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
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’, 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
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
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.
Published in The Pioneer, December 15, 2000
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