Chronicles Delhi and the Death of Dreams

Watching the tumultuous and chaotic proceedings in the grand hall of Parliament, Jagmohan, the Union Minister for Urban Affairs, was, perhaps, inspired by a certain misplaced naïveté in his emotional appeal to the finer sensibilities of his fellow politicians, to their sense of national interest, to their sense of history, when he demanded to know: “In what type of Delhi do we want to live, and what type of legacy do we wish to bequeath to posterity and to our children and grand children? Should we resort to ‘short-termism’ and keep out of mind the well-known dictum: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’?”

Within a few weeks, we will witness the annual splendour of the Republic Day parade, a showcase of the nation’s triumphant march down the road to prosperity and greatness. Yet, there is a growing feeling of unease that becomes harder to quell with each passing year – that this splendid display, this orchestrated pageant, has grown ragged at the edges, soiled at the collar, so ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Five decades after Independence, Delhi speaks eloquently of the rot that has come to pass; of the great betrayal of a young nation that has been swamped over by an oppressive, uncaring air of corruption. It manifests itself in the sad, tawdry air that has overtaken all the trappings that exist to give a people a collective sense of pride, of joy in their nationhood. A nation’s search for self-definition is partially met by such symbolism. Yet what – where – are the trappings? The shifty, shuffling pomp of Rashtrapati Bhawan? All ceremony today seems to showcase a pathetic imperial legacy gone waste, rather than to embody the vibrant pride of freedom and nationhood. Delhi has failed as a symbol, it has failed as a city. It has been failed by its rulers.

Every great city reveals its virtues in its town planning, in the lyrical power of its architecture, which approximate the essential endeavour to embody man’s arduous journey from the savage to the civilised. The city stands defiant in the face of the random, the powerful, uncontrollable forces of nature and speaks of its enviable place in the history of civilisation: a spiritual accomplishment set in concrete. In the ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation, we see the stratified evidence of a great and ancient culture, of a noble, imaginative people and of a vision that transcended the age they lived in. The cities they left behind in the sands of time tell us this.

If the Delhi of today were to be discovered centuries later as a petrified calcination of buildings, roads, alleys, slums and sewers – the truth would be read as sad and horrific. Petty meanness, spiritual inadequacies would mark every touch, every brick where the ‘great’ elite who led this city lived, and wretched smallness, the rest. The truth of this phase of our history would be uncovered: only the venal brutality of our elite will outlive us.

To destroy all that was good and to create nothing whatsoever in return, is the legacy of modern Delhi. Casting covetous eyes on the old, the historical, its great monuments were taken for granted, and architectural legacies turned into semi slums – and in return? It is ironic that buildings that were paeans to British imperialism are all we have available to light up and proclaim faith in the new nation. What could be held aloft as symbols of a new, young, dynamic people – free and looking forward in hope? What works commemorating institutional might? Housing the edifices within which a new spirit, culture and heritage could be fostered, nurtured and rise?

Even the tatty, pathetic, puppet regime of Bahadur Shah Zafar – cash strapped and devoid of military and political power – spawned another kind of heritage. We remember Zafar for giving us some of the greatest poets, for cultivating a golden era in Urdu literature. He knew and understood the value of learning, of the world of wisdom, and drew his immortality out of it.

Today fifty years into a democracy the elite ‘rule’ over their hapless ‘subjects’ with a shallow, imperious arrogance and leave their devastating mark on the city. Their constricted vision has spawned an intellectual vacuity, a lust, a greed without responsibility which feeds off a frenetic, frenzied, out-of-control energy.

‘Energy’, that brazen, driving force behind the economy. But where is it reflected? In the uncontrolled, rapacious avarice of the grasping, insecure outsider. In the sheer brutality of exploitation that marks the endeavour to create its wealth. In the black pits of Shadara and Seelampur, those large open sewers inhabited by, not rats, but multitudinous humans who work in excrement and filth to produce the abundance which this city feeds off. A thousand Shadaras and Seelampurs breed with unchecked abandon across the city. Moving through these hellholes makes the Dikensian city seem a pleasant dream. This is where 70 per cent of Delhi's wealth-generating residents live. And squalor and disease are the rewards bequeathed to them.

The ‘blood’ that flows through the city is a dark slime. Like the once magnificent river now slowly dying, choked by gallons of ordure, swimming in effluent waste. On these very banks Shah Jahan built his dream, his vision. A vision now turned leprous as oozing sores scar crumbling, dying havelis. Indifference mars the edifices once renowned the world over for their exquisite beauty. Shahjehanabad is now a warren of black, broken, buildings. These ruins cannot inspire the imagination, there is no history here. The hysterical, indrawn breath of downbeat white tourists cannot erase the reality that an emperor’s dream, the imperial city, has been officially declared a slum by modern India.

Away from this abandoned dream lies the carefully laid out city of New Delhi. Lutyens, that quixotic architect, with his peculiar touch of lightness, strength and grace, created a quaintly indigenous stamp celebrating British might. His ethereal creation now lies quaking in its final death throes, progressively stamped out by the compromise between corruption and commercialism.

Nehru was perhaps the only leader who understood the true significance of a city and its embodiment of a great, new modern spirit, and tried to express these through the Chandigarh experiment. Today, what breadth of vision is reflected in what passes as town planning? The chaotic randomness, the confused proliferation, only serve to reflect callous indifference. Stifling, malodorous slums. Housing colonies for the ‘privileged’ situated by the banks of great, open drains, stinking sewers. Workplaces flung far and unevenly about. A complete lack of any humane mass transportation system. Where’s the thought for a revolution in housing – affordable and livable? And for a precious one per cent, impossibly luxurious, grotesque mock palaces from within which the fruits of greed without responsibility are enjoyed. The rich fence off, wall off, brick off, their acres of estate and are unwilling to pay for services they require, perpetuating a cycle of cynical and brutal exploitation.

Today, devoid even of a melancholy beauty, Delhi is cloaked in a choking air of meanness, a city without a heart. It presents the devastating process of change without any single redeeming feature. Every stone tells its story, the story of a nation: the sad wastelands of the ‘refugee colonies’ where victims of indulgent brutality exist in a wretched, forgotten world; the-ghost like appearance of the loom centres of Nand Nagri; the liberal spread of shanties; ridiculous pipe fountains said to ‘rival the fountains of Rome’; narrow, mean streets, flanked by gigantic private fiefdoms; the acrid pall of smog and smoke that hangs over the residence of the President of India – it all speaks of an uncontrollable loss, of unspeakable violence, of the collapse of imagination and civilisation.

Delhi – the city of seven magnificent cities spanning centuries, bound together by the continuum of history; the old stones renewed contact and passed on their legacy to successive generations. They have gone, been erased, and no pathways exist to take us from what was to what could have been. The immortal dream has died: we live in a mortal city.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, December 15, 2000


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