R.V. Smith — Historian of Delhi’s gallis and mohallas

R.V. Smith.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The only time I met R.V. Smith was about a year ago in the office, when he came to tea one Saturday afternoon with his son, Rodney. I had been editing his copy for a few months, and had wanted to meet the man who wrote with such a personal lens on Delhi.

“Are you settled?” he asked, a question I managed to steer the conversation away from. Instead, we spoke of his family — his seven siblings and five children, and how his son Tony was born in a hotel where the family stayed, while he was away in Agra; the two other children slept through it.

Like his columns in the last year, when he hadn’t kept very well, Smith storified everything in stream of consciousness manner. He talked of how a newspaper called The Englishman merged with The Statesman, of how he came to Delhi from Agra in 1957.

“I stayed with my eldest brother and his wife, you know,” he said. “They used to go to work and I used to be on night duty in PTI.” He would take his cycle all over Old Delhi, he said. “Now you can’t cycle there.”

After two years of living with his brother, he moved to the top floor of Naaz Hotel, opposite the Jama Masjid, where M.F. Husain often stayed. He’d seen Husain walk around barefoot and get food at Karim’s. Later Smith himself had a monthly account at the place, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner there with his family — the children feasting on biryani daily. He remembered the exact cost of a quarter plate of korma: 1 rupee, 4 annas.

In some time he moved to another hotel in the area, where the proprietor was a poet, who had seven wives and 28 children! Perhaps he makes an appearance in his tales, because Smith’s off-duty persona was no different than his on-duty one.

He also stayed in The Statesman’s flat in Daryaganj, living for several years in the area that his columns were set in, before moving out to a DDA complex in Mayapuri.

He reeled off names and dates as if everything had happened just the day before. We spoke of how he had Armenian, British, and Indian blood, and of his ancestor, Col. Salvador Smith, born in 1783, who joined the Gwalior forces. It was he who bought the house in Agra where many generations grew up.

The house was no longer in the family, Smith said, but the last he’d heard, it still hadn’t been consumed by flats. He could rattle of dates, old names of roads, bus routes, when I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast.

As we eat brownies and sip on tea (I had thoughtlessly bought muruku that he couldn’t eat because he had no teeth), he talks of his early days at The Statesman, where the news editor had the luxury of a liveried waiter who appeared with a pot of tea and biscuits on a tray. They also got a three-course English lunch: soup, mains, dessert, and coffee, the cost of which was deducted from the salary.

After an hour or so, he took our leave, and called me later to tell me how much he’d enjoyed the afternoon.

With his passing we have lost the voice of a man who brought history alive, and believed that “far away from the learned tomes of historians, there is a charm in what’s often dismissed as gossip.”

R.V. Smith passed away on the morning of Thursday, April 30.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 7:15:42 AM |

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