Friday, September 17, 2004


After my foray to the walled city of Old Delhi, Purana Dilli, Shahjahanabad, a few weeks ago, there is only one city of cities left to explore: the British New Delhi. I had previously not bothered with it, as I am everyday essentially living in it, commuting through it, and working amidst it. And, frankly, I had formed an opinion that following Humayun’s Tomb, the Purana Qila, the Lal Qila, the Jama Masjid, and the Qutb Minar, not to mention Tughlaqabad, the Firoz Shah Kotla, Hauz Khas, and various other cities and monuments, it would be a letdown.

How wrong I was.

As with all of these cities and remnants of cities, it has its own pecularities, attractions, atmosphere, dynamic. Thinking about New Delhi means thinking imperial majesty displayed for a subject people; 20th century urban planning; English garden city and garden-influenced landscaping; oases for the rulers at a safe distance from the ruled.

George V announced that the capital of the subcontinent would be moved from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911. It followed a half century of discussion and debate about moving the capital to the old capital of the long-dead Mughal empire. Once that decision was made, where to put it in the midst of all those other Delhis was the subject of intense wrangling. Experts were imported from Britain (naturally) to advise on the site and planning of the new capital, foremost amongst them architect Edwin Lutyens. At that point, his principal qualification for the job was that he had never before been to India.

There were northern and southern sites to choose from, both named for their location in relation to old Delhi. Pretty much as I did, Lutyens and his committee chose to come to India at the wrong time, so their deliberations became increasingly fraught as the weather got hotter and hotter. They eventually chose the southern site, and so it was there that Lutyens placed his Viceroy’s House surrounded by fountains, waterways, and the King’s Way, the Record Office, and the layout of the new city streets. His friend Herbert Baker designed the Secretariat, Council Chamber, and the All India War Memorial. Various others were responsible for landscaping, gardens, and other details.

Exploring New Delhi isn’t quite like exploring other parts of Delhi – generally, walking the vast distances in this city in its intense heat and sunlight is a bad idea, but here cooling tree-lined avenues are a relative haven. So I walked straight to the heart of the imperial and now the Indian Government, easy for me to get to as I normally travel down Sansad Marg (Parliament Street) every day on the way to work.

The showpiece or centre of New Delhi was the long east-west green belt between Raisina Hill, where the Viceroy’s House and the two Secretariats towered over the immediate surroundings, and Baker’s war memorial, now called India Gate. In the middle of this strip was the Kingsway, now called Rajpath. At 90 degrees to Rajpath runs Janpath, the former Queensway. In a complete departure in meaning and attitude, Janpath means “road of the people”.

North of this green space was built a maze of roads connected by large and small roundabouts, those traffic circles of which the English are so fond. They do have a good role in regulating traffic, especially where several roads meet, but in Delhi have inevitably become morasses of surging traffic around which buses, for example, fling passengers from side to side like rag dolls!!!

New Delhi continues almost over to the Purana Qila and the Jumuna River in the east, and towards the Central Ridge Reserved Forest in the West. The straight line of Janpath eventually runs out at Connaught Place, its sweeping arcades and market-like feel apparently designed by Lutyens with an interlocking wheel design with inner and outer circles connected by spokes to act as a buffer between Old Delhi, or Shahjahanabad, and New Delhi, thus keeping the ruled away from the rulers.

South of Rajpath roads and roundabouts radiate in all directions towards what is now called South Delhi, and the Lutyens environs seem to run out at about Lodi Road and Sardarjung’s Tomb and the I.N.A. Market, where urban sprawl – most of it spawned since independence – takes over

Within these confines New Delhi is the city most unlike the rest of Delhi. Its bungalows once housed colonial administrators, but are now are homes to judges, politicians (I go by Vajpayee’s house every day on the bus) and other important people (known here as VVIPs). A Really VVIP is someone who, such as Vajpayee, is important enough to have armed guards in sentry towers around the grounds, even though no longer Prime Minister. The current Prime Minister lives in Race Course Road, where apparently he lives in one of 7 houses, the exact one unspecified. Of course, if you had had several Prime Ministers gunned down in your post-colonial history, you would also probably be just a little bit careful…

Vast, chunky buildings of colonial administration strike one as dinosaurs, not because they don’t look nice – care was taken to blend indigenous and classical elements, and traditional, local materials such as light marble and red sandstone (remember Sardarjung’s Tomb?) were used – but because of the scale. Oddly, they made me think of Ceausescu’s massive folly in Bucharest, allegedly the biggest building in the world, because the scale was deliberately designed to impress the ruled. As you can see from the pictures if you click here, they perch atop the hill, below which sweeps a garden down to Janpath; from there, the garden begins to ascend to India Gate, which you can just see in most of the pictures.

The Viceroy’s House was so big that the first occupant kept losing his way – it has over 340 rooms. Gandhi suggested after independence that it become a hospital, but instead it has metamorphosed into Rashtrapati Bhawan, the President’s Palace. Although used for receptions and official functions, in an interview in the newspaper today President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam states that he only uses 10 of the rooms!!!

The enormous Secretariat buildings in front of it house External Affairs and Finance. Outside one of them is etched in an archway chilling and contemptuous words: “liberty will not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty: it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.” Nobody decided to erase them when the Indian people apparently managed to meet that criterion in 1947, when the British scarpered from India, leaving the horror of Partition behind them!!! Finally, off to the side is Sansad Bhawan, or the Parliament Building, which seems (although it apparently wasn’t) almost an afterthought in the ensemble (why bother with a legislature when you’ve got an emperor anyway?!).

The colonial remains a part of the landscape, even with the colonists long gone, and the buildings have been Indianised, rather than removed. It’s a strange feeling – can you imagine British government buildings and institutions persisting in the U.S.A., for example? – and one wonders if it has had a good effect. Gandhi apparently advocated scrapping a lot of the trappings of colonialism, arguing rightly that replacing one colonial ruler by another, even if native, was no way to proceed. Apparently he lost the argument, for the remains of the rule of British India are still centre stage today in New Delhi, the final city of Delhi, and some of the laws from colonial times are still apparently on the books…

I then walked to Nehru’s house, a wonderful colonial mansion nearby, in which the history of the struggle for independence is traced, then looped back to the YMCA via Lady Willingdon Crescent, the name changed in the last few years to Mother Teresa Crescent…

Now that I have peeled back many of the skins of Delhi, it is interesting to think about how complex the city is, how multi-layered and multi-faceted. Amongst ways of thinking about the city are the cities of Delhi – the 8 cities whose remains I have explored. Then, there is culture – Delhi is a magnet for Indians, and there are a number of cultures – Punjabi, Gujarati, Rajasthani, Malayalee – co-existing with each other. Then, religio-cultural: Muslim and Hindu, Jain and Christian. Then, class and caste, language, profession and occupation.

Cities are horizontal layers, mingling and overlapping and with elements from one appropriated for building another. The others are vertical layers, veins running through the cities of Delhi and waxing and waning through its ages. That is what makes Delhi such a fascinating mixture. Its depths are difficult, if not impossible, to plumb, its exterior challenging and at times off-putting, and those two factors make it a unloved but lovable city. Side-by-side in Delhi are these discrete cultures, peoples, cities, all separate but mingling realities. Beside Shahjahanabad is a city constructed 300 years later, beside that city are monuments that pre-date Shahjahanabad by hundreds of years…

Vijay Nambisan in an essay entitled City without Natives observes that “it has been said that Delhi is not a city, but a collection of villages. Every colony is fenced off from its neighbours by not only metal railings and ‘green spaces’, but by cultural fences as well. Good fences make good neighbours. I lived first in Chittaranjan Park in a Bengali village, then in Amar Colony, Lajpat Nagar, in a Kashmiri village, and last in Greater Kailash II which was no village at all but only a suburb. There were Tamil villages, and Gujarati and Kannadiga, and over everything, like a blanket – like a blankety-blanket – a vast and spirited Punjabi joy in living that kept the city together and made it one, made it as much as was possible a city.”

Connoisseurs of Delhi, of course, would say that such observations are about modern Delhi, but that the real and significant cultural mingling took place long before – that Delhi has always been a place where this has happened and, in fact, where conditions are uniquely conducive for it. This refers to the Delhi culture that emerged from the Moghul era, in which Muslim and Hindu lived side-by-side, influenced each other, borrowed freely from each other’s traits and characteristics, lived together, all while the Muslim Moghul emperors ruled over their Hindu peoples. A unique flowering of poetry, literature and dance flowed from this time. When Partition came, it was a terrific wrench, and a complete denial that this co-existent culture did exist or could exist, a attempt to refute the idea of India itself.

I found it odd when I came to Delhi to find that most of its areas and suburbs had names redolent of separation, of a long-ago colonial area that one would have thought would have been stamped out in 57 years since independence. Rukmini Bhaya Nair in her essay City of Walls, City of Gates perfectly captures my puzzlement: “…the imperial ‘colony’ (e.g. Defence Colony), the ‘enclave’ (Sarvodaya Enclave), the ‘estate’ (Lodi Estate) and the ‘park’ (Gulmohar Park)…tend to house the elite and the western-educated, while the suffixes vihar, nagar, pur and puri (Sarita Vihar, Soami Nagar, Shadipur and Govindpuri) imply a more mixed population, ranging from the upwardly mobile middle classes to impoverished tenement dwellers…”

And so in Delhi today, there is another side-by-side relationship that is striking, and that is the traditional beside the modern, the poor beside the affluent middle classes, the Asian and subcontinental beside the Western. When I first came here, I was struck by the differences with what I had known, the images of India that we see in the west and are perhaps led to expect stand for all of India. But this land and this city is more complex than that – the Barista coffee bar chain exists next to a Sikh Gurdwara, a modern club next to a chai stall, an encroachment of tin shanties perches on land next to a shopping mall that would be completely at home in Europe or North America, featuring brand names (Adidas, Pizza Hut) with which any Westerner would be familiar. The middle class seem to have existed for some time here, but only recently have their numbers been burgeoning, fed by growing prosperity for those with employment in booming sectors, such as IT. And they constitute another vein running through this city, side-by-side with the press-wallah, the auto-wallah, leading these parallel but different lives.

Acknowledgements this week to Khushwant Singh’s City Improbable: Writings on Delhi, and to all those who kindly offered their sympathies on learning of my hard disk crash. You may be interested to know that Dell have been as usual less than helpful, but I do hope that a resolution is shortly at hand!!!


Blogger Big Mama said...

Welcome back.

September 17, 2004 1:57 PM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

WOW terrific to read.
I agree with Big Mama-
Welcome back.

September 18, 2004 1:07 AM  

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