Stranger to one’s own


This week Delhi was rocked by a Yoga guru who is as theatrical as a drama queen. Baba Ramdev threatened the government of India with a massive show of hunger fast if PM Singh did not agree to bring back India’s black money from abroad. I thought of writing a comical piece on what would have been the fate of President Zardari’s French chateaux if Baba Ramdev were a Pakistani and had threatened to launch a fast in Lahore’s Football Ground (or in the food street!). But my plan changed overnight.
Last night, while sleeping in my Hauz Khas Village apartment (the window faces the tomb of Feroze Shah Tughlaq) I dreamt that I was in England. I walked to St James Square, tiptoed inside the Reading Room of the London Library and felt the presence of George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James. I wandered down to Westminster Abbey where, standing by Charles Dickens’ grave, I mused on David Copperfield. I traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown, and mourned the bad luck of Juliet and her Romeo. I went to the Cathedral at Winchester and left a flower on Jane Austen’s grave. The pilgrimage ended when I woke up in the morning and found myself back in Delhi.
I just don’t feel at home in this city.
Apart from a statue of Pushkin, near Mandi House, and a road named after Tolstoy, near Connaught Place, there is hardly any ‘familiar’ landmark here. OK, they say that Arundhati Roy lives somewhere near Lodi Garden and Vikram Seth is out there in Noida but…but where is Shakespeare?
And Nabokov?
Reading Lolita in Gautam Buddha Garden, Delhi, is all very well but I would look around the bench and no one in the picnicking crowd looked white enough to have a name like Humbert Humbert or Dolores Haze.
I’m a stranger in my own city.
We convent-educated, thinking-in-Angrezi types (the sort who are enrolled in schools like Lahore Grammar) live in cities like Delhi but devote our reading lives in the pursuit of characters from London, Paris and New York. We read James Baldwin and internalise the Harlems of the world but don’t think of our own ghettos. We re-re-re-re-read the novels of Jane Austen but she never belonged to our land. She never knew our language.
On my way to Nizamuddin dargah. I always pass by Mirza Ghalib’s tomb. His verses are said to offer spine-tingling pleasure. My spine remains indifferent. Ghalib’s greatness eludes me for I can neither read nor understand Urdu. His tomb never gives me the kick that Shakespeare’s does – even though I have seen the latter’s only in dreams. Then there is Hindi novelist Prem Chand’s archive in the Jamia Islamia University. He too excites no passion in me. I’m a foreigner to my own cultural landscape. I know everything about Harry Potter, but nothing about Ameer Hamza.
Three years ago, Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder died in Noida, a suburb in Delhi. I remembered from the newspaper stories that she was buried at a graveyard in Jamia Nagar. In fact, I’m writing this column while sitting in the said graveyard. It is afternoon and I’m jotting down my thoughts on a blank sheet, which is resting on a copy of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a novel I’m currently reading.
Where is Hyder’s grave? I look around. Next hill? I have never read her. This morning, while going through my Shakespeare hardbound, I came across an old yellowed cutting from The Times of India. It was a 15X9 mm column on Page 2. I had saved it in the book and forgotten all about it. The clipping’s headline was: Urdu Novelist Hyder Dead.
Wanting to feel a fellow writer’s camaraderie for her, I walk down the hill, stumbling over unknown graves, and walk up another hill. Reaching the top, I sit under a neem tree, and take out the newspaper cutting:
When this great figure of Urdu literature took her last breath, she had no friend or relative with her in the hospital. Her neighbors in Sector 21, where she had been living alone since many years, had no inkling of having close proximity to such a celebrated writer. Hyder had never married.
I refold the cutting. There is a freshly-dug grave nearby. I sit beside it and unfold the cutting again:
Called ‘Aainie Aapa’ by friends and admirers, Hyder’s most famous work is Aag Ka Darya, a magnum opus, which explores India’s history from the 14th BC to the subcontinent’s partition.
Despite being reserved and even moody, Hyder was not an intellectual snob. “She didn’t appear at all as the high-priestess of Urdu fiction,” Urdu journalist Mehmood Ayubi recalls.
I’m again thinking of my reading life. How lucky to feel at home with England’s Jane Austen, America’s Pauline Kael, and Canada’s Alice Munro. These are writers who belong to places I have never visited. Yet, they are so familiar. How did I fail to read this author who belonged to my land? Hyder, like me, hailed from Uttar Pradesh. We probably ate the same arhar daal and perhaps she shared my passion for the flavour of heeng. Hyder is long dead and I haven’t read her yet. I should be in mourning.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.