Book Review: Two tales of a capital city


Celebrating Delhi

Mala Dayal, Penguin Viking 
Rs 350, 182 pages 

Delhi on the road
Supriya Sahai 
Rs 299, 155 pages 

Forget the Commonwealth Games. They will pass. Our national capital – occupied, abandoned, rebuilt over centuries – will remain and this may be the right week to ‘celebrate’ Delhi, considering it has just got its own logo and a theme song that exhorts every resident to sing from a heart that beats in time with their restless city.

These two books spin the brand new theme song, “Dilli meri jaan, dilli meri shaan”, in two ways. Mala Dayal’s anthology consists of 11 essays on various aspects of Delhi – how it was built; how it was planted; the food that sustains it; its lingo; sufi shrines and music. It has academic rigour and folksiness enough for a 360-degree view of a city that is rapidly – despite the Games – metamorphosing into a great megapolis of a mighty emerging power. But Supriya Sahai’s black and white sketches of life as seen on Delhi’s roads, completes the somewhat seminar-like feel of the other.

Khushwant Singh’s account “My father, the builder” kicks off “Celebrating Delhi”. Anyone who bought the book for just this one essay might be justly pleased. It is a simple and heartfelt story told by a man who disarmingly confesses at the outset that he has “done no research on the building of New Delhi” from “barren waste”. But Singh, of course, has “lived” the building of the new capital of the Raj, internalizing the travails of converting “brick kilns” into a stately imperial seat of government. “My memory goes back to the time when there was no city but a lot of brick kilns,” he writes, recounting the miniature train that ran from Badarpur “up to what is now Connaught Circus…it brought sand, gravel, stones and other building material and deposited them at different sites…my grandparents, parents and my elder brother and I lived in a large shack. My earliest recollection is of being woken up by the deafening roar of the ‘ara’ machines cutting stones with iron saws into different sizes, and the tick, tick, tick of masons chiselling stones into patterns…”

Slowly, over three years from 1919, the city began to rise, Singh continues. By 1929, major buildings had been completed. Singh’s father, Sobha, was the contractor who built much of it,executing the builder’s equivalent of the great Indian rope trick by transplanting, at the dead of night, Delhi’s two foundation stones by bullock-cart from Kingsway Camp to Raisina Hill. Among other things, the senior Singh appeared to be tremendously clear-sighted, buying land in what is now Karol Bagh and Connaught Place (probably India’s priciest real estate today) for two annas and two rupees a square yard respectively.

Subsequent essays by Pradip Kishen, William Dalrymple, Narayani Gupta and Priti Narain describe why the new city was planted with certain kinds of trees; the religious if paradoxically secular proclamations issued by the Mughal court during the 1857 uprising; how place names conjure up Delhi’s vanished landscapes and should be zealously guarded and the peculiarities of the food the city has eaten down the centuries.

“Delhi on the road” is a simpler story with a startlingly broad scope. Sketches tell Delhi’s tale, wandering Mughal structures and modern bylanes crammed with cigarette and car partsshops. Among other things, Sahai looks at “a packed parking lot in Connaught Place”, leaving the reader with a view of a city, old and new, busy and big-hearted. Living in Delhi is reason enough to have both books on the shelf. Not living in Delhi is not reason enough to not have them.

Rashmee Roshan Lall