are only a select few of these, in which power and pomp have been concentrated for centuries, there are none which are quite like Delhi.” No other city, despite repeated attempts to destroy it, or neglect it, continues to grow and reinvent itself from age to age. Capital to multiple empires, each more glorious than the one which preceded it, and now, the largest urban agglomeration in a nation awkwardly coming into its own, it looks set to reinvent itself once more—this time as a mega-city for the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, I’m not certain that the newest avatar of this city, founded in the lee of an ancient range of hills in northern India, is going to be as appealing as those that preceded it.”
Singh has written a concise personal account of this grand city, part of Aleph’s series of short city biographies. A veteran journalist, she was associate publisher of Business India magazine for many years, launched the country’s first culture journal India Magazine, and is now publisher of the monthly Seminar, which is an in-depth thinking person’s magazine.
If anyone knows Delhi, it is Singh. In the 1950s, when she was about 12 years old, her family moved from Bombay to Delhi. Since childhood, she has been exposed to an amazing number of people and has traversed through the nooks and crannies of the city. “I thought then, as I do now, that Delhi was about those who rule us, and we the ruled, who are at their call and mercy. It was (and is) a city of ‘them’ and ‘us’, while Bombay was, in comparison, equal and cosmopolitan, all-embracing, and did not exude that alienating sense of absolute ‘power’. From Purana Qila to Red Fort and on to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the imposing walled-in ‘palaces’ of the emperors of yore as well as the leaders of today, the many ‘Diwan-e-Khas’, were, and continue to be, secluded, protected abodes, ivory towers segregated from the people at large.”
A brief history of Delhi is followed by memories of her growing up in Lutyen’s Delhi and happy times in the old Delhi. “In the fifties, there was a quiet, insular and ‘protected’ New Delhi that lived alongside a vibrant, decaying Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi.” The description of these two Delhis in that relaxed age is riveting. It’s difficult to imagine our capital city without its security restrictions, politicians strutting about, and an abundant display of wealth. But Singh describes the days when presidents dropped in to have tea with friends, when children could visit Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s residence, Teen Murti Bhavan, peep into his study, and he would come out to take a picture with them. Those were the days when Delhi was teeming with intellectuals, artists and eccentrics. It was a gracious city.
Singh’s most vivid impressions of Old Delhi, as she says, can best be boxed into three compartments — its monuments, its food, and its music. With words, she paints wonderful pictures of her youth spent wandering around Old Delhi in the nights with family and friends. Luckily some of the charm of Old Delhi remains intact although much is lost.
The second part describes a changing city. The innocent times began fading with the wars with China and Pakistan, the economic crisis, the Emergency, assassinations, the storming of the Golden Temple, the attacks against the Sikhs (a permanent blot on Delhi) and other events. Liberalisation started leaving its mark on Delhi in the form of growing suburbs, malls and new money (Panjabi Chippendale and Sindhi Baroque). Singh’s eye-witness account of this transformation makes for a great read.
Singh is not unsympathetic to the changes in her beloved city. “As I grow older, it is this new liveliness that makes me feel young and intellectually agile. It also makes me feel like an alien, exploring the space again, looking for missed treasures and new ideas, engineering within my person, a new excitement.”
Perpetual City is a sparkling little book full of stories about people, events and places, all told with a lot of wit and charm. After all Singh is known as the empress of irreverence in Delhi.
There was Madras, which used to be lovingly described as an overgrown village by outsiders. It was a quiet green city with a lot of temples and many colonial era buildings. People lived in spacious bungalows surrounded by gardens. We, who grew up in that era, walked to schools, took buses, spent evenings in the Marina Beach and went to eat in the Woodlands Drive-in Restaurant.
Like all cities, Madras changed forever when India opened up and Madras became Chennai. While the 21st century brought about transformation all over the country, in Chennai it was rapid because Madras had to be left behind and Chennai had to catch up. Chennai became somewhat schizophrenic. Many of its historic buildings and monuments have gone forever. It hurtled towards becoming a modern city, with some of its conservative traits not willing to disappear.
What better way to reflect on this than with a coffee table book called Madras Then Chennai Now. Nanditha Krishna, author and historian, has traced Madras’s history from the time the Portuguese arrived in 1522 annexing the village of Mylapore. She describes how it became a city and the political and social developments till it became Chennai. The marvellous photographs used in the book, several sourced from Krishna’s own family albums, have been carefully captioned by her. The cover of Madras Then has a stunning photograph of Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyer and his young family. Some of the mostly black-and-white photographs are familiar but many others, sourced from the British Library, historical archives and private collections, are not so familiar. They are so evocative, leaving you with a longing for a bygone era.
Chennai Now reflects today’s times and confusions. Young poet and author Tishani Doshi gives a personal account of this “misunderstood metro”, as she calls it. She says when she thinks of Madras, she thinks of mathematicians and musicians, MGR and Rajinikanth. Also F1 racers, Enfield and, of course, the Chennai Super Kings. Chennai Now is vibrant, dirty, not so environmentally-friendly, but a modern and hopeful city. The pictures are also colourful, alive and full of Chennai’s multicultural and religious places and spaces. One can get a glimpse of its emergence as a corporate powerhouse as well. The picture of the contemporary Siva Lingam temple built for the Chinmaya Mission in Thamaraippakkam says it all.
Mumbai is the most glamorous city in India — the city of dreams. It attracts migrants by the millions; it is overcrowded, bursting at the seams but still has a kinetic energy that makes it something special. What also made it special till recently was its truly cosmopolitan nature and its liberal ways. Sadly some of what made Mumbai so unique is fading every year. The city has been subject to repetitive bomb blasts terrorist attacks, emerging chauvinism, moral policing which made it ban bar girls. Yet the spirit of Mumbai is alive. It survives and retains many traits which make it unique.
Mumbai: Face of Today’s India is an elegantly written coffee table book with magnificent pictures. A well put-together chronology of the evolution of the city, and pictures of 19th century buildings followed by an elegant history of Mumbai with beautiful pictures make this a very attractive book. It will appeal more to the tourists than the locals.
Perpetual City: A Short Biography of Delhi; Malvika Singh, Aleph Book Company, Rs.295.
Madras Then Chennai Now; Nanditha Krishna, Tishani Doshi and Pramod Kapoor, Roli Books, price not stated.
Mumbai: Face of Today’s India; Magnate Publishing House, price not stated.