Reflecting the spirit of Delhi  

There is something alluring and magical about the city of Delhi.

There is something alluring and magical about the city of Delhi. | Photo Credit: AFP

Delhi, as they say, is a city of contradictions — where all things are true at once. One of the most loved and also much reviled city, it opens up to people in every way the city likes to think of itself.

The capital city of the world’s largest democracy is driven by power, energy and opportunities, dipped in nostalgia, rich in history and heritage and soaked in a myriad of compelling identities, memories and emotions. The composite culture of thousands of years thrives even after the city was destroyed and rebuilt seven times. Each time it has risen like a phoenix from the ashes stamping the city with its own genetic code distinctly seen in its architecture, monuments, museums, food, art, poetry, politics, culture and language.

The built environment of Delhi is a product of its socio-economic, cultural, and political forces. Those who live and work here lend to the unique character of the city, earning Delhi its best moniker as a city of bustling and large-hearted people. But its pollution levels, the game of one-upmanship, chaos and scare can be frustrating and infuriating. Yet, the city is counted among the most desirable ones to live in. There is something alluring and magical about it.

From the fragile crevices of Chandni Chowk to the imposing arcades of Connaught Place, Delhi is diverse and alive and writers have documented its beauty. Their works make you fall in love with the city all over again each time you turn the pages to read about the city’s many secrets and stories, myths and legends.

'Improbable' city

In the 1990 novel Delhi, you see the irrepressible raconteur Khushwant Singh as a historian, novelist, diarist, nature lover and journalist who traces the past from the Mughals to the 1857 Mutiny to the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs. His prose describes events that shaped the city — from the destruction at the hands of Nadir Shah and Taimur to how the city destroyed poets such as Mir Taqi Mir. In his inimitable style, Singh pairs humour and irreverence to tell us about the rulers from previous centuries who shaped the city.

City Improbable: Writings on Delhi, edited by Singh, puts together insightful versions of invaders, refugees, immigrants, travellers and residents who engaged with the city over different epochs. From Babur and Amir Khusrau to Ibn Battuta and Niccolao Manucci, a host of poets and story tellers bring alive the long eventful history of the city that saw the rise and fall of several empires. The book further details the city’s Sufi legacy, its vignettes of Partition and Emergency and the changing face of modern Delhi what with the making of resettlement colonies and expansion of the city’s suburbs as well as the changing cuisine and fashion.

William Dalrymple’s 1993 travelogue City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi is about the six years he spent exploring the deep history of the city through the characters he met — from British survivors of the Raj, a typical Punjabi family, a government officer to a driver and eunuch dancers. He juxtaposes them with his experience of living in a modern Delhi. His book is set at various times, unlike Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (1940) that vividly draws on Indian Muslims of Old Delhi between 1911 and 1919. With a longing for Old Delhi, the novel swings between melancholy and desperation through the narrow lanes around Jama Masjid milling with people after evening prayers, the aroma of kebabs and colourful sherbets. There is a symbolic imagery that addresses the changing social, political and cultural climate following colonialism and the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire.

Decay and renewal

There is a plethora of books that encompass life in Delhi pre-and-post independence. Clear Light of Day, a 1980 novel by Anita Desai is about the tensions in a post-partition family in Old Delhi and how the situation escalates into riots. Prioritising the importance of family, forgiveness, power of childhood bonding and the status of women, the book oscillates between the decaying old Delhi that is often overlooked in favour of the happening New Delhi.

Pakistani writer Raza Rumi gives a sensitive account of his discovery of the city in Delhi by Heart as he feels at home in what is considered his hostile territory. He feasts on the sights of the Sufi shrines, Lutyen’s stately mansions to Ghalib’s crumbling abode and the markets of Old Delhi and uncovers the city’s many layers with an unusual perspective.

Elizabeth Chatterjee in Delhi Mostly Harmless makes a journey from Oxford during the summer of 2013 and finds the pulse of the city electrifying as she fathoms the contrasts of the serpentine power structures and the graveyards and tombstones, the urban dissonance and charm.

Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2010) discovers the real Delhi by visiting the less celebrated and ignored destinations. He encounters people as varied as professors and members of the Police band to crematorium attendants and ragpickers and creates an entertaining portrait of what the megacity means to its residents. The modern Delhi, Miller depicts, in all its humour and humanity is the one whose future is a curiosity for all.

Just the way Delhi leaves you with an utter sense of awe, so do these books as they capture the essence of the city’s history, character and its people in full glory.

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Printable version | Sep 6, 2022 3:35:33 pm |