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The Seventh City - Part One


Shop in by-lane of Chandni Chowk

Living in ‘New Delhi’, the old city always fascinated me. Before I explored it, Old Delhi seemed like a different city with different rules and different languages, tucked away in the folds of the capital. In some ways, I had been right about Purani Dilli.

The avenues, streets, lanes, all breathed collectively with the crowds. The language here seemed novel to my untrained ears. The consonants fell softer from tongues. The vowels lingered on the lips of the speaker. The songs, wafting in the breeze, smelled like earth. Amidst the jostle of the crowds and the trampling of toes, the language could become harsh in an instant, only for that harshness to evaporate and be lost amidst the sweat and swell of the mass. This city, three centuries old though she may be, is still alive.

We explored Old Delhi without much care for history. We explored for old books, for stories, for a quick taste of phirni. Once, on a quest to find ittar, a friend and I spent the whole afternoon wandering the maze-like lanes of Meena Bazaar, amidst the scurrying people hurrying through. It was hours later that we remembered why we came there, only to realize that the ittar we had been looking for had been right under our noses – we were just too enamoured to see it.

Bus Service along the main avenue of Chandni Chowk, 2009. This service was started with the aim of reducing congestion in the area.

While our aimless explorations were contemporary, the history of the city began in 1639 with the laying of the foundation of Shahjanabad. It would go on to become the seventh city of Delhi, serving as the capital of the Mughal Empire till its decline. The remnants of this city – the gates, the walls, the mosques, the memories of the rulers who built them – make up this vibrant part of Delhi.

Shabab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram was born in 1592 in Lahore, to Prince Salim, who wasn’t the Emperor Jahangir we know him as just yet, and the Rajput princess Jagat Gosaini. Akbar fondly gave his grandson the name Khurram – Persian for ‘joyous’. He grew up under the care of Empress Ruqaiya Sultan Begum, who had aspirations of raising a Mughal Emperor.

Upon Akbar’s death, Salim ascended the throne as Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir Badshah Ghazi, and immediately had to quell the onslaught on the throne. In 1608, now in control of his empire, Jahangir passed the fiefdom of the sarkar of Hissar-Firoza to Khurram, thus cementing his position as heir-apparent.

In 1611, Jahangir married Nur Jahan. Over the years, as Jahangir became more clouded with wine and opium, Nur Jahan along with her brother Asaf Khan claimed larger shares in Jahangir’s court. Nur Jahan would go on to play an important role in the writing of Mughal history, and shaping the princely aspirations of Prince Khurram. The marriage of Asaf Khan’s daughter, Arujumand, to Khurram consolidated the power of the court in his hand too.

Nur Jahan played her cards well by having her daughter from her first marriage, marry Khurram’s half-brother, Shahzada Shahryar. This led to further splintering in the fragile Mughal court of Jahangir. Khurram resented both Nur Jahan, for polluting his father’s ear, and being usurped by his half-brother Shahzada Shahryar who was Nur Jahan’s favourite.

Mosque Minaret, Chandni Chowk

Upon the death of Jahangir in 1627, Asaf Khan became the instrument of Khurram’s ascension to power. He forestalled Nur Jahan’s plans of placing Shahzada Shahryar on the throne by putting her in close confinement and seizing control of Khurram’s three sons under her care. Prince Khurram was crowned Emperor on 19 January, 1628 as Abu ud-Muzaffar Shihab ud-Din Mohammad Sahib ud-Quiran ud-Thani Shah Jahan Padshah Ghazi.

He ordered the executions of his chief rivals and arrested Nur Jahan. Shahryar, his own half-brother and Nur Jahan’s favourite, was put to death as one of Shah Jahan’s first acts as Emperor. With these rivals out of the way, Shah Jahan’s rule was absolute.

By 1638, Shah Jahan began to feel constricted in the cramped city of Agra. A new plan for a new city along the Yamuna was envisioned, and the building of Shahjahanabad commenced. The city was built through 1649 with the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk becoming the iconic landmarks.

With the later Mughal Emperors ruling from Lal Qila, a number of markets and settlements mushroomed within the city. Shahjahanabad became a flourishing capital that saw the Mughal Empire through to its decline in 1857, when the British forces took over the controls of the country.

By-lane of Chandni Chowk

One of the most iconic British constructions is the Delhi Town Hall of Chandni Chowk. Since its completion, it has seen many uses by the British and Indian administration – known as Lawrence Institute during which it housed the Delhi College of Higher Studies; later it housed a library and a European club, and was the seat of the Municipal Corporation. Parts of the building are still used as government offices.

Town Hall, Chandni Chowk
Stairs leading up to the Town Hall
The yellow walls merged smoothly with the overcast skies of the day. The white trims on the walls shone bright as we made our way through the high-ceilinged façade. A painting of Mahatma Gandhi hung in the entrance hall and from within, we could hear the hum of air conditioners working in the offices. Towards the center of the building, surrounded by high walls in yellow and white, was a well-maintained garden with tall trees and large leaves. The cool air and the quiet that surrounded us was a respite from the humidity and the bustle of the city that lay just beyond the walls.

Town Hall Entrance
Towards the north of the Town Hall is the Mahatma Gandhi Park, where a towering statue of Mahatma Gandhi stands. A pathway encircles it, and eight pillars of red sandstone with lamps surround the statue.

At the south end of the Town Hall stands a statue of Swami Sraddhanand. He was an educationist and Arya Samaj missionary. He founded the Gurukul Kangri University, Haridwar. He was a keen follower of Dayanand Saraswati. He was assassinated on 23rd December, 1926.




Mahatma Gandhi Park

Swami Sraddhanand Statue
This area, the Southern end of the Town Hall, is still referred to as Ghantaghar. In 1870, a clock-tower termed Northbrook Clocktower was built at this location. It became an iconic landmark, with its Gothic architecture, four faces and chime of five bells. It was named after the Viceroy of India from 1872 to 1876, Thomas Northbrook. The tower collapsed partially in 1950, following which it was dismantled over the years.

Where the town hall now stands, there stood a Caravanserai built by Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s daughter and the designer of Chandni Chowk. Jahanara Begum was the daughter of Mumtaz Mahal, and Shah Jahan, and is frequently called Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter. Ascending to the post of Padshah Begum upon her mother’s death, she became one of the most powerful women of the Mughal times. Jahanara Begum was seventeen at the time of her ascension. She was a supporter of Dara Shikoh during Shah Jahan’s lifetime and during the war of ascension between Shah Jahan’s sons. When Aurangzeb placed Shah Jahan under arrest at the Agra Fort, she joined him and took care of him until his death in 1666. Jahanara died in the year 1681 and was buried at the Nizamuddin Dargah complex.

Jahanara’s Chandni Chowk has grown and evolved over the years, witness to many important landmarks of history. Lanes have become congested, streets bursting at its seams. Yet there is a taste of the halcyon days amidst the impatient honks of the cars, the tinkle of rickshaw bells in meek protest against the traffic, the betel-stained walls. The avenue is still telling its stories through the voices that haggle, the footsteps that stomp through the lanes, the sizzle of frying tikkis and aloo chaat. These stories still beat with the collective thump of Old Delhi’s heart.

~

Sauria



Sauria are the true lizards of the lizard family. Geckos, which are the most common form of these lizards, frequently hang out in my room. They hang upside down from the ceiling, always keeping a wary eye out for me. Were they here during the time that I had been away as well? I remember hanging like they do, precariously from tall trees made slippery by the constant rain. Scared, silent and still, we stayed there clutching our guns as if they were life jackets. Two days it took for the rest of the platoon to clear the route for us, before we could climb down from our ‘strategic positions.’ We could be people once more, instead of lizards. Maybe that’s why I feel closer to the geckos now that I’m back – I’ve somewhat seen the world from their vantage point.

Or, maybe they’re like the surrogate pets that I’ve never had the courage to keep. I hope they don’t let go and disappear after hearing about them being the surrogate pets. The truth is, to put it rather bluntly, I’m scared. I’m too scared to live; too scared to breathe; too scared to exist. War changes you; it distorts reality.

For instance, I still have trouble walking down the alleyway. Even in broad daylight, I am skittish. It has nothing to do with darkness. In fact, it is the light of day that scares me. I am too well lit, too exposed. There are far too many windows all around me to keep track of. Looking up, I am scared of clear blue skies and the dangers of the drones that may be lurking, invisible. I am scared of construction noises, the grenade like booms of the sledgehammers and the machine gun rat-a-tat of the drills. I fear the day for making me a sitting duck in the spotlight, and I fear the night for the unknown that presses in from all sides.

But most of all, I fear that which never leaves me – loneliness. It is the only thing that stays faithful when everything else has left. It is the one thing that never deserts, but snuggles up close to your heart, cold and menacing, hissing threateningly like a wiry felid. It followed me all the way back from the trenches, and chased away all that was dear to me.

Alcohol used to help, but now my body craves too much for it. Just as the tides, it has eroded away the remnants of my life that I came back to. My wife – my beautiful, loving, generous, forgiving wife – could not bear to look at me while I stared back at her through an ethanol haze. My feline companion hissed and growled from my chest, and I craved to destroy that which I cared for too much. It was the fear of losing her that made me want to hurt. When she inevitably did leave, the cat shook himself gently, yawned wide, and curled up against the crook of my neck, and slept. Once, he purred too – a cold, sinister purr that no living being should make.

My sleep has become fitful. While she was here, my cat used to sleep between us, and every night would take me back to the battlefield; the cold, the damp, the mud; the constant hum of mosquitoes around us and drones and jets above us. And as I slept, he would claw his way into my dreams and grow bigger and bigger, stretching out in front of me, his hiss becoming a roar, his purr a snarl. He could swallow me whole if he wanted to, but he didn’t. Like a cat, he toyed with his prey, played the deadly game, and just before I would be devoured, he would shake me violently. I still wake up in a cold sweat, shivering, reaching out to where my wife slept. But, of course, she isn’t there anymore.

Before the war, I used to write. I wrote about soldiers too, sometimes – the romantic tales of valour and dignity, of courage and brotherhood. All that died with my friends on the field. And amongst that carnage, out of the smoking craters of mortar shells and walls ridden with bullet holes, slinked out my feline friend. Before the war, these stories used to fill me with pride. Now, there’s no one to listen to my stories anymore. They don’t come as easily to me anymore either.

So, I read what I wanted to read to her to the sparrows. The ones that heard me flew away, but there were always more. And then there were the pigeons, the parrots, the mynahs. When she left, she took a lot of the stories with her. She took the sparrows and the pigeons and the parrots and the mynahs too. Both of us had been scared that I would hurt them all.

The felid remained.

There were big rats that looked like hand grenades that lived in the alleyway, but my scrawny feline friend never chased them. The owls swooped in and picked them off one by one, while on some nights the two of us would stand still and watch. We imagined the crunching of the rat’s bones between the jaws of the owl that swooped low, and the cat purred with joy.

But he is too scared to do the deed. A coward at heart, he is. That’s why he doesn’t touch the geckos living in my backyard, the ones that visit me sometimes at night. He doesn’t dare go after any of the rats that find their way indoors. He is content to snuggle in the protection of my chest, hissing menacingly from time to time, reminding me that he is always there, always present.

Would my wife come back had it not been for this stringy cat that sits heavy upon me? Some days, I find myself asking myself that question over and over, while other days I do not dare to. My days are empty, my nights hollow, save for the horrible company of my loneliness and the weight on my chest. Memories should never weigh so much, but more often than not, they do.

Today, I found a broken compass lying forgotten beneath my bed, its needle stuck permanently south. I don’t remember breaking the compass, and found myself wishing that it worked again. Maybe it was the cat. It could have been the rats. The owls might be guilty. But the geckos? They wouldn’t. They understand. They would not leave. They wouldn’t take what points me the right way away from me.

In light of this, I think it’s reassuring to have something stable in life – even if it’s the familiar sight of Sauria hanging upside down from the ceiling.

~
Image Credits: Yintan / Wikimedia

"Why Do You Write?"




Because I like it.

Because writing is liberating.

Because thoughts are fleeting, but words have a habit of lingering on.

Because sometimes, I find it difficult to keep a track of my thoughts otherwise.

Because my brain, much like yours, jumps from one topic to the next too fast.

Because I think of the chapatti I had for dinner.

Because I think of how it’s made of unleavened dough.

Because I think about how the yeast that made the leavening process possible used to be a metaphor for corruption in the past.

Because sometimes, I can’t stop thinking how corruption chokes this country.

Because right now, I’m choking in this polluted city; a sufferer of asthma like so many others.

Because in spite of it all, I still love this city that I live in.

Because I’m fickle minded.

Because my heart beats a thousand times a second, and resonates with stories that I want to write.

Because now, I only fall in and out of love with the most ridiculous things and not people.

Because I have fallen in love with a river.

Because I have fallen in love with a city.

Because I have fallen in love with an ocean.

Because when I was forced to leave the river, or the city, or the ocean, my heart screamed silently.

Because words were then the only way that I could record the sorrow.

Because writing was the only way that I could experience it.

Because it’s fun.

Because wordplays and puns make me laugh.

Because when I write, misinformation typed backwards still stays misinformation.

Because I can tell the truth labelled as a lie and people believe that it is, indeed, a lie.

Because just by writing something clever that you can understand, I can make you feel intelligent.

Because thoughts are free (i.e. unbound) and thoughts come free (i.e. they cost nothing) .

Because just by explaining something clever that I’ve written, I can make you feel stupid.

Because I travel and see new things.

Because I always take time to hear strangers tell me about their passions.

Because I can indulge in those second hand memories whenever I want.

Because I can relive my own memories from time to time.

Because every morning when I wake up, I never know what I might think up.

Because people are inspiring beings.

Because I indulge in those inspirations.

Because I drink way too much coffee.

Because I feel that my best stories are the ones that flew away before I could write them down.

Because there is no greater tragedy than losing a pen when you need to write.

Because the need to write will always, always be greater than the want to write.

Because writers, like everyone else, are competitive beings.

Because watching a friend sitting next to me writing passionately spurs me on to write as well.

Because a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words will always be more valuable than a picture.

Because the words we write today shape the words that will come in future.

Because (insert favourite author here) wrote as well.

Because once upon a time, in a land far away, my English teacher said so.

Because she told me that happy stories sound happiest on warm summer nights.

Because she said, sad stories sound saddest on cold winter mornings.

Because she showed us how scary stories can make chills run down your spine, like cold water dripping on your neck inching slowly and slowly down your back, sending shivers down your whole body, making you tremble in fear.

Because in spite of a scary story, ‘a man and his ostrich walk into a bar’ probably makes you smile.

Because with the coming of autocorrect and spell-check, spelling mistakes have just been too much fun.

Because old ink on aged paper smells like vanilla ice cream topped with caramel syrup.

Because some stories are smooth as honey, while others are smooth as aged whisky from a charred oak cask warming your throat.

Because writing makes me read, and reading makes me think, and thinking makes me write.

Because that’s the only vicious circle I seem to be able to enjoy.

Because sometimes when I don’t want to talk to people, writing something makes them leave me alone.

Because some people are still readers, and the readers still wait for the writers to write.

Because thankfully, pens and pencils and paper still come cheap.

Because mornings in the loo without something to read would just be so boring.

Because somebody has to provide early morning bathroom break entertainment.

Because some stories can keep me up for nights and nights till I write them down.

Because some stories frustrate me by never coming out the way that I wanted them to.

Because some stories make me want to kill myself.

Because some stories make me sing at 3:00 AM.

Because most stories make Thamma (my grandmother) smile.

Because when I was little, Didiya (my sister) got me hooked to books.

Because writing can be an intimidating activity, sometimes.

Because not writing is a frightening pastime.

Because I want to be a writer, and a writer writes.

Because I would like to see those words sing at 3:00 AM.

Because it’s better that instead of me, that hated character dies.

Because until I get them out, thoughts in my mind seem outrageous.

Because the things in my mind that seem too outrageous have a habit of not seeming so on paper.

Because the ideas that float in and out of me never stay forever.

Because I am always scared that if I don’t write, that idea would be lost and never found again.

Because until I put that final full stop at the end of the last sentence, the story isn’t done.

Because when it’s finished, it always looks good.

Because it’s eternal.

Because it’s the only thing that makes me feel immortal.

~

Down the streets of Nizamuddin

The purpose of our visit to the Nizamuddin Basti area was to search and find the reclusive heritage sites that we had heard about a lot, but never had the chance to see with our own eyes. With a joint conservation effort on in full swing in the area, we knew that this would be the best time to see the many monuments that were in various states of conservation.

Having reached quite early on in the day, we saw the basti before the activities of the day took over. Shop owners were still washing the thresholds of their shops, while a few young boys overlooked the entire operation with keen interest. Some shops had opened already - tea stalls selling fresh creamy tea to their patrons, and various paanwallas already catering to the shoppers that surrounded them. We headed on through the narrow lanes towards a school that had been developed, as part of the inclusive heritage conservation effort which considers the people living in the area as much as the monuments and heritage sites they aim to conserve and protect.

 I saw a pair of children getting ready for the day with an eagerness - the elder helping the younger putting on a shirt. Beyond, we could see the school day had already begun. We could see glimpses of young boys and girls running within the school courtyard, all dressed in smart uniforms, running around in the warm September sunlight. We saw the two children, now all dressed up and ready for the day, run off into the small black gate of the school and disappear out of sight. Our guide showed us where they had headed off to, and took us beyond the remnants of a park - broken slides and swings littered one end, while makeshift tents had sprung up on the other - to another, cleaner and greener park. He told us that the park, maintained under the conservation effort itself, was a small sanctuary they provided to all women and children of the area, not just the ones studying in the school, to come and enjoy the swings that had become so hard to find in the area. A small wide-eyed girl, still entirely enamored by the swings and the surrounding park, patiently waited her turn by the side while a group of younger boys swung by without a care in the world. Finally, it was her turn, and the camera in my hand thrilled her.



Carefully, with poise and grace, as though a million cameras and a large spotlight was upon her, she took to the swing and gently started swaying back and forth, always seemingly aware of the camera with which I snapped her photos. As the swing gathered speed, she lost her little inhibitions, and I could see her swinging more freely than before. Once, as the swing reached the fullest height, she threw back her head, her face upside-down, her hair hanging free, and laughed out loud at the timid young ones too reluctant to try such daring games, and as they laughed back at her, she turned and smiled at me. It was an infectious smile, and I found myself grinning back at her as well, while the young ones still whooped behind her.








Just outside of the school, there was a group of kids, all of school age, but in stark contrast with the ones running inside the courtyard in the sunlight, chasing each other. Yet, the children outside were learning new things on their own. As I walked by, I found them huddled around a bright red and yellow computer, eagerly looking into the screen. The installation was part of the hole-in-the-wall initiative; the concept being that even in unsupervised conditions, if the children have an opportunity to learn new things, they will pick it up. Seeing the group of children huddled around the computer figuring out how to use it, all on their own, I could see the hunger in their eyes to learn something new and exciting, even if it was outside the supervised classrooms just a few meters beyond. The children, although outside the structure of the school, had enough curiosity to teach themselves from whatever resources they had around them. We walked away from the school as more and more children gathered around the computer, often helping each other out when they got stuck with it somewhere.

In all the years that I've spent in Delhi, I've heard a lot of mention about the Baolis that dot the city. Still, I had only ever seen one, Argasen-ki-Baoli near Connaught Place. I knew about the existence of Nizamuddin's baoli, and had heard about the importance of the place from friends and friends of friends who visited the place earlier, but never did I get the chance to see it for myself. This time, though, we were headed off to see it.

We saw the well only from behind the closed gates, but we could see the importance that the place must have had in the area. Renovation efforts were most noticeable here, with the structure of the well being strengthened from the core. A group of young boys were bathing in the water, jumping from the surrounding structures into the water, while a recorded voice all around the area kept reminding all that water was sacred, and it is our duty to keep the well clean. The preservation of this particular baoli becomes even more important when I learned that it is perhaps the only one in the city which is still connected to an active water spring. For both the residents of the immediate area and for the heritage of the city, this is an important site that needs to be preserved and nurtured for years to come.





Before heading out of the area, there was one place that still needed to be seen - Mirza Ghalib's tomb, hidden away within the winding lanes of Nizamuddin.




Nested in the midst of residences, a small white marble structure marks the place where the legendary poet lay. Restored as part of the conservation effort, the marble tomb within a small courtyard is an intricate piece of sculpture. The courtyard also contains graves of Ghalib's family, and a few words from his poems etched in marble at one end. The tomb, right next to the Ghalib academy, is a wonderful testament to the simplistic beauty that the poet used in his own poems.

With the setting sun behind us, and wrapping up a day well spent at Nizamuddin, we walked out of the narrow lanes, and into the life that we know once more. Spending a few hours in the basti, it seemed as though the place and the people were both separated from the city that trudged on beyond the lanes by centuries - we could feel the history and culture of the area up close and personal, always present but always kept preserved and nurtured within those winding lanes.

As we walked out, the sizzling sound and wafting smells of the kababs and tikkas roasting on tandoors came our way, and we had to stop and sample a few. Sitting in one of the small hovel-turned-restaurants, as we savoured the sights, sounds and the smells of the market and the bustle of the business around us, we realised that in spite of being centuries away, Nizamuddin is always happy to see new faces come its way, and hear the stories that the place has told for ages - if only we stop, listen, and know that it's something worth caring for.

~

From One Poet to Another

I gave her a gift
A misquote
Wrongly acknowledged to Ernest Hemingway by a film
Where the writer says to the protagonist
“If your story is bad, I’ll hate it. If it’s good, then I’ll be envious and hate it even more.”
And I know it’s a misquote – I know that now
Because I spent four hours looking it up,
Since it sounded suspiciously like a true Hemingway quote
And even though it’s probably not him who said it,
I think there is some truth in that line.

We use words for a lot of things, you and I
And there are times when our words sound caustic to each other
Even if we meant them otherwise
But, then again, we use words enough to know that more often than not
We do, indeed, mean them to be caustic.

And while we both can differentiate between the good and the bad
There are times when everything that’s yours seems good, while everything that’s mine seems bad
Until, enough time passes and the sides flip
So that suddenly, everything that’s mine seems good, while everything that’s yours seems bad.

You were surprised when I told you, the other day, in a random conversation
That even though I don’t let you know, I do read your words quite diligently
I pore over your poems, trying to figure out the little nuances that I might have missed
As I pass over the lines the first time, trying to soak up too much too fast
Only to return for a second helping
To taste those words once more, leisurely
And it is during that time, that revisit of mine
That I begin to truly hate your words
And hate your style
And hate your emotions – which, I guess, are now mine
Since I am the one experiencing them after reading Your poem.

I always encircle “cooperative” when asked the question “Are you competitive or cooperative?”
But the more I think about you, and about us, and about your poems,
I keep wondering if that’s who I really am, or if that’s the person I want to be
Because cooperative, by definition, means “involving the joint activity of two or more”
But I know that if you and I ever got together to write
One of us is going to end up dead.

We are jealous folks, even if we don’t usually want to admit it
Because we know what it feels like to piece those words together to bring out the emotions
And no matter how we word it, there’s always some bit that seems to be lost in translation
Between the strange language our heart speaks in, and the language that we write in
And we know just how difficult it is when a poem, fully formed, longs to burst out at inopportune moments
So I have to write on a flimsy paper napkin,
With a pencil,
That I borrowed from the waiter while he brought the bill, expecting to be paid
And as I scribble feverishly, I can feel the eyes of the patrons on me
And the smirk of the waiter, seeing me acting like a child,
As I desperately try to wrap up everything that I want to write on that little square paper napkin.

And when I get back home, and try to make sense of all the things that I wrote out
And try to ensure that nothing from that page goes to waste,
And that everything I wanted to say comes out exactly the way that I felt it
I find, that you have written something too – something about a little beggar boy,
And the glimmer of the universe in his eyes, while he munched on the snacks you bought him
So that once his tummy was full, he could think about other things as well
How his first thought was of God, and the happiness that shone through his eyes as he munched on that God-given gift
While you took your notes, on a crumpled old bus-ticket, the way I took mine.

No matter how desperately I might look for that boy in my scribbled notes, I know he’s not there
And now, no matter what I write, and no matter how I write it, I’ll never be able to forget the boy’s eyes
Even though I’ve never seen them
No matter how much I try to depict him, I know that I can never get him right
The way you did; the way your words did
And so, after you know that I’ve read through the poem, you ask me,
“So, What did you think of it?”

I can’t tell you, that I hated it because I liked it so much
I can’t tell you, that I hated it because I can’t forget the boy
Or the God, who took care of that boy, and put that shining universe in his eyes
I can’t tell you, that I hate the emotions that choke me as I read through your poem
Emotions that I know will keep me up all night
And I can’t tell you, that the next time you write a poem, you can ask me to read it
But don’t ever ask me that question, “So, what did you think of it?”

Because, for better or for worse
I will, always, hate the words that you write.

~

Conversations with the city

Every day, Delhi expands and shrinks. It took me a long time to get used to such a paradox and learn to enjoy it instead. There are parts of the city still frozen in time, while the rest of the city races past. She is a city that grows on you, the more time you spend with her. You can hear her whisper stories about the broken walls that dot her landscape.

Delhi always seems to surprise me by how much smaller she seems as the years pass. Like watching children grow up, you never realize before it's happened. Maybe it's us who grow up faster than her.

I spent an afternoon with a friend once, meandering the roads of Chawri Bazaar. She had introduced me to the hidden facets of the city a long time ago. Now, she had returned, and I wanted to show-off how much I had come to know Delhi during that time. So, we walked down the road from the metro station and headed right into the heart of the old city. As the road turned a corner, we caught glimpses of the past, both ours and the city's. Up ahead, we saw a familiar wall, but my friend asked, "What's that?

Her question took me by surprise. It was the Jama Masjid, where we spent many afternoons and evenings. We would visit the older city only to spend some time beneath the chhatris of the walls. We would climb the stairs of one of the minarets and look down at the busy streets. She looked from me to the mosque and back, and said, "Seems smaller than I remember it to be."

In all the years of visiting these same streets, I had failed to notice it. Maybe in those years, we grew up. While New Delhi had expanded, maybe the ancient Delhi had shrunk inwards. The metro stations, the new shops and the crowds seemed to spill onto the narrow lanes. The new Delhi grew.

I took the bus home that day. I wanted to look at the roads instead of zipping away through underground tunnels. I blessed the snarling traffic which allowed me to take in the sights. I savored the parts of the city that I had grown to cherish, but had forgot to remember in a while.

Catching the bus from the Red Fort, I passed the Lahori Gate. Leaving behind the Jama Masjid, the bus rolled to a stop at the Daryaganj crossing. I noticed the roadside chicken shop, one of our favorites from back in the day. Our pocket money only allowed us the luxury of cheap chicken from a roadside shack. But in those years, even that shack had grown into a restaurant. I doubt if the taste of the chicken has changed though; some things stay the same.

We went on, past the Dilli Gate, Feroz Shah Kotla and the remnants of the Shahjanabad wall. Dusk slipped in as we headed on towards the southern side of the city. We reached the Old Fort, the broken walls of an even older city lit with warm halogen lamps. A slight left along the old Mathura Road led us straight to the Subz Burj with its iconic blue dome. I got off here on impulse, wanting to taste the famous kababs and tikkas of Nizamuddin. This old settlement takes on a new life as the day slips by. With the smells of sizzling meat hanging heavy in the air, I know I am home.

Growing up in Delhi, history surrounds us since childhood. We grow so accustomed to it that we miss what's right in front of us. We pass our jaded eyes over the intricate architecture of Mehrauli. We tend to skip over the stories that lay dormant in the stone walls of Hauz Khas. But these are timeless tales buried beneath mighty walls. They have stood guard around the city for centuries. These are the vivid stories that make me love this city.

College life brought with it its own sense of freedom for us. Travelling long distances became second nature. It was just a matter of time before I started feeling at home anywhere in the city. I started venturing out into parts of the city that were hitherto unknown to me. Such was the allure that it took us little time to get acquainted. Sneaking out of classes, we would hop on to the new metro trains and be out exploring. 

We spent a significant part of our college days aboard the DTC city buses. The buses were the best option for cheap daily travel from one end of the city to another. For me, the buses also proved to be my window to the city that I knew little. Every day, I learnt more about Delhi and her people from the vantage point of the bus window. As time went by, the city took on a familiar look. Thanks to those big green buses rolling around, I always knew I was never too far from home.

Thus, many warm afternoons gave way to cool evenings. We spent hours chatting with friends amidst the imposing masonry of the Agrasen Baoli. The cheap Kulche-Chhole found all over the city became our staple food. We took siestas beneath the cool shades of the chhatris of Hauz Khas. We discussed art, history, sports and politics over cups of coffee. And almost always, coffee led us straight over to Coffee Home of Connaught Place.

Connaught Place sees the duality of progress and preservation as well. Perhaps the best example of this is the Agrasen Baoli. Tucked away amidst modern buildings of the capital's commercial center, it is well hidden. Yet, this juxtaposition makes the sheer depth of the step-well all the more fascinating. With every step down the well, the busy world that surrounds it seems to recede away. Even in the heart of the city, this ancient well proves that history is never too far in Delhi.

Step-wells such as the Agrasen Baoli used to be a popular feature in Delhi. They conserved water from run-off, providing easy access to fresh water across the city. Land slope and underground water channels were strategic indicators for their location. Agrasen Baoli functioned as a rain-water harvesting well. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya's baoli is another familiar step-well in the city. Named in his memory, it taps into an active water spring that still feeds it today. Over the years, the passages leading to the underground springs choked. The well dried and was soon wiped from memory. In recent years, a massive clean-up exercise repaired those choked passages. Water from the active spring gushed in to reclaim the step-well. Today, the Baoli stands restored to its original glory, fitting for its impressive age.

Delhi is an aged city. She has been home to her people long before becoming an important urban center. She has seen the rise and fall of countless rulers, shared the ambitions of kings. Yet, through it all, Delhi continues to welcome us with open arms.

To understand Delhi, we must peel away the layers of history and see underneath. The most compelling site for ancient Delhi lies near the Kalkaji Temple. Historians uncovered an edict carved during the rule of Emperor Ashoka that dates back to the 3rd Century.

Near the Purana Quila excavation sites, village habitations are dated back to 300 BC. Archaeologists have found evidence of late-Harappan culture in some old villages of Delhi. These artifacts take us back to 1,000 BC. Folklore takes us even further back. According to the legend Mahabharat, Indraprastha stood on the banks of the Yamuna. The Pandavas laid the foundations of the ancient capital city around 3,500 BC.

These stories about Delhi aim to look at the history of this imposing city. They aim to look at these half-remembered tales, lost in the cracks of time. It brings to life the ancient story that still surrounds us. To read all Delhi Stories, click here.

~

Of Silent Chairs and Mute Memories


Her name was Chameli. Once the jasmine flower she was named after, she had folded back into the bud that she had been a long time ago. Against the misty morning, in her delicate white dress, she looked radiant. She had been beautiful, and there were those who remembered that. Time had flown, though, and she had been trapped in her memories, and become that delicate flower bud once more. She had laid out the chairs in the field just the way she remembered it. Li’l Jo Singh, Mr Bakra, Mowgli Man, Alice Kumar Chautala, Maikalal Jaikishan, all members of the short-lived A-Team. She had long forgotten their real names, but their strange faces were still as vivid as the quirky names she remembered. That’s what they remembered her for, coming up with strange names. So lost was she in her memories, that she had forgotten her own name as well. She was Champa Chameli, presiding over this morning’s meeting on the dreary, bleak, misty morning.


I had hoped to catch her off her guard, so I moved through the empty chairs as silently as I could. Past experience had shown me that the trick worked – take her a bit by surprise, maybe startle her just a little bit, and she’ll suddenly become a lot more relaxed. Give her the illusion of being in control of me too, at just the right moment, and suddenly I would find myself a part of her little game, her periodic dance with the past that haunted her so much.

I crept closer and closer, and just when she was standing up after straightening an imaginary chair cushion, I leapt forward and whispered ‘Boo’ right into her ears. It didn’t have quite the effect that I had hoped. Instead of being startled, she turned around with a smile and said in her cute, little-girl manner, ‘I knew you were right behind me. You’re not good at trying to be a ninja, Makdee. You’re late for the meeting.’

‘I’m sorry, Chameli,’ I said with a smile. ‘I got caught up…’

‘In a web?’ asked Chameli, but I knew it was a rhetorical question. It was a joke at my expense, something that she found incredibly funny. I had no idea why she came up with the name Makdee, a spider, for me. I wasn’t a member of the imaginary A-Team, so Chameli didn’t really need to give me a name. I could have been me; but I knew she was scared of reality now. She preferred this dream world of nonsensical names and silly, childish games now. Somehow, I had become a part of that as well.

The chairs were laid out in the same way as they had been since I had known her. It had been so long ago that I don’t even recollect how and when I met her for the first time. Maybe it was at one of these meetings. Maybe we saw each other from a distance at a café. Maybe we met over lunch, and shared a meal a long time ago. I didn’t know anymore, and she was too lost in her delusions to care too much about those trivial things.

I had a job to do, though. I had to shake her up a little bit, give it another try. Maybe the infinity-plus-one-eth time would do the trick. I wanted to be tactful about it, I wanted to stall for a while, and I wanted to not tell her the things I knew she didn’t want to hear; but these were things that weren’t in my hands anymore. I existed only for Chameli now, and she had made me up for a reason.

‘Who’s the guest of honour today?’ I asked her as I took my seat next to her.

She giggled shyly, and said, ‘It’s Jaikishan; he finally told me that he loves me. Alice was wrong; didn’t I always tell you that?’

‘Why do you call him Alice? I mean, he’s a guy after all!’

‘You look at him! I’m sure he’s gay; he’s so effeminate after all. Besides, he likes it if I call him Alice,’ she said matter-of-factly, running a hand down her beautiful white dress.

‘Chameli, there’s something you should know,’ I began again, knowing well that it would be a fruitless endeavour. I had done this enough times to know it, but it was my job. It was precisely why Chameli had conjured me in her mind – so I could try, time after time, to snap her out of her hallucinations and back into the real world. ‘Chameli, are you listening?’

‘Yes, yes. I’m listening to you, Makdee,’ said Chameli absently.

‘You’re dreaming again, Chameli. It’s time you woke up and went back to your world. The people in the meeting, they’ve all gone, they’ve left. Don’t you want to know what happened to all those people? Wouldn’t that be good, to know them in real life, instead of inside here, only inside your mind?’

‘Oh, Makdee,’ she said exasperatedly. ‘Why do you come up with the same story every time? Look, Jaikishan will be coming soon; it’s going to be our first date. And Alice told me it would never work out!’

‘Chameli, Alice isn’t real,’ I said, taking another shot at it. ‘Alice lives inside your mind. Jaikishan exists only in your head. They’re not real, not here at least.’

‘Shush, Makdee!’ said Chameli, standing up suddenly. ‘Jaikishan’s here! You stay here, Alice will keep you company. I’ll see you later, ok?’ Another sudden smile and she ran off a little way off the cluster of chairs. I was sitting alone again, surrounded by phantoms just like me. They couldn’t see me, and I couldn’t see them – it was an arrangement that seemed to work just fine. My job, my purpose, my destiny, that wasn’t coming along so well, though. I could see Chameli animatedly holding a conversation with the thin air in front of her, no doubt speaking to Jaikishan. Things were going exactly as I had always known them to be. In a bit, Chameli would be lost, and there wouldn’t be any purpose for me to stay for the day. Would I leave then, though? Would I be able to walk away?

Chameli was taking Jaikishan’s invisible hand now. I knew I shouldn’t be watching this, but I couldn’t help it. She was putting his imaginary arm around herself, and getting lost in his warm embrace. I wondered, as always, if I should stop her or not. I knew I wouldn’t in the end – I never did. That wasn’t a part of my reason for existence.

She melted in his arms, invisible as they were. She crumpled to the floor, and lay down still. It would be over soon, I told myself. This day would end soon, I told myself. Beyond the circle of chairs, I could see Chameli kissing a phantom lover, a ghost-boyfriend from the past. I could see the beads of sweat glowing on her skin, could see her writhing with pleasure in the soft grass underneath her. It would be over soon, I told myself yet again.

But it wasn’t Chameli who had complete control. I knew it would last yet another lifetime; I knew Chameli was lost just a little more, yet again. While I could do nothing but sit and wait, and watch her falling in love yet again with Jaikishan – the imaginary, invisible man Alice had been wrong about.

~

Inspired by Magpie Tales. I looked for the source of the image, and found that it's by Rosie Hardy.