Chronicles Delhi Crucible of Dreams

For many a dream realised, she is home to millions yet belongs to none. Delhi lies separated from her people, you can violate her or nurture her yet her spirit remains unknowable, mysterious with an elusive permanence. She presents herself in anarchic randomness, in precision and order, in wretched slow death, in the pulsating energy of youth. Her grotesqueness repels you, yet the secure repose of her age-old wisdom, her mature beauty, draws you to her, calms you and holds you in an unending embrace.

She is where chaos and beauty come together and the sparks of their collision create a world where all is possible.

The landscape of Delhi and its surrounding plains has little to recommend it. The weather is divided between fierce unrelenting heat, the air filled with grainy lashings of swirling dust, and bitter, aching cold. Yet it is a city that kings and emperors have always sought to conquer. "Everywhere is a silent void as if the plain were intended by nature to be the battlefield of nations." For he who held Delhi held the key to Hindustan and her enormous wealth.

This ethereal city of antiquity appears dimly through the mists of forgotten time, in 1400 BC, as the glittering city of Indraprastha, built by the legendary Pandavas, the warrior kings of the ancient epic, Mahabaharata. Once Delhi emerges out of the blurred lines of legend into history, we witness a constant struggle of the victorious and the vanquished. From a succession of warring Hindu kings to the marauding and ambitious missions of Muslim invaders and conquerors, to the wily British, the hot, arid plains have been soaked in the blood of men who fought legendary battles to possess one of the greatest cities in the world.

It was this constant flux, this melting pot of empires and race that made Delhi unique There is no one city of Delhi. The scattered and magnificent ruins are testimony to the vanity and ambitions of men who sought to create new cities in their own image, each a proclamation of a new supremacy. The ruins of the Old Fort, the lofty magnificence of the Qutab Minar, the elegant dignity of Humayun’s Tomb, the beauty of the Red Fort, the grace and power of Lutyens�New Delhi, are just a few of the numerous splendours of history. Through the procession of empires the people of Delhi have been, variously, supremely pampered or battered and hapless, denizens celebrating or lamenting their and the city’s fate.

If we peer into the fog of the past we see on this canvas of extreme upheaval, some constants that thread the arc of history.

Today, the imperial city built by Shahjahan lies in a chaotic shambles. Walking through its bylanes, you can see bare vestiges of a past, in crumbling palaces, in men whose faces seemed frozen in time, marked by the features of ancestors who made the journeys from harsh deserts over seemingly impenetrable mountains to this, the greatest city of all.

Fatima Begum’s family has lived in the old city since the age of the Mughals. Touching ninety, she is sharp and alert, her beautiful face softly marked by the ravages of time. Her kohl lined eyes are bright as she recounts a life in an era long gone, a grand carnival of poetry and dance, of "fasting and feasting". "It was a wonderful time. People were much better then. There was respect for elders and a courtesy in people, not like it is now. It was Partition that changed everything. It was terrible. Men fell upon each other like beasts in a frenzy of killing. The worst were the Sikhs, they killed without compunction". After a moments reflection she remarks calmly, "Whatever happened with them in 1984 was very good. They were punished"

Fatima’s anguish and anger are contained in the hearts of the men and women who witnessed the tormented birth of a nation �in the hearts of the people of Delhi. On August 15, 1947, India was finally declared free after nearly two hundred years of British rule. However, with the tragedy of Partition, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were sucked into a vortex of blood-letting. The momentous dawn of freedom was drenched with sorrow, as hundreds of thousands lost their lives. The killings, the savagery, the burnings, the rapes, are stamped in the memories of all the affected communities. The columns of humanity trudging into Delhi, ravaged beings bearing the burden of history, would always carry the heaving undercurrent of fear and violence.

The bounty and generosity of Delhi makes it possible to start again and live lives of comfort and plenty. The past is a distant memory, until the cataclysmic cycle of her history turns the wheel once again.

On October 31, 1984, the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The act intended to avenge the storming of the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Acting on Gandhi’s orders, the Army rolled in tanks and artillery into the sacred space and laid some of its most revered buildings waste, in an attempt to dislodge terrorists holed up in there. Through the shock and pall of gloom that enveloped Delhi after the Prime Minister’s assassination, workers of the Congress party slowly began to orchestrate a pogrom. Armed with voters�lists they sought out Sikh homes and set them aflame, threw rubber tyres around the necks of men women and children and burnt them to death. Over the next three days thousands of Sikhs were pulled out of their homes and slaughtered. By the time the son of the dead Prime Minister, and newly elected Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, asked for a stop to the violence, more than three thousand Sikhs had been killed. This gruesome orgy of violence, this sheer and wanton cruelty, was what brought succour to the tormented recesses of Fatima’s memory.

Massacred by Auranzeb for their faith, their Ninth Guru tortured and beheaded in the old city, the sons of their tenth Guru bricked-up alive, ravaged and dispossessed by Partition, victims of genocide in 1984, the Sikhs are a good barometer of the triumph and tragedy that is a constant in Delhi. Today, they are one of the most prosperous communities, their history entombed in the numerous shrines and Gurudwaras (Sikh temples) across the city.

Delhi sets an inescapable feature in its storytelling, its history bound together by a cycle of violence and destruction. It tells of an endless succession of plunderers: of Timur the Lame, whose sack of Delhi and slaughter which lasted three days and nights, is prime in the annals of her bloodied history; of Nadir Shah who stood at the Golden Mosque and watched his men pillage and kill through the day, till a hundred and fifty thousand lay dead; of the British after the mutiny, as they tied natives to cannons and blew them off; the stage of Delhi is set with some of the most spectacular displays of cruelty.

However, when it is unencumbered by fratricide and strife, the city gets on with what it does best �creating wealth and erasing the past. The deeply visceral hatreds put aside, the new faith is hedonism �the pleasure and enjoyment of living well. As the old yields to the new, often the conduct of the emerging society, the alien culture, would cause bemusement and disgust among the old, wasting civilization. In 1837 Emma Roberts quotes from an akhbar of the day, a description of a European entertainment:

"The gentlemen of exalted dignity had a great feast last night�There was a little hog on the table, before Mr.___, who cut it in small pieces, and sent some to each of the party; even the women ate of it. Having stuffed themselves with the unclean food, and many sorts of flesh, taking plenty of wine, they made for some time a great noise, which doubtless arose from drunkenness. They all stood up two or four times, crying Hip! Hip! and roared before they drank more wine. After dinner, they danced in their licentious manner, pulling about each other’s wives".

Nearly a century later, while visiting Delhi during the silly season of the Raj, Aldous Huxley notes, "How often, while at Delhi, I thought of Proust and wished that he might have known the place and its inhabitants. For the imperial city is no less rich in social comedy than Paris; its soul is as fertile in snobberies, dissimulations, prejudices, hatreds, envies�The comedy of Delhi and the new India, however exquisitely diverting, is full of tragic implications. The dispute of races, the reciprocal hatred of colours, the subjection of one people to another �these things lie behind its snobberies, conventions, and deceits, are implicit in every ludicrous antic of the comedians." In a letter to his wife he adds, "All the masks and courtesies of Paris are here, but magnified, exaggerated and complicated�The only thing that is lacking is the intellectual element. There is no culture in Delhi; the comedy of artistic snobberies and intellectual pretensions is unknown�quot;

Only brief intervals of Delhi’s history have succeeded in constraining the savage exuberance of its denizens. Writes Percival Spear, the great chronicler of history,

"The Mughal Court, as long as it lasted, was the school of manners for Hindustan. Sorely pressed as it was in the Eighteenth century by the rough Afghans, the uncouth Marathas and the rustic Jats, its influence revived with the new tranquillity of the early Nineteenth Century. The fall of the dynasty was a serious cultural loss, and inaugurated that period of nondescript manners and indefinite conduct from which India suffers today."

Down the ages, winds of change kept sweeping through, a seesaw between the high and the low. The defining culture, today, is strangely indefinable.

There is the surging energy of a city in transition, a muscular vibrance that makes itself most evident in the massive scale of construction swamping the city: the skyline of Delhi, a torn silken fabric, as monstrous commemorations to modernity totter precariously into space. These new temples of wealth, these minarets of aspiration, best define the new intent. As the power of construction, the drama and politics of real estate puts its concrete stamp on the city, it creates a quantum of wealth and brings in its wake the new millionaires. Delhi is now the wealthiest city in India, The money keeps coming and the avarice of the elite rampages across the city. Today, Delhi appears as a megapolis of chaos.

The blistering heat is spent in sodden sweat, as the city lives with perpetual power cuts. Desperate citizens install diesel generators that spew thick smoke into the already murky air. Taps run dry and ‘tankers�deliver water at exorbitant rates �no one has a clue where this water comes from. The legendry river Yamuna, on the banks of which imperial Shahjahanabad was built, is today a filthy sewer, choked by millions of gallons of ordure, as the city’s sewage pours in, raw and untreated. The sheer number of new building projects, of flyovers, of highways, the metro, all create unending disruption and hold the city to ransom, cloaking it in a thick, constant, haze of dust. Commuters spend hours caught in gridlock, the roads choked with the sheer volume of traffic. The uncaring anarchy of the city drives the Delhiwalla into a scorching frenzy. Everywhere, there appears a mass of seething humanity, its tenuous self-control tested to the limits. Millions surge into Delhi each year, fleeing the wrenching poverty of India’s villages, to trek thousands of miles to this city of hope. Finding themselves homeless, as they struggle to eke out an existence, they claim the bare earth as their home and enormous shanty towns burgeon across the city. Its mammoth proportions grow relentlessly, till it careens virtually out of control.

This vast metropolis has made it possible to live out lives in total isolation, unseen, unheard by the crush of humanity around. In this new anonymity, anything becomes possible. In late December 2006, the skeletal remains of 19 children, most of them from the neighbouring Nithari village, were found behind the house of a wealthy businessman on the outskirts of Delhi. Investigations were to reveal that the manservant of the businessman was a necrophiliac. He raped, murdered and sometimes consumed the body parts of his victims. His master was a womaniser who would often bring home two or more prostitutes. The servant would watch him have sex and later blamed the licentious activities of his master for his own murderous frenzies.

Forever on the edge, on the point of a loss of control. In the headiness of wealth, of power, of limitless licence, the macabre creeps in with an ever-increasing regularity, always in the belief that it is possible to get away with anything. Late one night, a young politician shoots his wife, chops her into pieces, and attempts to burn her body in the tandoor (earthen oven) of a restaurant in a five star hotel. A local Mafiosi, who fronts for the dreaded underworld Don and international terrorist, Dawood Ibrahim, resides in a grand bungalow in the exclusive Mayfair Gardens. His neighbours are too terrified to report the tortured screams of his victims, which resound from his basement. Jailed for tax evasion, he receives the news that his 29 year old designer girlfriend has been shot dead. The ‘heartbroken�man asks for permission to attend her funeral. There, in a bizarre ceremony, broken and sobbing, he applies sindoor (vermillion) to his girlfriend’s forehead and places a mangulsutra around her neck, symbolising the solemnisation of their marriage Covered in the auspicious red clothing of a bride the girl is placed on her funereal pyre and set alight. Weeks later, the identity of her killers is discovered. It is found that he had ordered the hit on her.

The absolute and inhuman impersonality of the city can isolate individuals to despairing and tragic lengths. Neighbours report a foul smell emanating from a house in the middle class colony of Kalkaji. On entering the house, the police discover the dead body of a woman on a bed. Alongside lies another woman �emaciated, barely conscious. A third woman makes repeated gestures asking for food. After the ravenous woman is fed she tells the police that the other women were her sisters and they had not eaten anything for over two weeks. Her sister had died of starvation. Their parents died twelve years earlier and the sisters kept to themselves, surviving on the salary of the eldest. She had lost her job and they had no money left for food. And so they had lived out their days in agony, awaiting death.

Wanton, cruel, harebrained schemes haunt the city. In 1327 Muhammad Tughlak had ordered the populace of Delhi to move to a new capital, Daulatabad, 700 miles away Finding a blind man who was unable to leave, he had him dragged along for the entire journey of forty days, his body torn into pieces. His idea a complete failure, the King ordered the tortured and distraught populace to shift back to Delhi just two years later. The follies have not diminished. In 2002 the Supreme Court ordered nearly a 125,000 ‘polluting�and ‘unauthorised industries� to shift out of Delhi. More than 60 percent of Delhi’s wealth is from the ‘unorganised sector�operating in the city for decades. Most of these fell under the ambit of the Court’s order. Many were allocated plots on the outskirts of Delhi in a barren wasteland. Today these industries and their workers, uprooted from their thriving livelihoods, subsist there, abandoned and forgotten, barely eking out an existence.

In 1995 an ambitious plan with an allocation of over Rs. Seven billion was launched to clean up the Yamuna. 31 sewage treatment plants were set up. But just five were eventually put to work �the others had been located where there were no sewage lines. Despite this colossal waste, a second phase of the plan to clean up the Yamuna, with an allocation of Rs. 15 billion, has been ‘implemented� After all this, experts concluded that pollution levels in the Yamuna have actually gone up.

With Independence, the city of empire, of despotic diktat, of pomp and pageantry, of imperial splendour, was transformed, now committed to the values of freedom and democracy. But what was to be its new avtar as capital of a soverign nation? On January 30, 1948, Mahamatma Gandhi, father of the nation, messenger of peace, was shot dead, assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. Hundreds of thousands swarmed to Delhi to attend his funeral, as the nation bid him farewell. Huxley writes,

"Gandhi’s body was borne to the pyre on a weapons�carrier. There were tanks and armoured cars in the funeral procession, and detachments of soldiers and police. Circling overhead were fighter planes of the Indian Air Force. All these instruments of violent coercion were paraded in honour of the apostle of non-violence and soul-force. It is an inevitable irony; for, by definition, a nation is a sovereign community possessing the means to make war on other sovereign communities. Consequently, a national tribute to any individual �even if that individual be a Gandhi � must always and necessarily take the form of a play of military and coercive might."

Mahatma Gandhi and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawharhar Lal Nehru, were the two distinct voices of the infant nation. One committed to absolute non-violence and a return to India’s villages, the other to the ideals of a modernity combined with socialism. Delhi was seeped in the idealism of swaraj (self-rule) and austerity, on the one hand, and Nehru’s transforming vision, on the other. Speaking of that age, Joseph Allen Stein, the famed architect, likens it to the United States under Thomas Jefferson. Nehru, he noted, "had his flaws �many great men are flawed, but he was an extraordinarily beautiful and intelligent man, and he cast an aura over India that was very attractive." Nehru sought to instil a democratic and modern character in the city and wanted this reflected in the architecture. He rejected the ‘pompous imperialism� of Lutyens�buildings and was embarrassed by the shoddy orientalism of Old Delhi. The new stones were to be cast in the mould of ‘modernism� that was the new idiom of architecture the world over. He approved of an avenue of buildings which would act as a curtain, concealing the chaotic Old City. Unfortunately, that only served as the final death knell of the imperial city of Shahjahanabad.

At the time of Partition, most of Delhi’s Muslim elite left for Pakistan and the brave who stayed saw their beloved old Delhi slowly turn into a slum. The city failed to provide a sense of security to an anxious Muslim community. Today, Zakir Nagar, an unauthorised colony on the banks of the filthy Yamuna, is the only place where elite Muslims have been able to colonise an area for themselves. It is an area of darkness, as they live cheek by jowl with the stench and wretchedness of the thousands of impoverished Muslim families who have also made Zakir Nagar their home. Fear of communal violence has forced rich and poor alike, to leave their homes in old Delhi, Seelampur, Shahdara, and even the upscale colonies across the new city. Many Muslims have also sought refuge here, fleeing the communal riots in the state of Gujarat. They all band together, creating an enormous ghetto of fear and nothingness. As a professor from the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Zakir Nagar expresses it, "The existence of Zakir Nagar is a defeat of the pluralistic concept of urbanisation. By following this pattern of urbanisation, we are creating Beiruts. Unfortunately, the sense of fear still drives the dynamics of urbanisation."

Indeed, Delhi could be described as a city of ghettos. From the ostentatious ghettos of the rich, to the ‘white ghettos�of Vasant Vihar and Shantinekatan, to the Punjabis who give evidence of their enterprise and aspirations in their mock palaces in Punjabi Bagh; to the Bengali Chittaranjan Park; to religious ghettos like Zakirnagar, and caste ghettos across the city. Each migrant community has sought to set up its own exclusive enclaves, creating little fiefdoms, clustered around their ‘own�social manners, customs and beliefs, where ‘strangers� are viewed with suspicion. Colonies are walled up, gated and patrolled, like a city under a benevolent siege. The professor from Jamia sums it up with an Urdu couplet,

Mere ghar mein dhoop khushi ki aye bhala toh kaise aye
Mere ghar ka angan chota, dar neecha, deewar baland.
(The rays of joy cannot light up my home
Its courtyard is small, its doorway too low, its walls forbidding)

In 1853 Karl Marx described the whole administration of India by the British as ‘detestable� and noted that the entire Empire, "apart from a few large cities, is an agglomeration of villages. The boundaries of the villages have been but seldom altered. The inhabitants give themselves no trouble about the breaking up and division of kingdoms, while the village remains entire, they care not to what power it is transferred, or to what sovereign it devolves. Its internal economy remains unchanged."

The British eventually destroyed this timeless system of governance and left the countryside mired in racking poverty. 62 years of Independence have created great wealth, but, as the population burgeons, the poverty remains undiminished. Will Delhi become a fostering ground of a million mutinies? Will she, now be able to sort out her glaring inequalities, her historical inequities? Will the uncontrolled profligacy of her governments, her elite, end in another bloody clash with the man who dreams of a life for his children, free of hunger and want?

Legend has it that Delhi has the blessing of 12 divine khwajas (saints), that no one in the city would ever go hungry. As the poor and dispossessed pour into Delhi, she embraces them with open arms. Will her wisdom weather the wrenching torments of her people, and the millions she rules across India? Has Delhi transcended the recurrent darkness concealed behind the secret of her timelessness? Only time can tell.

Chitvan Gill

Published in the Italian in Limes: Pianeta India, Volume 6, 2009



The Urban Imagination
The City In:
Myths And Legends
The real issues for most people are the "open" GMT rolex replica sale dial, as well as the skeletonized hands. The integration of the annual calendar continues to be clever as the rolex replica sale month indicator is actually a window on the outside of the the respectively numbered hour rolex replica sale indicator. Thus, a window filled in at 2 o'clock would mean it was February. The window filled in at 6 o'clock would be June, etc... This, of course, is in rolex replica sale combination with the traditional date window which once rolex replica sale again has been fitted with a magnifier crystal over it on the sapphire crystal. While Rolex does have the GMT-Master II and the replica watches uk Explorer II as their major GMT watches, the rolex replica sale Sky-Dweller does it a little bit differently, offering yet another GMT watch, but with an indicator disc versus a hand.