Till as late as the mid-1970s, Delhi was easier to define, and negotiate. Visitors to the Capital got two cities for the price of one. There was ‘Old’ Delhi, Mughal and Islamic heritage intact, dominated by imposing mosques, monuments and forts that even today resonate with the famous declaration by legendary poet Mirza Ghalib: ‘The world is the body and Delhi its soul.’ Behind the history, the old city displays a somewhat bedraggled old-world charm: lively colourful bazaars, celebrated eateries, narrow streets and barely controlled chaos. In contrast, New Delhi, or more precisely, Lutyens’ Delhi (named after its original architect and planner Edwin Lutyens and still referred to in official municipal records as Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone or LBZ), portrays a combination of understated refinement and political and bureaucratic privilege. The two worlds rarely meet but together they convey a true sense of Delhi’s romantic appeal. It’s an appeal that has largely been submerged under the undisciplined urban jungle that has sprouted at such a frenzied pace over the last three decades and diluted all traces of Hindu, Islamic or British influences. Today, it would be difficult to find a single identity or cultural characteristic that defines Delhi, a single way of grasping its complexity
With the Rashtrapati Bhavan as backdrop, fashion designer Malini Ramani poses sitting on an imported convertible.
Yet, like people, cities acquire signatures, a universally recognized leitmotif: New York’s skyline, Paris and romance, Milan is synonymous with style and Venice has its waterways. The connection, whether abstract or physical, becomes as permanent a symbol of the city as monuments and memorials. Shorn of its historical influences and privileged status as India’s Capital, and political and constitutional crossbreeding that makes it one of the world’s few remaining city-states, contemporary Delhi flaunts one undeniable signature: an air of aggressive intent. From the frenetic traffic to its egoistic bureaucrats, pampered politicians and social prima donnas, the flashy, nouveau riche and the politician on the roads—everyone displays a practised assertiveness that says, louder than words: ‘Get out of my way’. Everybody is in a tearing hurry to get somewhere, everyone seems to have relatives in high places and even the beggars at traffic crossings bang on your car windows with an arrogance that is almost threatening. Reading the local newspapers, it almost appears that half the city is on the make, the other half on the take.
At one level, this is the city’s negative face, one that first-time visitors often mistake for arrogance and boorishness. At another, it reveals a vigour and dynamism that has become unique to the city. Mumbai may have purloined that title of City of Dreams, but here in the Capital, is where they have come true. A combination of north Indian aggressiveness and ambition and expanding levels of economic opportunity has created a sizeable generation of first-time entrepreneurs and impresarios who today provide the city with its visible veneer of affluence. Author William Dalrymple, a long-time resident, captured the city with rare insight in his City of Djinns. His skill lay in his creative ability to peel the historical onion, so to speak, and show how New Delhi resonates with the old, and bring to life a city ‘Full of riches and heroes.’ Of course, he was justifiably scathing about what the city has evolved into, showing, in his words, how ‘the grandest of grand old aristocratic dowagers’ had become ‘a nouveau riche heiress: all show and vulgarity and conspicuous consumption.’
Novel ways to bring social issues to light are common in Delhi.
Excerpted from Delhi Then and Now by Dilip Bobb and Narayani Gupta/Roli Books. Bobb is managing editor of India Today.
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