Delhi is a city deeply layered in time, with the juxtaposition of the centuries manifest in styles of architecture, in the names of roads and buildings, in the dress of the city’s inhabitants and—not least—in the languages they speak and read. I am told that Delhi has as many as twelve daily newspapers printed in English, and that this is a world record. Of greater significance is another and perhaps less noticed Delhi record—that it is the only city in the world whose street names are printed in as many as four different scripts. Three of these scripts—Urdu, English, and Devanagari—represent the successive political regimes who have ruled India from Delhi. The fourth, Gurmukhi, stands for the Sikhs who have never, yet, ‘ruled’ from here, but who have long been a strong presence in the city’s social and economic life.
In the 1970s I studied in Delhi; then, in the 1990s, I worked in Delhi. Over the last decade, while based in Bangalore, I have visited the capital often, sometimes staying there for weeks at a stretch. The Delhi I know—and love—lies south and east of the shopping centre known to all except paid-up Congressmen as Connaught Circus (they refer to it, more-or-less reverentially, as Indira Chowk). These are the areas I have driven and (as often) walked through, where I know, sometimes intimately, the roads and by-lanes, the buildings medieval, colonial, and post-modern.
My work in Delhi is usually in the centre of the city. On my most recent trip, however, I had to proceed from the airport directly to a meeting at the University of Delhi. On past occasions I had taken the Ring Road to the University, skirting the old walled city from the east and then cutting in past the Inter-State Bus Terminal and over the ridge into the campus. If one is starting from Palam, however, there is a shorter (and quicker) route, about which I managed to instruct the taxi-driver in time.
From the airport we drove with the traffic to Dhaula Kuan, before taking a detour to the left to catch the Upper Ridge Road. This was as I had remembered it, a well tarred surface surrounded by trees on both sides, the greenery interrupted only by a sign announcing the Park established in 1956 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of Gautama Buddha. After four miles of solitude we drove down a steep slope to enter the densely packed locality of Karol Bagh. Nature had now ended, and History and Culture begun.
Karol Bagh used to be a place populated mostly by Tamils and Punjabi refugees. But the street we drove through was called, curiously enough, ‘Faiz Road’. I wondered whom it was named for. I hope that it honoured the memory of the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. That would be fitting—for among the most eloquent of Faiz’s poems are those that lament the costs of Partition.
As we drove northwards, the roads grew narrower and the homes older. None were more than two storeys high, and some had lattice work, once lovely but now decayed, on their balconies and window sills. The shops and homes were interspersed with shrines—temples, mosques, gurdwaras. The tallest building we passed however served a solidly secular function. This was called ‘Filmistan’; here, many years ago, I had watched an odd film or two myself. It stood on a road named after a nationalist figure far older than Faiz, and a woman of action rather than a man of words. She was the Rani of Jhansi.
The roads that now honour rebel poet and rebel princess must have been so named soon after Independence. As I drove further northwards appeared signs of a commemoration other than, indeed opposed to, the nationalist. For to get to the University we had once more to meet and ascend the Ridge. And as we climbed up the hill from Shakti Nagar we passed the elongated reddish brown structure known as the ‘Nicholson Monument’, built to remember those who had died fighting in the battle of 1857, emphatically on the other side as the Rani of Jhansi.
Bang in the middle of my educative and even thrilling drive I had been brought face-to-face with the reality of the present. For roughly half-way down Rani of Jhansi Road lay a fairly large and freshly cleared space, its designated future proclaimed on a board outside it. The most prominent name on display was that of the architect, a Bombay man both celebrated and controversial, about whom it has been said that he has an ‘edifice complex’.
It is as well that I drove down that road when I did. Twenty years from now it might be unrecognizable, with the layers of history and cultural diversity flattened down—or rather, up—in a homogeneous row of thirty storey monoliths built in glass and concrete.
Published in The Hindu, 7/5/2006