City of Djinns
When I think of Delhi – a city that I spent my formative years in – the story of its evolution mystifies me. What is its story?
The story of a city is no definite story as history books would want us to believe. It is only a loosely fused collage of impressions. A city pours itself as a potent fluid into its humming millions and takes rebirth in their memories, often altered, battered and lofted in everyone’s register. In each memory, the monuments slowly fade away, and the gardens, pavilions, slopes dissolve into invisibility; only the impressions stomp vulgarly on the streets masquerading as truer forms of the city. Same happens to Delhi, every day, million times over.
They say: To understand Delhi, learn to survive the heat first.
The long summer of Delhi casts an impenetrable heat envelope over the city for months. The heat is barely missed and invariably evidences itself as the damp back of the shirt, as simmering air, as blown apart tires, as melted tarmac. As July nears, insaneness surfaces, mildly at first and then, prevailing like a thick hot wind through the city. Random people shout at each other in the middle of narrow lanes, breathing in hot air and cursing the world in return. Everyone curses in the heat; cursing someone’s mother becomes the new mother tongue of Delhi. Only street dogs look calm. At times dead, they lay immobile under tree shades.
Heat or no heat, the roads are always overindulged. A few wisps of thin clouds when on a rare occasion dilute the hellfire sunlight, the mood elevates and a scarce cheer could be felt even on Delhi’s throttled Ring Road. However, on most other days, it’s the early morning breeze that provides the much-needed respite.
On one such day a few weeks back, after spending a long night doing nothing, I picked up the bike for a random ride on the empty avenues of Lutyen’s New Delhi. Sun was a diabolic fable, only told in a hush whisper at this hour; the road looked twice as wide as it looked a night before under the choking traffic that would silt it again in the next few hours.
I rode my bike through AIIMS, and over the Aerodrome, now used only by the hobbyists. Turning right through the Lodhi road, I rode towards the India Gate, where I took the first break. These are the precious few hours in the day when heat gives away. Else, in summers, the warmth of the days seeps into the evenings, tricking down even into the nights, making the dark hours immovably dense.
At such vacant hour, I stood facing the India Gate while the Raisaina Hills flanked the background. The wide corridors of power spoke to me of the relatively newer past, and in the same breath shouted promises of the future to come. Within my immediate surroundings these promises carried the surety of casted iron.
After a cup of tea bought from the only vendor selling at this early hour, I biked into the heart of old Delhi, located only a little further, but uttering tales from hundreds of years back. The brick stone redness sheathing this part of Delhi attests the Islamic footprint. These melancholic expressions are reminders of the seventeenth century when Shah Jahan formulated his imagination through the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid. The vicinity is denoted by Chandni Chock and Meena Bazaar, setup by Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s daughter.
Step back a few hundred years from Shah Jahan’s time, and you would find the Delhi Sultanate of the slaves Malmuks and Tughlaks. Towards what is now called South Delhi, stands unaccompanied, yet stoic, Qutub Minar, testifying the times when Turks ruled this prized city. It stands witness to the madness of the eccentric king who ordered the entire capital to shift down south in Deccan to Daultabad. Initiating such an unparalleled migration was a mistake that killed most who marched in the terrible heat without water.
In the true sense, Delhi is older than India. Archaeologists suggest the presence of Painted Grey Ware in the same city, a finding that deepens its long history by another thousand years. The dug-up ancient remains echo the time when the epic battle was fought over which Mahabharata was written. Of what is left of Purana Qila, designed by Humayun, could one imagine it being the same site as the Indraprastha Palace of the Pandavas? But so goes the story.
As I stood sipping tea near the Jama Masjid and watched the sun slowly climb, I realised how Delhi has imprinted itself on my intellect. Perhaps this city overwhelms anyone who cares to see her in the morning twilight when traces of gentleness are still left. Otherwise, Delhi is a city that vanishes every decade and reappears as a distorted, often atrocious, version of the previous.
I was ready to take the long road back home to rest my weary eyes. The bicycles and rickshaws had already started to thicken these tapering roads. As I walked in the shadow of the Red Fort, it dawned on me that every city has a dual character: one apparent in its people, and the other visible in its monuments. People often migrate; only the long standing mute monuments are left to give voice to the city. In my years in Delhi, I too sat in the long evening shadow cast by the tall medieval commemorates, oftentimes letting the long history of the diachronic city slowly seep into me. I realised that there cannot be a story from a rootless past. Delhi’s story is one that stems from a past that has been both intelligibly spectacular and deeply philistine. And that is why it makes itself felt.