Delhi’s Century by Pavan K. Varma

Delhi’s Century : Delhi mirrors the inchoate transition of the country it leads

1911-2011: Hundred years of transition

Perhaps the most evocative symbol of what Delhi is, and what it is not, can be seen in the nerve centre of the city, at India Gate. The splendid sandstone canopy, built by the British to commemorate the Indians who gave their lives for Britain in the World Wars, housed a statue of King George V. That, thought our erstwhile rulers, was the best use of the space. A few years after they left in 1947, the rulers of independent India rightly decided to remove the replica of an alien king. Except that they have not been able to decide till now what to replace it with! The canopy remains empty even today.

This ‘emptiness’ is a metaphor of sorts for Delhi itself. It is not what it once was. It does not know what it wants to become. It has changed beyond recognition . But it does not know how, why or to what purpose. It exists, but is not sure what it means to those who live in it. It has the certainty of space, but the ambivalence of uncertain content. It is a city in undefined transition.

This was not so a hundred years ago.Then Delhi — now called Purani Dilli — did not extend beyond the protecting walls of Shahjahanabad, the city Shahjahan built as his capital in 1638. Outside the Ajmeri and Delhi Gates were green fields. The population of Delhi in 1911 — about one lakh — was less than that of a provincial city like Lucknow.

But even so, the city meant something to its denizens. Zauq, the great poet of 19th century Delhi and the literary mentor of the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was offered a rather lucrative job in the Deccan. He was tempted, but finally declined the offer with the wry comment: Kaun jaaye par ab Zauq, Dilli ki galiyan chhod kar (Who, after all, O Zauq, can leave the alleyways of Delhi). His great contemporaries, Mirza Ghalib and Momin, would have probably reacted in similar fashion. The city then had a delightfully homogenous seduction , expressed through its culinary tastes, its sartorial choices, the all-encompassing Urdu tehzibiyat, and even its own brand of humour. Has Delhi lost some of this definitive identity in the journey of the last hundred years? Has it merely become a vast utilitarian space, where its citizens live, work, struggle, eat and sleep, without a true sense of belonging? If this is so, part of the reason must lie in the unprecedented growth of the city.

In my view, no other city in the world would have expanded from a population of less than a hundred thousand to 22 million in a hundred years.

It was a spontaneous explosion, beyond the imagination of the most imaginative municipal planner. Lutyens’ New Delhi was conceived as a babu-neta city. Its boundaries were defined by the Yamuna in the east, the Ridge in the west, Lodi Garden in the south and Tilak Marg in the north. When the first traffic lights were installed in the 1950s, people laughed because there were such few cars.

Today, Delhi extends for miles beyond the Yamuna and the Ridge, includes all of Gurgaon, and considers Sonepat to be a suburb. It has more cars and scooters than all the other metropolises of India put together. Like some giant boa constrictor it has ingested entire villages in its appetite for space. It is no longer a city. It has morphed into the National Capital Region.

In spite of this amorphous urban sprawl, some characteristics have not changed. As the capital of the republic, New Delhi was, and remains, the seat of political power. For the same reason it was, and continues to be, the babu capital . The same political wheeling-dealing that defined it in 1947 defines it today , except that the scale has changed.
The unsustainable size of the city is also responsible for a change in the notion of its loyalties. Everybody who lives here claims to be a Delhiwallah, but actually professes loyalty mostly to that portion of the city which anchors his or her world. Like a balloon inflated beyond its capacity, the city has exploded into hundreds of habitats. Each is selfcontained . The parts are meant to constitute a whole, but the whole is not defined by them. Delhi has ceased to be one undifferentiated space. It is a chaotic collation of several sub-cities congealed together as one space only for postal or municipal reasons.

This city of permanently malleable space has acquired other new features. The monopoly of one elite, defined by old money and inherited status, has ceased to exist. New money has an inyour-face assertion in all kinds of improbable places, including east and west Delhi.The consequences of our PM’s financial alchemy two decades ago can be seen in the mushrooming malls, the exotic eateries, the foreign brands from cars to condoms, and the pride of the city, the Metro.

In many ways, Delhi mirrors the inchoate transition of the country it leads. From a Punjabi-dominated city after the advent of the refugees following Partition , it has acquired the cosmopolitan pan-Indianism of the nation. A bit of every part of India can be found here. In the manner in which it is structured, the institutional inequalities of our country also find reflection. Lutyens’ New Delhi is an over-pampered oasis; the rest of Delhi must largely fend for itself, coping daily with municipal inadequacies , while the disconsolate old city has become a commercial cesspool.

In this city, where the basics of water and power cannot be assured to the bulk of its citizens, there is the same resilience of survivability which defines the rest of India. It is an irrepressible energy, where people endure the travails of today in the hope that tomorrow will be better. For all the avalanche of municipal concerns, the hope and aspirational energy concentrated in the capital echoes that of an entire nation in transition.
In the business of getting ahead, against the greatest odds, some things have fallen off the radar screen.

Culturally , the capital is sorely lacking in basic infrastructure. Its most prestigious auditorium — the Siri Fort — lacks even proper green rooms, and the home of its most famous poet, Ghalib, was until recently occupied by a coal vendor and a kabariwallah. The democratization of culture, where a great deal seems to be happening, has not led to a cultural renaissance , where quality and focus replace quantitative mediocrity.
As Delhi celebrates the centenary of its return as the political fulcrum of India , the city displays a new sense of power and assertion. But has it as yet, like not so long ago, acquired a soul of its own? Or is its profile, a bit like that empty space under the canopy of India Gate, present in its absence?

Pavan K. Varma has written several books on Delhi. He is currently India’s ambassador in Bhutan

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