Delhi’s postsecrets

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Readers, belated Happy Diwali. Last week, I discovered something really beautiful. But first I want to tell you an important progress in my quest to understand my city better. I made a new friend and he told me that never ever should I refer to Purani Dilli as Old Delhi. That’s such a white man’s definition, he said. Instead, he told me, I should always call Purani Dilli by its original name, which is so beautiful. Shahjahanabad.

Don’t you think so? I’m currently so much in love with this word – Shahjahanabad – that I want to use it as much as I can in this column.

A city is built of dreamed memories. More than three centuries have elapsed since the founding of Shahjahanabad on the banks of the Yamuna. Shahjahanabad today is a different country.

Yamuna’s course has drifted further east. The dynasty that established the Walled City has been extinguished; the palaces are in ruins; the nobility has disappeared; the wall has been destroyed. The straight lines of bazaars, mohallas and kuchas have broken ranks.

Time cannot be turned back.

While strolling in Shahjahanabad’s streets, I’ve many been many times jolted by a sign from long ago – a doorway, a window, a pillar, or a tomb. In a flash I’m transported to a faraway civilisation that once was here. From the abyss of Shahjahanabad’s wretched present, I climb into a half-baked bookish comprehension of its courtly beginnings.

Delhi’s older neighbourhoods like Mehrauli and Hauz Khas are buried deeper into time. There, I come across landmarks that were raised when there was no Shahjahanabad.

Since the past dies only partially, its living portion overlaps into the present and makes for itself a very different kind of existence, which has a special kind of regret. As if everything was more beautiful ‘then’.

In Shahjahanabad, the essence of such sensibilities is absorbed into the crevices of old surviving buildings. You find it within the cracks of red sandstone walls, on the smooth surface of steep stairs, in the cool dampness of dark alleys.

And, of course, the fragmented past lives on in people’s memories. Sometimes it gets marinated in more tangible objects. In the early decades of 20th century, the photo studio of H A Mirza & Sons in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi (sorry, Shahjahanabad!), produced a series of postcards showing the capital’s Islamic monuments and Colonial-era landmarks.

The cards were photographed in Delhi and printed in Germany. The firm is history now. I got some postcards last weeks from a junk store just opposite Jamia Masjid.

In the postcards, the buildings have an aestheticised exactness, not discernible in real life. This is a mythical Delhi, a longed-for city that we see only in our dreams, the memory of which fades on waking.

The straight lines, symmetrical harmonies and people-less spaces of these postcard images actually belong to an unstable world. When these photos were taken, Delhi was replacing Calcutta as Colonial India’s focal point. The city was recovering from the 1857 uprising against the British that had ended in the fall of the Mughals and the murder of thousands of Delhiwallas. The old certainties were vanishing.

A new catastrophe was imminent. The creation of Pakistan would spell the death of Muslim Delhi style. The gentry would leave the city, the Urdu language would be strangulated by Hindu politicians, the havelis would be destroyed, and the Walled City would become a ghetto. The postcards assure us of a place that would never be lost. A beautiful deception.

Yesterday, I strolled in Shahjahanabad’s rundown alleys that are lined with demolished havelis. Most rich Muslims of Shahjahanabad have become the Mohajirs of Karachi; the poor Muslims who stayed back live in hovels; their entrances are blocked by tattered curtains. Outside one such home, I took out those lovely postcards from within my novel-of-the-day and cried.

What have they made of my Shahjahanabad! Whom should I blame? Modern India? The idea of Partition? Jinnah? Nehru? Who?

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