Capital talk

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Celebrations missing the point

Finally, it’s over. For a year, every newspaper was carrying out a special celebratory series to mark the 100 years of Delhi as the capital of modern India. In 1911, King George V of Great Britain held a durbar here announcing the shifting of the Indian capital from Calcutta to Delhi. He also laid the foundation of New Delhi.

What is there to celebrate? A white king comes to my city, announces some administrative decisions and today we brown people think of it as – in the words of a national daily – “an event (that) changed the course of Delhi’s history forever.”

Yesterday morning, I met historian Mushriul Hasan and he agreed with me, saying, “What is there to celebrate?”

Hasan said, “The transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi was taken in the light of the fact that Bengal had become a hotbed of revolutionary activities. British officers were being attacked. The best thing for the British was to get out of it.”

1911 is also a year when the partition of Bengal was annulled. I’m told that a considerable section of Muslims were pleased when Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal in 1905. However, under pressure by Bengal’s leading Hindu intellectuals as well as Congress party politicians, that decision was withdrawn, making the Bengali Muslims feel alienated. To the British, Delhi seemed a good place to get away from it all.

Historian Hasan told me that lives of ordinary people in the new capital didn’t improve. In fact, the creation of New Delhi was directly responsible for the neglect of Shahjahanabad, the city set up by the Mughals. Yes, Delhi did re-acquire national significance following its fall from glory in the 1857 uprising, but the British also made it a more racially segregated place. Brown people, for instance, could not own cars; brown people could not live in certain parts of Daryaganj.

And the Indian media is celebrating this historic milestone.

But why should I be a killjoy to its middle class constituency?

The other day I went to the Coronation Park in the north of the city where the king made his announcement that “changed the course of Delhi’s history.”

In 1877, Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India at this site. In 1903, the coronation of her son Edward VII was celebrated here. Both occasions called for the summoning of Delhi Durbar, a gold-and-silk extravaganza in which princes from Imperial India’s small and big principalities were obliged to greet the new masters. On December 11, 1911, the 57-acre venue witnessed the third and final Delhi Durbar. The sovereign himself attended. Sitting on a golden throne, under a golden umbrella, King George V declared the transfer of “the seat of the Government of India from Calcutta to the ancient capital of Delhi.”

A hundred years later, one freezing December afternoon, I’m standing at the same spot on which George V and his wife, Mary, sat. The view is spectacularly unspectacular: grey sky and muddy-brown ground. The Coronation Memorial is a sandstone obelisk built on a square plinth, which is reached from all four sides by a flight of stairs. It overlooks a flatland; bushes here, puddles there. Boys from the neighbourhood are playing cricket, a game inherited from the British. My eyes follow a kachori vendor as he cycles from one makeshift cricket pitch to another, hawking his kachoris.

The principal attraction is in a side enclosure, west of the obelisk. The gate is usually locked but you can slip through the gap. Inside, it is like being transported into the pages of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The power is lost; the relics remain. White marble statues of the British nobility lie abandoned in a wilderness of green. The crescent-shaped garden, overgrown with trees and bushes, is a dump yard of colonial-era statues that India no longer needed after its independence in 1947.

There are 16 red stone plinths – eight on each side – but only five have statues. The centerpiece is the sixty feet tall figure of King George V, complete with crown, orb and scepter. Designed by Edwin Lutyens, the architect of New Delhi, it originally stood in front of New Delhi’s India Gate. Brought here in the sixties, the statue, with its sculptured robe, looks luxurious in this desolate durbar. A peepal tree grows from the king’s feet. Elsewhere, camel thorn shrubs have established their own barbaric empire. Plants grow on statue-less plinths. One unknown statue is defaced with a Hindi swearword. Another has a crow perched on its head. I stayed there until the sun started setting.

While returning home in the metro, I thought about how much Delhi has changed – not since 1911 but since I started living here six years ago.

There has been a mushrooming of suburban apartments in the east, across the Yamuna. Malls have come up in the west – the home of the Punjabis who came as refugees from Pakistan. And almost every week new restaurants, new lounges, new bars and new discos are opening in the south.

But to me, these are not the images evoked by the words ‘The soul of Delhi’. The vision that arises is that of abandoned ruins, old doorways, narrow streets, rose petals, Urdu verses, evening azaan, hidden courtyards, soaring kites, veiled ladies, tandoor ovens, itar stalls, seekh kebabs, invisible djinns, unknown tombs, and sufi dargahs.

Nizamuddin Basti, considered by many as a filthy Muslim ghetto, is the epitome of this world. And the heart of the Basti is the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. This week to “celebrate the 100 years of Delhi as India’s capital” I’m planning to spend an entire night in the shrine’s courtyard. I will go to sleep with Marcel Proust, whose novel I’m currently reading, and I’ll wake up in time for fajr. 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.

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