The scales are tilting in favour of Delhi. The Capital’s advantages over Mumbai are being enumerated in drawing rooms and magazine columns—wider roads, fewer slums, migrant-friendly, the Metro, etc. So Mumbaikars and their friends have taken to pointing out how theirs is a real city, the kind an author falls in love with and writes about. They back it up with weighty evidence—Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts in the last few years.
Maybe the Mumbaikar does feel more passionately for aamchi Mumbai. By contrast, many who have been in Delhi for decades still feel they are passing by and are there only to earn a livelihood. The real Dilliwala, some would argue, left the city after 1947, taking the city’s soul with him. Among them was Ahmed Ali, who moved to Karachi and wrote a celebrated novel, Twilight in Delhi.
Be that as it may, it is a truism that art follows money—and so does literature. There are signs that a generation that grew up in Delhi, or came here to study or work and stayed on, sees the city, with all its contradictions, as its own. It is finding its voice. Vishwajyoti Ghosh recently released Delhi Calm, a graphic work set during the Emergency (1975-77), and Rana Dasgupta is working on his Delhi non-fiction book, a foretaste of which was offered in a brilliant essay in Granta about a year ago.
Three new books, either set in Delhi or talking about it, have just rolled off the presses—the novel Day Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury; a collection of essays titled Celebrating Delhi by various writers; and Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857, compiled and translated by Mahmood Farooqui. They tell of a city in conversation with itself—digging up stories from its past, or imagining new ones about its present.
Day Scholar is a story told in plain English about the experiences of a boy from Patna during his first year in Delhi University (DU). Like the author in real life, its protagonist Hriday is a Bengali who grew up in Patna, aspires to be a writer, and has joined DU. One hopes the similarities end there, for Hriday has a taste for the seamy side of life. He counts among his friends those who don’t hesitate to smash people’s faces or cut them up with an ustara (barber’s razor). In placid tones, Hriday informs us how the landlord of his Delhi lodgings acquired the house called Shokeen Niwas. The process involved two seductions, followed by two marriages by the landlord—the fallout was two suicides. What stands out here, and in other parts of the book, are sardonic and explicit descriptions of sex. In such passages, Chowdhury is at his lyrical best.
Id prayers at the Jama Masjid. Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times
By turns rollicking, ribald and earnest—the earnest parts are the weakest—the novel looks into an old Delhi phenomenon: the steady influx of students from Bihar. Over the years, they have become part of the local landscape. Chowdhury’s hero has a nicer side to him that is caring, obedient and diligent. As he discovers girlfriends, book launches and violence in university elections, he is confronted with a choice—to be Jekyll or Hyde.
People have always come to Delhi seeking learning and adventure, though adventurers far outnumbered seekers of knowledge. The adventure was usually in the form of conquest and plunder. It is said that few places have soaked as much blood as Delhi’s soil. The repeated invasions shaped Delhi’s spiritual, culinary, linguistic and musical evolution, and much else besides. Some of this is traced in Celebrating Delhi, a collection of 11 superlative essays by well-informed and articulate writers.
Khushwant Singh, the city’s grand old man, saw the new Capital being built in the 1920s. Here, he describes the planning and building of New Delhi after India’s British rulers decided to shift the country’s capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata). He also pens an affectionate portrait of his father Sir Sobha Singh, who built some of the new city’s enduring symbols such as India Gate, Connaught Place and South Block. Pradip Krishen traces how the new city’s planners settled upon an unlikely selection of trees—jamun, neem, arjun and sausage tree, as well as rare varieties such as khirni, Buddha’s coconut, anjan and usba—to line the new Capital’s boulevards.
So rich is Delhi’s Sufi heritage that it informs practically every essay in the collection—Sohail Hashmi shows how Urdu emerged from Delhi’s linguistic melting pot and was its gift to the subcontinent. In a masterly piece, historian Sunil Kumar tracks the contrasting fortunes of two Sufi shrines in present-day Delhi, situated just a kilometre apart. In the context of a post-9/11 world, William Dalrymple traces the role of religious rhetoric—the call to jihad or a war against heathens—in one of the bloodiest episodes in the city’s past, the uprising of 1857.
In his works on that uprising, Dalrymple often partnered Mahmood Farooqui. Now Farooqui has come out with his own book, Besieged, in which he has put together a set of documents—mostly translated from cursive Urdu and Persian—that shed light on life inside the walled city of Delhi when it was under the siege of the British from May to September 1857.
Farooqui presents official correspondence between the emperor’s court, the local police, the rebel soldiers stationed here and sundry other sources to show “the valiant attempts of an administration to simultaneously act as a welfare as well as a war state”. The documents range from the epochal—Bahadur Shah’s defence at his trial after he was captured—to the mundane, such as one titled “A barber’s wife elopes with a man from the mohalla along with cash and valuables”.
A vivid portrait of Delhi takes life in these pages. The administration’s paramount concern was to keep chaos at bay and marshal resources to fight the hated British. Coloured by our foreknowledge of its fate—this enterprise emerges by turn as valiant, patriotic, cruel, petty, stoic, foolhardy and ultimately doomed. Presiding over all this was the tragic figure of the last Mughal—Bahadur Shah Zafar. It ended in a bloodbath by the victorious British who were thirsting to revenge the massacre of their men, women and children. Large swathes of the walled city and many structures inside the fort were obliterated—another era in Delhi’s 1,000-year-old history ended and a new one was ushered.