April 13, 2021
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Invisible Delhi

Is it possible to talk about Delhi that is not Lutyen's or Shajahan's Delhi? Where are the lives of ordinary people of Delhi in this empty wishful landscape?

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Invisible Delhi
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The five Dilliwallahs invited to write about their favourite books on Delhi suggest a reading wishlist that mainly constitutes of city’s monuments, bylanes of old Delhi, leafy avenues of new Delhi and the colourful lives of dead emperors. One cannot help wonder--where are the lives of ordinary people of Delhi in this empty wishful landscape? There is a good reason, thinly veiled in the mourning for the "lost city", because ordinary people shatter the romance of past with the mess they make, traffic they generate, vulgar graffiti on the walls they write and loud music they blare churlishly on the streets. This unruliness makes the residents of Delhi a troublesome subject that can’t be written about without affecting its contours of enchantment.

The wishlist somehow also ends up resurrecting the greatest clichés of all times about Delhi--that it has "no culture" unless we revert to the romance of Mughal Delhi. This is a predominant sentiment that I have heard repeatedly over the past years while making my study on post-1947 Punjabi refugees in Delhi. The received wisdom among the city’s intellectual elite is that Delhi died a cultural death in 1947 with the mass migration of Punjabi refugees who could neither recite Urdu couplets nor practice tehzeeb with ease.

The words are always framed very carefully without making any direct reference to the city’s post-Partition population, yet the message is hardly in doubt. Thus, the sighful invocation of city’s past becomes a useful trope in avoiding the gaze of the present. It may seem to those unfamiliar with the city that there is nothing worthwhile in contemporary Delhi to write about.

Nostalgia and mourning for the lost city is not only tiresome but also historically inaccurate. It actually reeks of barely hidden social class contempt that only elite in any given society can be capable of. The question that writers and historians of Delhi have so far avoided is--might there be a history of Delhi outside the imperial and colonial time frame? Is it possible to talk about Delhi that is not Lutyen's Delhi or Shajahan’s Delhi? Or are there histories waiting to be written in aesthetically unappetising backlanes of Lajpat Nagar and shanty towns of Trilokpuri? Clearly, if history writing is any indication, then a vast majority of the city’s population exists only as an inconvenient contrast to the magnificence of old Delhi.

Narayani Gupta in her Delhi Between the Two Empires describes contemporary Delhi as a place where "Tilak Nagars and Nehru Roads proliferate, and hardly anyone knows of the poetry of Mir and Zauq, the humour of Ghalib, the quality of life that Chandni Chowk once symbolised". In other words, we must continue to root for the glorious days when Delhi was yet to be inundated with waves of cacophonous outsiders--Punjabi, Tibetan and Afghan refugees, Bihari labourers, Nepalese househelps, Malyalee nurses--disturbing its high culture and peace. The poetic moment is, seemingly, lost.

Historically speaking, Delhi city does not have a "fixed past", that is, it has both moved locations and has been peopled by moving populations--the Hindu Marwaris from neighbouring Rajasthan, Gujjars and Jats from the surrounding villages and the Muslims from north-central India--collating multiple cultural influences and traditions.

This transformative, multi-cultural character of Delhi was uneasily noted by a veteran "native" Delhi Congressman Brij Krishan Chandiwala in his 1950s correspondence with Jawaharlal Nehru. Chandiwala complained about the Punjabi refugee population which by now outnumbered vastly the "native" Delhi population. He wrote:

"The people of Delhi are living a life of helplessness…They have on their own wiped out their exclusive identity forever. None remains, neither their language nor their attire and tradition. The Delhi residents have become strangers in their own house."

Nehru replied to this rather curtly, saying:

"Some of the complaints you make are the unfortunate consequences of the Partition and of course, the rapid growth of Delhi. Also Delhi has become a rather cosmopolitan city with a large number of foreigners here, in addition to a very large number of displaced people"

In a thoughtful reply, Chandiwala wrote back:

"..In this city everyone who resides has come from somewhere else. And over the years they became part of this city. I believe even these people (refugees) will one day start identifying their selves as belonging to the city."

This correspondence dates back to mid-1950s when Delhi was undergoing momentous transformation both socially and spatially. It was an early articulation of fears and misgivings of those who considered themselves the "natives" (and therefore the rightful representatives of local culture) vis-a-vis the newly arrived refugees who were transforming the landscape of Delhi through their sheer physical presence.

Unlike imperial Delhi, the post-Partition Delhi has little to offer in terms of monuments that can be showcased for the foreign visitors or urban architecture that will please the critical eye. What is on offer, however, are large indistinct chunks of government built property and teeming shanty towns that are usually off the tourist map. During my research in the refugee resettlement colonies of Delhi, I found rich stories, lifestyles and opinions that are in general disconnect with Dilliwallahs of IIC and farmhouses. Perhaps, we should bravely put the lives and times of this invisible Delhi on our wish-list of future chronicles too.


Ravinder Kaur is the author of Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi. 2007. Oxford University Press.


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