Obama visits Delhi


The US President Barack Obama left Delhi yesterday. In his 3-day state visit to India, Barack and wife, Michelle, spent two nights in Delhi in the fabulously luxurious ITC Maurya Hotel. I have been to that hotel. The Obamas must have liked the window view from their presidential floor. All that you could see of Delhi from there is the green cover of Chanakaypuri, the Capitals diplomatic enclave. The problem is that this part of the city is beautiful but it is as unique as a McDonalds burger. You find such a planned district in every country. (Think Isloo, Washington DC)

Of course, in between attending the press conferences and banquets, the Obamas did manage to do some Delhi sightseeing: The first thing they did after landing in the city was to drive to Humayuns Tomb. The mausoleum, with more than a hundred graves and a landscaped garden of 30 acres, is rich in symbolism. My friend, author Rakhshanda Jalil, told me, Humayuns Tomb was the first great Mughal monument in south Asia and it was built by a woman. These facts match Obamas symbolic personality, the first black president of the US. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, built by Humayuns widow, Hamida Banu Begum, is the precursor of the Taj Mahal. But the problem is that Humayuns Tomb, beautiful as it is, is also like a McDonalds burger. You find such monuments everywhere. It is hardly Delhi.

To savour the real Delhi, the Obamas should have gone to Old Delhi, the city built by Humayuns great-grandson Shahjahan. It is where Delhis soul lies. Have you been there? Now, my dear readers, most of us Indians and Pakistanis are never likely to get visas to each others country at least in our lifetime. But we can explore each others cities through books.

So, which is the one book that you should read to transport yourself to the by-lanes of Old Delhi? I give my vote to Twilight in Delhi. First published by Virginia Woolfs Hogarth Press in 1940, this novel was written by a Delhiwalla called Ahmed Ali.

Mr Ali could not live his entire life in the city of his birth. After the Partition, he had to move to Pakistan where he died in Karachi in 1994. However, thanks to the novel, no passport nationality could snatch away his Delhi-ness. For his is the definitive Old Delhi novel. There is romance, tragedy and drama; there is fine prose; pulsating history. What elevates the book into the thin air is that despite its 200 pages, it manages to transcend its novelistic limitations. It becomes a gateway to a city which many think has vanished, a belief that perhaps accounts for the novels cult status.

But no, that Delhi is still alive. I keep going there.

Just walk in Pahari Bhojla or turn into a quiet lane, off the Matia Mahal bazaar, and you will find yourself entering into the pages of Twilight in Delhi. The characters you would see in the street are no different than that in the novel: pigeon wallas, kite-fliers, drunken poets, roadside majnus, purdah-clad women, bearded mullahs, and street vendors. The novels 19th century Delhi reads the same as that of the 21st century edition of the city. Sample this:

“Heat exudes from the walls and the earth; and the gutters give out a damp stink which comes in greater gusts where they meet a sewer to eject their dirty water into an underground canal. But men sleep with their beds over the gutters, and the cats and dogs quarrel over heaps of refuse which lie along the alleys and cross-roads.”

Mr Ali could be writing about the filth of todays Old Delhi.

It is not just in our times that culture types are prone to beating their chest over the loss of civilization in Delhi. Set in post-1857, the novel cries the same city crib:

“But gone are the poets too, and gone is its culture. Only the coils of the rope, when the rope itself has been burnt, remain, to remind us of past splendour. Yet ruin has descended upon its monuments and buildings, upon its boulevards and by-lanes.”

Been there, heard that.

One evening, after giving the haziri at the sufi shrine of Sarmad Shahid, I sat down on the Jama Masjid stairs. Looking far away at the Red Fort ramparts, I randomly opened a page in the novel and came upon this passage:

“Below, across the road, were the tombs of Harray Bharay and Sarmad, and beyond across the red walls of the Fort stretched far away. Below sat man selling quails and canaries, bulbuls and nightingales Still below sat shopkeepers selling all sorts of second-hand nick-nacks and bric-a-brac from old china to bedsteads. On the northern steps sat the quacks and druggists plying as usual a great trade in lizards oil In one corner stood a man shouting in a dramatic tone, selling his medicine to people who had flocked around him.”

The scene is still the same, though now they also sell second-hand DVDs and fake iPods. The quacks, too, are present, including a hakeem who cures illnesses by drawing out blood from his patients limbs.

Those unfamiliar with Old Delhi say that it is losing its charm: too filthy, too ghetto-like. The intellectuals point out that the migration of the upper crust Muslim gentry after the Partition led to Shahjanabads decay. Some of that is true. But if we read Twilight in Delhi and then make a detour to the walled city, we will find that after so many changes, not much has really changed. The wealth and grandeur of the past has certainly died, but the soul is still intact. Even the people, sometimes dressed in sherwanis, achkans and shararas, look similar to the novels various characters Begum Nihal, Asghar, Mirza Shahbaz Beg and Bilqeece.

To tell you the truth, while walking in the gallis, kuchas and havelis of Shahjanabad, I have often found myself flipping through Mr Alis novel. Trying to find out if the mohallas are now any different from their old description, I would quickly discover no, they arent!

Coming back to Barack, he missed seeing Old Delhi, but he should immediately get a copy of Ahmad Ali. And dear reader, you too should buy one. To a Delhiwalla Pakistani, especially, Twilight in Delhi is the next best thing after the visa to Delhi. But, tell me, which book should I read to transport myself to the by-lanes of Lahore?

The writer is a Delhi-based writer and photographer. He runs a blog called Pakistan Paindabad and he can be contacted at [email protected]