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.
is where chaos and beauty come together and the sparks of their
collision create a world where all is possible.
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.
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.
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 Humayunâ€™s Tomb, the beauty
of the Red Fort, the grace and power of Lutyensâ€?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 cityâ€™s fate.
we peer into the fog of the past we see on this canvas of extreme
upheaval, some constants that thread the arc of history.
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.
Begumâ€™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"
anguish and anger are contained in the hearts of the men and women
who witnessed the tormented birth of a nation â€?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
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
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 Gandhiâ€™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 Ministerâ€™s assassination, workers of the Congress
party slowly began to orchestrate a pogrom. Armed with votersâ€?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 Fatimaâ€™s memory.
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.
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.
when it is unencumbered by fratricide and strife, the city gets
on with what it does best â€?creating wealth and erasing the past.
The deeply visceral hatreds put aside, the new faith is hedonism
â€?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 nightâ€?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 otherâ€™s wives".
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, enviesâ€?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 â€?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 complicatedâ€?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 unknownâ€?quot;
brief intervals of Delhiâ€™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."
the ages, winds of change kept sweeping through, a seesaw between
the high and the low. The defining culture, today, is strangely
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.
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
â€˜tankersâ€?deliver water at exorbitant rates â€?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 cityâ€™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 Indiaâ€™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
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.
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
â€˜heartbrokenâ€?man asks for permission to attend her funeral. There,
in a bizarre ceremony, broken and sobbing, he applies sindoor
(vermillion) to his girlfriendâ€™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
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 â€?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.
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 â€˜pollutingâ€?and â€˜unauthorised industriesâ€?
to shift out of Delhi. More than 60 percent of Delhiâ€™s wealth is
from the â€˜unorganised sectorâ€?operating in the city for decades.
Most of these fell under the ambit of the Courtâ€™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.
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 â€?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 â€˜implementedâ€? After
all this, experts concluded that pollution levels in the Yamuna
have actually gone up.
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.
"Gandhiâ€™s body was borne to
the pyre on a weaponsâ€?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 â€?even if that individual be a Gandhi â€?
must always and necessarily take the form of a play of military
and coercive might."
Gandhi and Indiaâ€™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 Indiaâ€™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 Nehruâ€™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 â€?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 â€˜pompous imperialismâ€?
of Lutyensâ€?buildings and was embarrassed by the shoddy orientalism
of Old Delhi. The new stones were to be cast in the mould of â€˜modernismâ€?
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.
the time of Partition, most of Delhiâ€™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."
Delhi could be described as a city of ghettos. From the ostentatious
ghettos of the rich, to the â€˜white ghettosâ€?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 â€˜ownâ€?social manners, customs and beliefs, where â€˜strangersâ€?
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
ghar ka angan chota, dar neecha, deewar baland.
rays of joy cannot light up my home
courtyard is small, its doorway too low, its walls forbidding)
1853 Karl Marx described the whole administration of India by the
British as â€˜detestableâ€? 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."
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
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.
Published in the
Italian in Limes: Pianeta India, Volume 6, 2009