Writer’s block Society

Of old times and Old Delhi

I lived in Delhi for seven long years before I moved to Chennai, and during those seven years, I must have travelled only about half-a-dozen times, invariably at the expense of the Bharatiya Janata Party, to cover its various conclaves held in different cities: Jaipur, Bhubaneswar, Nagpur, and perhaps one or two more cities which I may be forgetting at the moment.

In the summer of 1996, thanks to the BJP, I also got to visit Shimla to attend a public meeting of L.K. Advani, and the party functionary looking after the press party during the trip happened to be Narendra Modi. In 2000, I went to Agra to cover an RSS conclave, which began on a Friday and ended the following Sunday, so I decided to visit the Taj Mahal on Monday. But that Monday, I discovered that the Taj remained closed on Mondays. I returned to Delhi without a glimpse of India’s most famous monument.

I did travel on my own too — but only Delhi to Kanpur and back. Holiday meant going home. I had neither the ambition nor the money to holiday elsewhere. I had no idea what travel meant. And travel writing — what was that?

Then I don’t know what came over me that I decided to make the longest and most decisive journey of my life: travelling 2,000 km South to settle in Chennai. I arrived in 2001, an election year in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and I travelled to Rameswaram and Kannur to write mood pieces. Those were my first travel stories. Sixteen years have passed since then.

Last weekend, I was at IIT-Delhi to talk to its students about the virtues of travelling and to share my experiences as a travel writer. I found myself telling them, “Unless you explore the history of the city you are living in, you are merely existing on its soil and not living. There is no text without context — and you must find the context.”

My own words struck me as hollow, because during the seven years that I lived in Delhi, I saw nothing in the city. Not only that, I knew nothing about the city, except that it was the capital of India. I had visited Qutub Minar and Red Fort as a child, that’s about it — and here I was, advising some of the brightest minds in the country to explore history. I felt deeply ashamed.

The next morning I begged a friend — a travel-addict called Vinay Kumar — to take me to Old Delhi, the capital city of Shah Jahan. I had dined several times at Karim, the famous restaurant that sits under the gaze of the imposing Jama Masjid, but always went back home without sparing a thought for history. Now was the time to revisit history. Vinay Kumar, in return, begged Kanika Singh, a student of history who runs Delhi Heritage Walks, to show us around.

We met at Gurdwara Sisganj, and that’s where we began our walk. The gurdwara is built on the spot where the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was publicly beheaded on the orders of Aurangzeb. Suddenly, history morphed into geography as historical events were pinned to specific locations.

The walk lasted about two hours, during which we also visited the haveli where Mirza Ghalib spent the last nine years of his life, from 1860 to 1869, the year Mahatma Gandhi was born. But Gandhi remains irrelevant in Old Delhi, which thrives with such vivacity as if the ghost of Shah Jahan is still perched on an invisible throne in the Red Fort and driving life in the city.

As we had lunch at Karim after the walk — we munched on roomali roti and seekh kebab — I resolved that I must write a book about Old Delhi: the only way I could atone for my indifference back then. That reminds me: I am yet to see the Taj Mahal.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 5:19:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/Of-old-times-and-Old-Delhi/article14928169.ece

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