Understanding Delhi’s millions


In Delhi, this is the season of book launches. Last week Outlook magazine’s editor Vinod Mehta (a self-declared ‘pseudo-secular and lover of Pakistan’) released his memoirs and published the excerpts as cover story on his own magazine – with his photo on the cover! So permit me please to talk about my books too.
The other day, I met a friend in Lodhi Garden. She remarked on my unkempt hair. I said, “Who cares! I’m a bloody author of four books!”
On November 25, 2009, as I was eating ram laddoos amid the ruins of Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla, while several pairs of lovers were kissing in the shrubberies, the idea of writing about the decline and fall of the this city stirred my mind. In other words, I wanted to do an Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
But to write The History of the Decline and Fall of Delhi Sultanate, complete with six volumes? To do the research, to catch up with dead despots, to sort through the files of the National Archives of India, to bug the historians… to write it all in a exquisite prose … Could I do it?
And then one day in a Khan Market café, HarperCollins India’s senior commissioning editor appeared like a djinn and – over date cake with hot toffee sauce – convinced me that if Gibbon were alive today, he would have written four slim guidebooks on the Roman Empire instead. After all, who reads nowadays? I agreed.
And so I worked on my The Delhi Walla books that were published late last year. The four and the final volume appeared this year. The series focuses on the city’s monuments, food, hangouts and people. My favorite is the one on people.
While working on these books, I travelled all around Delhi, sometimes by metro, mostly on foot. One winter morning, I snooped around in Tughlakabad Fort ruins. One muggy afternoon, I walked down Daryaganj searching for the elusive tonga. One rainy evening, I sat around the peacocks in Teen Murti Bhawan. The most romantic was that summer night in Lajpat Nagar Central Market when, after eating gobhi manchurian at a stall, I felt the first rumblings of Delhi belly. Later, in the McDonald’s restroom, I finally became a certified Delhiwalla.
When I first held the books in my hands, I was not exactly feeling like Amitabh Bachchan but I think I did arrive in my own little way in my adopted city where I had migrated to six years ago.
I’d started as a waiter in Radisson Hotel near the international airport. I’d rented a room in a jaat village called Rangpuri, just behind the hotel. My neighbours were all drivers. Sometimes we cooked food together on a stove. The landlord’s buffaloes lounged in the courtyard. The water came only in the morning and evening. In the summers I slept on the rooftop; sometimes I would wake up and watch the planes preparing to land. I wondered if one day I could belong to this city.
But who is a Delhiwalla?
Some romantics assume such a man to be someone hailing from the Walled City. This ideal creature must always be wearing sherwanis and topis. He must be eating kebabs and biryanis daily. He must be speaking in perfect Urdu and – of course – must know his Ghalib inside out. This is actually just one cliché of a dream Delhiwalla. Another one is of a Punjabi living possibly in Tilak Nagar, west Delhi. This gentleman must be eating butter chicken every evening at Kake Da Hotel in Connaught Place. His girlfriend’s name must be Sweety. He must be wearing at least two gold chains. Every week he must be going to pray at Seesganj Gurudwara in Chandni Chowk. Then there’s another stereotype: the barcoded human beings of south Delhi. They buy groceries in Khan Market, shop in Vasant Kunj’s DLF Emporio mall, they never eat Chinjabi food. And they are very beautiful.
All these stereotypes are false and unfair. The city, like other great cities, is constantly evolving and turning into something new. And each person who lives here has his own Delhi. All of us Delhiwallas – we are more than 14 million – are as different from each other as our fingerprints.
Delhi, or for that matter Lahore or any other city, is the story of its people who come to it to make a new life. They leave behind their private and public histories, adding more substance to a metropolis already rich with too many stories of too many people.
My life’s new project is to make portraits of one per cent of Delhi’s population. Each portrait will have a photograph of the person along with a peek into his life. By the time I finish the project (Inshallah), the looks and the lives of most people I will photograph and profile is bound to change. You may wonder then, what is the point?
Look, people are not ruins. They evolve over the years. Trying to sketch a person at a moment in his life is not to mummify him, but to get a sense of the city, his city. The project will help me understand this city better. I’m calling it Mission Delhi. It will be more satisfying than writing books. Wish me good luck.

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.