Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Delhi - Of Onions and Kings


Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

The city of Delhi sometimes reminds me of an onion, imperfectly taken apart - many layered, veined and maimed. The layers are not coherent or even tightly packed - scattered stray wisps forlornly curl at the edges in some corner, many centuries lie bunched together in another. Yet within them lie hidden vapours of many pasts, rising unbidden to sting you into an awareness of a different time.

Mythology in the form of that wondrous, infinitely complex epic of the Mahabharata, written more than 2000 years ago, refers to Indraprastha, what is taken to be a part of Delhi. Indraprastha was the capital of the kingdom of the Pandavas - the five brothers, each embodying a virtue, and their arrogant and beautiful wife, Draupadi. The Pandavas lost and won Indraprastha again. Their descendants followed. And that has been the fate of Delhi through the ages - to be lost and won successively, each conqueror leaving traces behind in the form of walls, forts, mausoleums, bridges.

Historically, the city is said to have been the capital of successive strains of rulers down the ages - Hindus, Turks, Afghans, Mughals. In actuality each ruler demarcated a portion of land, within the larger area of what is now termed Delhi, as his city. So, effectively, the various cities of Delhi consisted of separate stakes of land with their own city walls, forts and supporting fabric.

And that has remained the form of Delhi, even today. Driving from one part of the city to another there is a lack of any cohesion in the city fabric. This lack of cohesion mystifies visitors and leaves the people of Delhi with no form of identity to clutch on to. How could the city be described to a stranger? Would it be relevant to talk of the jamun tree lined broad and languorous avenues of imperial New Delhi? Or the narrow, dense, streets of Shahjahanabad thronged by people and wares, dominated by the 17th century Red Fort and a multitude of mosques? Would a visitor recognise the fussily flamboyant houses in Greater Kailash, hiding behind high walls, as the same Delhi? And left alone, in the wastelands between the former edges of the city and the suburbs now enveloped in its uncaring embrace, could he say where he was? And, of course, he would still not have seen the familiar walk up flats and their clones, scattered seemingly endlessly. Yet, somewhere within all this, appearing and disappearing as if in a dream, he might come across strange apparitions - ghosts of former Delhis.

As you weave in and out of the tangled traffic of Delhi, you come across the fragments of these former cities. Some scornfully straddle roundabouts, some look on peacefully from the edge of the roads. The sight of these remnants is one of the pleasures - the few pleasures, some might add, of living in Delhi. These sudden unexpected glimpses of the past constantly reaffirm a concept of time, unrelated to the frenzy of keeping appointments in a deadlocked city. But, perhaps it is the pressure of watching the car or autorickshaw in front that makes it easy for many people to ignore this part of their city. For it is a fact, that these monuments are for the large part, neglected or forgotten.

To the great majority of people the monuments are not a consideration in any way, and that is the biggest obstacle to their conservation, apart from funds and appropriate manpower. Planning authorities, instead of integrating them into the physical fabric of the city, ignore them in their master plans. The people of Delhi do not see these monuments as a part of their physical or mental space but as isolated freaks, their reassurance and romance discovered briefly when the are young and in love in an otherwise sneering city. For the most part, however, these structures are frequented by people who vandalise them in various ways.

The task of integrating these former Delhis into the Delhi of today is made more difficult by the fact that there is no unified perception of Delhi. This, in turn is caused by the lack of a coherent city form arid by the absence of a population who retain enough affection and memories of the city to identify completely with it. Such people are dead like the poets Ghalib and Zauq. Or they have been swallowed in the aftermath of the Partition of 1947, to be replaced by a new population.

This new population is one of migrants. They are historical migrants of 1947, bereft of belongings and with a loyalty to only themselves having completely and appallingly lost what had been their identity. Or more recent rural migrants, who have left behind families and a familiar social structure in search of the proverbial and elusive streets of gold. In most cases, they find neither the financial security they come looking for nor the dignity they have forsaken. Or the people in the urban villages, not strictly migrants. In their case, it is the ever expanding city which has migrated to enfold them and their traditional farmlands. Nonetheless, the effect is that the urban villages retain their old ways of living and identify themselves with their village rather than the city.

And the problem is compounded by the planning processes of Delhi, which have relied on an interpretation of the bungalow theme, replacing individual dwellings with higher flats. The theme is one of separation - between different parts of the city; from the street; from the older structures. As a result, the city has evolved into isolated rings, manoeuvrable only on the backs of machines, dissected by wastelands of empty roads and desolate greens, pushed out further and further to satisfy the diet of developers. An ordinary man, covering many kilometres in suffocatingly crowded public transport, does not retain the will to perceive former Delhis, smothered in the pursuit of the Delhi of today.

There is as yet enough opportunity to involve the monuments with their surroundings and the people. The most visible of these are the big and famous monuments, frequented by visitors and under some form of Government protection. Then there are the structures bordering main roads, visible in their own way, but neither part of a specific living space nor famous enough to be on the tourist list. And finally those that lie within residential colonies, neither very visible nor famous. A long term conservation policy is one that aims to develop a sense of responsibility in people towards all these structures. This lack of responsibility is evident in the high incidence of vandalism in many portions of the Red Fort, which is one of the most prominent of Delhi's older buildings. These are now shut off from the public because of the impossibility of manning every structure in such a big site against vandalism.

It is important to instil in the minds of younger generations - finally the custodians of the city, a positive feeling for the elements that make up their city. In an economy that has to distribute sufficient funds for purposes as varied and urgent as poverty control, health, education, and defence across thousands of kilometres of land amongst a huge population, it is even more imperative that all the responsibility for the conservation of the past is not dumped at the feet of the government. It is equally important to develop a more vigilant public that not only does not harm the monuments themselves, but also exercises enough alertness to demand a more relevant use of the funds available.

Simultaneous action is needed on many fronts, but a start can be made with the structures within residential areas. Monuments t can be the focus of public open space in residential areas which can be used actively by families living in and around these areas. They might then develop a sense of responsibility towards that specific monument, and through it, perhaps to other monuments. Such involvement would also act as a check on vandalism.

The conservation of these older structures has thus an implication not just on the repair and maintenance of their physical fabric but also on their active and beneficial use by the communities living around them, such that they form an inseparable part of the image of the city. Finally the conservation of the spirit of the city, which is a mixture of its past and present incarnations, can only be achieved through the many ordinary men and women who live in it. An old Indian proverb notes the three necessities that go into the making of a city - badshah (king), dariya (river) and badal (cloud). The dariya has moved further arid further away, the badal is capricious and both the badshah and the Empress have bowed out ignominiously. The only factor that has remained and will continue to remain, are the people who inhabit the city and it is their thoughts and wants which will determine the form and existence of the city - or the lack of it.

1 comment:

  1. Ma'am

    This is an absolutely fascinating read! In fact, early this year, a group of us organized a seminar on the imageablitlity of Delhi. We called it Delhi Dallying, considering how there's no constant or consistent identity that one can associate with the city. I have to admit though, we came nowhere close to understanding the issue as you have. Thank you for the insight :)