Delhi is a city I have known all my life. I first knew it from the perspective of a little boy growing up in a mofussil town in north India, who entered a world all too different—and far more sophisticated—when with his parents he crossed the old railway bridge at Jumna Bazaar to reach his country’s capital. I then knew it as a student at Delhi University, and still later, as an employee and family man. Now, from my base in Bangalore, I make frequent trips to Delhi. I am there so often—an average of a week a month, at least in the cold season—that my children consider it my second home. And so do I, except that they use the term despairingly, rather than with love.
I have so far spoken of Delhi in the singular, but of course there are cities within this city. There is Lutyens’s Delhi, with its barricaded bungalows and broad, tree-lined thoroughfares. There is Purani Dilli, with its narrow streets and ancient monuments and very lively smells. There is South Delhi, with its ostentatiously coloured and monstrously sized homes and its boutique-filled markets. There is Paschimi Dilli, the localities of Karol Bagh and Rajendra Nagar that lie to the west of Connaught Circus, which are properly middle-class, with modest-sized homes and neighbourhood stores. And then there is Jumna Paar, the ever expanding city east of the river, once fine farmland and better bird habitat, but now filled in with housing colonies of varying sizes and shapes.
One might mark out the city territorially, or one might do so in terms of class and status group. On top of the heap sits Sarkari Dilli, composed of the politicians and civil servants who run—or presume to run—the city as well as the country of which it is part. This is a world of power and patronage, of promotions assigned or denied. Then there is Vyapari Dilli, ruled rather by profit and bank accounts (not all of them Swiss), and which—even after the dismantling of the license-permit-quota Raj—still feeds off the favours dished out by those who occupy the offices in the Secretariat. Some of these businessmen have arisen out of what we may choose to call Sharnarti Dilli—that is to say, from the displaced communities of refugees who came into the city after Partition.
Sarkari Dilli was born only after the capital of British India shifted here from Calcutta in 1911. Vyapari Dilli is essentially a post-colonial creation. Older and wiser, but also poorer, than these two cities is Purani Dilli, which we may also call Asli Dilli. This is the Mughal and pre-Mughal city, that lies north of the capital built by the British. Bypassed and superseded by the civil servants and businessmen, and politically and economically subservient to them, this still affects a certain superiority in terms of culture and cuisine. Where the southern parts of the capital speak a crude Hindi and a cruder Punjabi, in Purani Dilli one hears only (or at least mostly) that language of elegance and refinement, Urdu. And despite all the exotic (and exotically priced) new restaurants that pepper the southern suburbs, it remains the conventional wisdom that the authentic food of Delhi is served only in that hole-in-the-wall adjacent to the Jama Masjid, Karim’s.
The Delhi I love best is located even further north. This is Vidyarthi Dilli, where the students of the university still study and play truant as they did when I was there thirty years ago. I love this part of Delhi because of the memories, but also because time has stood still. The buildings are much as they were in my day. So is the University Coffee House, and the Ridge, where—despite all the pollution wafting up from the Ring Road¬—the Crow Pheasant still flies and the Grey Partridge still calls.
At the very bottom of the city’s social structure lies Mazdoori Dilli, an amorphous world composed of several million individuals who service their more prosperous compatriots by washing their clothes, cooking their meals, cleaning their streets, and doing other such alienating and ill-paying tasks. Unlike the afsars and vyaparis, unlike the vidyarthis too, the workers and labourers cannot identify with any particular part of the city. They make their home where a space opens up for them—in servants’ quarters that lie at the back of grand buildings, in slums built on the river-bank, under flyovers, or even on exposed pavements.
Like all things one knows too well, Delhi fills me with love but also, at times, with disgust. The businessmen are often brash and self-regarding, and sometimes less-than-ethical. The staggering self-importance of the politicians and civil servants is of a piece with their respective callings. Even those Dilliwallahs who are not Secretaries to Government or certified billionaires tend to have an over-developed ego: there is more road rage on a single Delhi street than in most Southern towns. And as one who himself deals with words and ideas, I am dismayed at the vanity of some editors and writers who live in New Delhi. They have fallen prey to the belief, or fantasy, that the importance of their ideas is in exact proportion to their physical proximity to political power.
Intellectuals who live in other national capitals likewise have a highly exaggerated sense of self. Fortunately, Delhi is not Washington. It is not a mere ‘capital’, but a city of great historical antiquity and cultural depth. Its architectures and lifestyles are at once ancient and colonial and nationalist and post-nationalist. Bored or disgusted with Ministers and millionaires, one can escape into Purani Dilli or the University. In any case, as I have discovered, one can like Delhi all the better once one has made the choice not to live in it.
Published in The Hindu, 10/5/2009