This is a older post, written while I was in Delhi last year. I hope it captures the immediacy of the city a bit better than my historical musings and I also hope to have more time to write actual new material soon. Nonetheless: enjoy, immaterial readers.
When looked at through the lens of history, Delhi proves to be one of the most fascinating places you could hope for. A city of ruins where you can find something unexpected that will propel you back sixty, two hundred or several thousand years at street corners. But it is also a place that devours the present, digesting it into history, at a monstrous, tropical pace. Only seventy years ago what is now Old Delhi, the Walled City, the location of the Lal Qila, the Red Fort that still draws thousands of visitors, was a place of havelis, large and pleasant villa-style homes with verandahs and courtyards, fountains and peacocks. The ruined tombs of Mughal emperors in the Lodi Gardens sketch out sumptuous courtly dreams of pearls, soft silks and palaces. The gigantic imperialistic government buildings of the Raj era, the British colonial times, are still in use – a deeply impressive fusion of Asian and European styles of architecture, softly differing shades of red marble, large enough to dwarf and awe any crowd – but keeping the tombs and vanished palaces in mind one cannot help but wonder how long it takes for weeds and cracks and shantytowns to appear on the open fields around Rajpath.Delhi of today is, as it must have been during almost any time of its existence, an uneasy mixture. Beyond the historical awe, day to day living in this city can be an unbearable grind. The press of people, the never-ending crowds often makes me wish for a bit of empty space. In Majnu ka Tilla, a small Tibetan colony at the outskirts of Delhi where I stay in a decent hotel room, this wish is partly fulfilled. Whenever the crowds and the dust and the endlessness of Delhi becomes too much to bear, I can sit on a small balcony and watch the banks of the Yamuna river. A few hundred meters behind me is a dusty highway and a district of small, crowded huts, but in front of me are green riverbanks. There are about twelve small huts along both riverbanks and I can watch families of farmers dividing the banks into neat rows, growing vegetables. It is a calming scene, especially when one is convinced that India is nothing else but an endless city and a ceaseless stream of people. But the idyll is short lived – when the Monsoon comes in three months the Yamuna will rise and swallow the huts and the vegetable patches. The farmers will move away, perhaps huddling together on the streets, to wait for the rains to pass.
I was visiting Nizamuddin, a small Muslim village within the city of Delhi. I wanted to see the famous Sufi shrine that is at the center of it. Earlier that day I had met Gonzalo, a young Brazilian who had been touring Europe and North Africa before coming to India just the day before, and we had hired a rikshaw together to safe some money (since we had come across a savy Sikh driver it took a lot of haggling and I still felt it turned out too expensive and wasn’t too pleasurable at all). In the beginning the streets were oppressive but manageable. A steady stream of people and cars, motorcycles and obstacles, much as I am used to by now. Then the streets became narrow and started turning and twisting. A walk through any part of an Indian town can yield disconcerting, surreal or plainly funny scenes that vanish as fast as they appear – this time it was a door frame painted with advertisements for a travel office, bus tickets etc. Looking through the door all I saw were light brown meat carcasses. An abattoir. A strange sight, since I hadn’t seen any Hindu meat vendors before, but of course those were Muslims and the business of slaughtering animals (pigs excepted) has always lain in the hand of Muslims. Further into the labyrinth of Nizamuddin, there was an opening to what vaguely reminded me of a Moroccan soukh, a roofed alleyway filled with stalls. We tried entering it but soon the crowds, the endless stream of people, the incessant voices, many calling to us to buy something or offering to store our shoes, holding bright pink flowers into our faces, to buy them as offerings, became a scene of nightmarish claustrophobia. It felt as if it was impossible to escape from this village. That the passage would close behind us or that maybe the people would become more and more until it would be impossible to move on. People lose character and individuality in such a scene – it becomes impossible to process all the information one receives. I felt that without a local guide, who could help us make sense of what we saw there, we would be hopelessly lost. I suppose it is a bit like an attack of agoraphobia (which, literally, means a fear of cities), but at some moments the crowds drive me right to the edge of it.
Mr. Singh, our agreeable but slightly greedy driver, also took us to Gandhi Smriti, the house where Mohandas Gandhi had lived. It is now a museum erected to his memory and I found it to be disconcertingly sycophantic. There were a few interesting photographs by Cartier-Bresson and others taken from various newspapers, but the essential information about Gandhi’s life was simplified and repeated until I felt it had no impact at all and served only to reduce the memory of the man who, apparently, stood for great simplicity. His belongings (glasses, a spoon, a pocket watch – although I strongly suspect that Gandhi’s real pocket watch did not have a fake dial dramatically stopped at the moment of his death like the one enshrined) were enshrined in a glass case, endless rows of charts described the same things over and over again and Gandhi’s rooms at the time of his death were re-organized “just in the state that they had been in” (apparently Gandhi liked stagey sterility a great deal). A tangential multimedia exhibition on the first floor provided sensual overload. Unsurprisingly, it is a place of worship more than a historical museum – as the faultless Mahatma, Gandhi has ascended into the thronged Indian pantheon and all traces of his real persona are absent, lost in the eager and decorative arrangement of his life and acts. The visitors were a few Westerners scattered mostly amidst groups from rural Gujarat (Gandhi’s birthplace is in Gujarat) and Rajasthan and the staff was mostly listless, rattling of memorized speeches that left me as bored and glassy-eyed as they must feel giving them all day.
The Lodi Gardens, on the other hand, are pleasant. The location of three sandstone tombs from the sixteenth century, filled with Indians who are out to relax a bit or to sleep and rest in the shadows of the old tombs.