Before the righteous reader accuses this writer of blasphemy-- after all, it is ‘Hamari Dilli’, not an English writer’s Dilli; our national capital (fallen in grace recently, but still our age-old world class capital city even so) — let me hasten to explain.
I’m a transplanted Chennai resident since the past twenty-five years. Prior to this period while my marriage and children were still young, I spent a happy decade (’78-’88) in the national capital -- approximately the same period that the Britisher William Dalrymple resided in Delhi, experienced the city’s endless charm and ended up writing an iconic book about it, -- The City of Djinns, a fabulous book that I continue to recommend since my first encounter with it in the mid-nineties. The book unpeeled Delhi through time and space, spoke in detail about its seven renewed lives, pointed to the living proof of the past, history alive as it were—and simply enthralled me, made me fall in love with the city all over again. Since then I have wanted to revisit Delhi, relive my salad years there.
The opportunity happened recently, following a positive family event; and I spent a fortnight with a lovely family, experiencing the new—a gurgling newborn, plus a new colony, well-planned, green, clean, an urban delight (to be precise, Dwaraka, the sub-city to old New Delhi, and quite unlike the latter). I also took time out to explore and rediscover as much of the old as the muggy weather would permit.
In fact July-August is not exactly the ideal time to visit Delhi –it’s hot, sweaty, occasionally drizzly, suddenly pouring wet, chilly for a few hours, then muggy again. Still, as with any such place, visitors there were aplenty, and we cheerfully coped.
I had carried my well-thumbed copy of Dalrymple’s book. I wished to tread the Dalrymple trail, to whatever extent possible. I also wished see anew the place I had experienced in the eighties,
It wasn’t going to be easy. After all Delhi had changed tremendously during the ensuing period. The city was more accessible thanks to the efficient metro railway network. But conversely, it certainly wasn’t safe to walk around in lovely isolated spots, the way Dalrymple did in the eighties.
What I finally managed, was to ensure a bit of both, experience a bit of Dalrymple’s Dilli and my own version of the city, its 2013 avatar seen through rose-coloured spectacles from the eighties.
Some things never change – the clean manicured lawns, gardens and roads of Lutyen’s New Delhi, the stunning Lodhi gardens, ice cream carts, the mobile carts selling ‘peeney ka thanda paani’ ( at two rupees per glass against fifty paise in the eighties), the properly manicured and pedicured Dilliwalis, graceful old Sardars … and brash young puppies breaking the metro station queues.
The metro rides however did give one a peek into the mobile Delhi-ite’s soul, so to say. It was a pleasure to come across graceful ladies and gents who were only too willing to spare a seat for somebody who looked tired and in need of a seat. At the other end of the spectrum, one found reserved seats (for elderly or handicapped commuters) being usurped by youngsters who brashly stayed put while an older commuter hung on to a strap or pole. And there was the occasional human interest story observed through a long ride—the lovely looking girl with sad eyes, quietly wiping tears, being comforted by a young man. Enough material for a short story there…
Sarojini Nagar market (looking much the same despite its terror tryst from October 2009) and Lajpat Nagar market continue to be a bargainer’s delight. The former still looks neater and cleaner, the latter a bit messier.
Village Dilli continues to ensure its pronounced presence – bone-shattering ‘share-vans’ trundle along Dwaraka’s clean wide roads picking up passengers pressed for time or money. New-look rickshaws and motorized cycle rickshaws continue to ply in these ‘border areas’ of spiffy Delhi – a city often described rightly as an overgrown village.
Village Delhi’s entry into the city is nowhere more pronounced than at Chattarpur with its famed Katyayani temple, last experienced during the nineteen-eighties -- then an an isolated spanking new temple standing on a track of land surrounded by farmlands; it was the sort of spot where one parked one’s car, quickly visited the marble-acred shrine with its golden Durga, partook of langar and then swept out of the isolated locality before dusk. Now, circa 2013, Chattarpur has its own metro station; the place is bustling, full of visitors who linger on and enjoy the extensive delights of a place that is much more than a temple ... and as for the farmlands –they’ve been gobbled up by the flyovers, the much-expanded temple complex, other commercial establishments, wide roads, traffic, commercial garden nurseries...and thus do farmlands quietly disappear.
Village, culturally loaded ancient city, the national capital, rape capital….multiple images attach themselves to this megapolis, but sadly, the last one has stuck. A young working lady friend ensures that she is home by, back in her south Delhi pad. It would be an unwise risk catching a drama or film that ends late in the evening. Another young friend misses Mumbai where one could stay out late with nary a worry (but with its recent horrorfest at an abandoned mill, even Mumbai’s ‘safe’ reputation has suffered). Our country is being raped in more ways than one – but that’s another story altogether.
Delhi’s lately acquired reputation may go against it, but one can still steal daytime delights. A visit to the National Museum proved a rich and rewarding experience. I even picked up from the museum store, a pair of ‘Harappan Seal’ tablets – done beautifully in plaster of paris.
The buses are clean, low-floored (and ‘green’, thanks to CNG); the metro is good with its connectivity; and auotorickshaws are still cheaper than Chennai. So one would be wise to take advantage of Delhi’s many inexpensive and eclectic delights.
To get back to Dalrymple – yes, I did wish to get a whiff of ittar scented Purani Delhi. The writer’s tales about Chandni Chowk’s origins—the street that was created by a ruthless Mughal king’s sister – they perked up my interest in visiting this moonlit mall from the past.
As luck would have it, one got caught in a sudden cloudburst – and Chandni Chowk cum adjacent Nai Sarak became squelchy slushy and plain impossible. Still, it was good to experience, in between dry spells, the grandeur, grace, calm and kirtanic melodies of Sis Ganj Gurdwara.
Chandni Chowk still manages to retain a very basic level of connection to its hoary past. Every few yards, one found coin sellers displaying a mound of 10, 20, paise rounds, copper doughnut annas--- and some Mughal period coins, looking extremely authentic.
The past is alive and flourishing in Delhi. Speeding along a highway, one peers at the greenery -- and eyes spy a broken brown monument bit hidden in the foliage.
Plenty of monuments and ruins dot the city’s by-lanes, parks, gardens and tourist tryst points like the Qutub complex -- and are easily accessible thanks to the metro (unlike the eighties when one ended up waiting endlessly for an infrequent DTC bus). However this time I had wished to sidestep the regular places and check out some lesser known spots.
The Mehrauli Archeological Park was made known to the public late in the nineties after its discovery and development; yet to date, few visitors seem aware of this adjunct to the famed Qutub Minar. Luckily, a friend was good enough to mention it as a must-see; I checked the 'net -- and discovered that the place was chock full of baolis(medieval step wells), gardens, tombs, mosques, the lot. So my spouse and I zoomed off to Qutub Metro station, then flagged an auto to the Qutub complex a couple of kilometers away. We also quizzed the autorick driver about the recently popularized archeological site -- but the autowala’s response stumped us —‘Nobody goes there; the place is a keechad (swamp).’ Now our main interest was the archaelogical park, so we persisted and asked to be dropped off at the archeological park.
A small iron gate led us on to enclosure with its detailed map -- featuring Balban’s tomb, the rose garden (which was right there ahead), the Rajaon ki Baoli, Jamali Kamali Mosque , everything significant, ancient, preserved. In the near distance one could spy the top of a domed sandstone monument In the foreground lay the (fairly unkempt) rose garden. The place at one sweeping glace looked lovely -- and lonely. Dismayed, we realized that the bloody place was deserted! Except for a lone man who watched us from a ledge, and another solitary hiker in the far distance, this resurrected bit of Delhi history was simply not safe to survey, walk through and enjoy without undertaking the risk of getting mugged or worse. So we acted sensibly -- took photos of the map at the park’s entrance, plus the rose garden – and moved back to the main road – where our auto driver awaited us, so sure was he of our quick return. He generously offered to drop us off at the main Qutub monument and we hopped in, thanking the man, yet distressed at missing the Mehrauli Archaelogical Park. A sad case of so near, yet so far..
At the Qutub Minar complex, there were crowds aplenty. I questioned the Qutub bookstore manager about the deserted archeological park – how safe could it be when it was not publicized well enough to attract visitors? His reply was unsatisfactory; he replied that the individual monuments within the park had their guards and we could safely visit the place. And why were there no crowds at the archeological park? ‘Well, most people don’t know about it…’
A request to Delhi tourism folk—please advertise your wares properly. We’d like to experience Delhi’s hidden charms at least on our next trip.