28 Apr Reflections: Delhi – The City Remembered
By Radhika R. Yeddanapudi
Life in a big city is about connections, people and places and above all a creation of the ideas arising from within – the imagined city dwelling within the real.
“..This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city..”
—- C P Cavafy
Some Indians might describe it as twice the dreaded Saade-Sathi – an astrological adverse period ascribed to the planet Saturn in Vedic astrology!
I am reminded instead of the legendary tale of the 14th century emperor Muhammed Bin Tughlaq who attempted first to relocate his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and then returned only to lose Delhi forever. It is a city that eludes the grasp and shows itself most fleetingly.I was born in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh into a south Indian Telegu Brahmin household. But I must conclude that an accident of birth. In 1974 when memory had just begun to exert its inexorable hold, I moved to Delhi with my parents and lived there for 7 years, capped by another 7-year stay between 1985 and 1992.
Every morning in my school days I left home at 7am just as the Sanskrit news began on All India Radio. At the bus stop designated by nothing more than a gulmohar tree (Delanix Regia aka Flame Tree) we carved our names on the neighbor’s car with a twig or lit a temporary bonfire to be snuffed out at the first sight of route no. 3, the school bus. The entire commute reached its epiphany when the bus turned onto the sudden shade of Lodhi Road. This road named after the gardens housing the tombs of the 16th century Lodhi dynasty has been the crossroads for many a historic occasion. On this road Old Delhi and Lutyens’ Delhi meet; the tombs of Safdarjung and Humayun like peaceful Buddhas loom over the ages, over lovers, children and tourists and even the innumerable vendors are silent in their reflective shade. Even the foreigners who lived in the surrounding Jorbagh area seemed silent and awed – one German lady always walked with 2 gigantic St. Bernards and it wasn’t very clear if she was guarding herself against the local gentry or these marauding ghosts of the past. Many a foreign mission/embassy was located in the surrounding area and Joseph Stein, an American architect, brought prairie style architecture to bear on some incongruous neighbors of the tombs. Sometimes the tombs seemed to be smiling conspiratorially and my memory has been so capricious that both tombs have transmogrified into a giant dome over Humayun’s tomb alone – not surprising given the historical weight of the place. That one tomb contains so many graves that it is often called the Dormitory of the House of Taimur, Mongol warrior and Mughal progenitor. The ghosts of Delhi gave even the very young pause for reflection.
If in my childhood I mostly looked out onto this world of institutions and monuments in Delhi, many years later by being a University student I gained entry into some of these institutions. The India International Center was where I dragged a boy friend of a literal rather than literary persuasion to hear Vikram Seth recite from The Golden Gate. The National Gallery of Art introduced me to the mysterious seals of the Indus Valley, Impressionist paintings of Monet and Renoir, the sculpture of Henry Moore and the pleasures of the Japanese Kimono in a special exhibit. The Shriram Center was where I saw a never since equaled performance by my dance teacher, Yamini Krishnamurthy. Yamini of the athletic jumps (influenced I am told by her visits to Mexico and the dances of that country) and the petulance of Lord Krishna’s consort, Satyabhama. The ardor of my all too literal boyfriend and the 48 degree heat in May I hold equally responsible for my deepening familiarity with the ruins of the Red Fort, Indraprastha, Hauz Khaz and numerous other villages now merged into Delhi! The cultural richness and legacy of the 7 cities of Delhi is not a concept to those who live there – it creates living personal histories.
Delhi was the first city where I experienced the pleasures and pains of being an outsider, an Other, and it bred an enduring desire and appreciation for a continued state of being so. In the years since when I have lived in Washington and Vancouver I have often felt that the defining experience of my life was assimilation into North India rather than into North America. Like a set of sliding doors the parameters of my Delhi shifted in an out of the mainstream experience of Delhi. On many a Sunday morning I ate sambhar and pesarattu (the Andhra pancake of choice!) on a steel plate and wore my South Indian pattu langa (silk skirt) to travel on my Dad’s Vespa to Malai Mandir – the defining South Indian temple of Delhi and attended recitations of a 1000 names of the mother goddess at festivals and gatherings. At other times, I stuffed myself into skinny pants and a checkered shirt to ride to Karol Bagh on the same Vespa along with my father, my mother with her sunglasses, and my little brother. In the temple, I could wear the sacred ash on my forehead and walk barefoot, surrounded by the faith that I lacked. In Karol Bagh at the popular sweetshop, Roshan di Hatti, an existential sensuality appeared in the melting Kulfi (local ice-cream), the sweaty brows of buxom Punjabi beauties and the gawking waiters. The future and the past melted without care into the summer like the disappearing confection on my plate.
Have I mentioned the river Yamuna? The college I attended once housed the residence of British Commander-in-Chief in the Civil Lines area where the British cantonment camped. Behind the high walls of the college (built later to prevent eager girls from meeting their lovers), lay the serpentine Yamuna, muddied by long acquaintance with the city. Along its edge there was the traditional akhara, wrestling academy, supervised by a red-haired Jat guru and not too far from there the Tibetan monastery where the refugees sold sweaters, smuggled lacy underwear from Nepal and delicious momos (dumplings). I spent many an adolescent fit of sulks in resplendent silence on the floor of the Tibetan monastery where not a monk or a statue stared back. The wetlands or what remained on the banks of the river were desolate enough to recall the words of the 13th century court poet who served 7 Sultans, Amir Khusrao Dehlavi (the last name Dehlavi signifies one “of” or “belonging” to Delhi):
Khusrau darya prema ka, Ulti wa ki Dhaar,
Jo utra so doob gaya, jo doob gaya so paar.
Oh Khusrau, the river of love
Runs in strange directions.
One who jumps into it drowns,
And one who drowns, gets across
To the naysayers who deride Delhi and its crudity, Punjabification and politics, I say nothing. To live in Delhi is to accept fear of the unknown, to live beyond national, regional and religious boundaries mingling the strains of music from Nizamuddin Auliya’s tomb with the chants at the Birla Mandir, to be refreshed by the eternal gardens of Firdaus (Islamic paradise) that the Mughals and other conquerors of dry, high places created, to know that life owes you nothing, and amidst all the dust and heat, to live and die with and for beauty and art. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But to those intoxicated, I am happy to play the saqi, a neophyte Persian muse, holding the lethe of memory and say drink, drink, drink.
Radhika R. Yeddanapudi writes to live although not yet for a living in Vancouver, Canada. She has the usual crazy assortment of dreams that afflict South Asians of a middle-class upbringing and is distinguished only for daydreaming and ongoing rebellion for the past four decades.