Darkness in Delhi

As Delhi’s lives are looted again, the architecture of the city too shifts beneath our feet

A version of this op-ed was originally published on The Quint, during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.

It is possible to miss a city while still living in it. Delhi in particular is subject to this emotion. The capital is shot through with nostalgia; the cities it used to be, in previous centuries, still add to its allure. Since the advent of the pandemic, more recent years have folded into that rosier past. 

Between the social media posts amplifying an SOS or sharing grief and condolences, I keep seeing images of Delhi from less fraught times: a tomb at sunset, a crowd of people eating chaat near Jama Masjid. I’ve come to miss not just the grand old idea of Delhi – as a place of gardens and architecture, of poets and flaneurs, both historical and mythical – but even its regular friction, strangers rubbing shoulders, a potential community at a cosmopolitan crossroads. 

During our first lockdown summer, separated from the city’s geography and its inhabitants, many of us looked to social media for new communities, built around what we were cooking or eating; reading or watching; or the political and existential questions we needed to ask. In this second wave, we have forged life-support networks instead, replacing a disintegrating social contract and its promise of help and health-care, with apps and chatbots. 

Locked down again, and looking for hope and a memory of community, I found myself drawn more and more to my bookshelf, specifically to three books set in three different avatars of Delhi.

I’m not the first to return to the description of a different pandemic in Twilight in Delhi. After all, Ahmed Ali’s 1940 novel is hugely responsible for the wistful lens through which many of us see the city. Its conjuring power lies less in its plot and characters and more in Ali’s heady descriptions of Shahjahanabad’s gullies and kuchas, against the backdrop of a ruined Mughal capital that is giving way to a new British one in the early 1900s. The novel’s passages about the 1918 influenza outbreak are an eerie echo of the present: a shortage of shrouds, grave robbers who amass fortunes, and leaflets with rhyming gallows humour:

The hospitals are gay and bright
But sorry is men’s plight.

Away from the novel’s old Delhi setting, a new imperial city was being constructed. While construction of India’s new capital was slowed by World War I, India’s human and financial costs only increased. In the spring of 1918, the British Emperor sent a note to a war conference in Delhi, asking for “a cheerful acceptance of  sacrifices without which no high object, no lasting victory, can be achieved.” In short, turn out your pockets, continue to send your sons to the front, and stay positive. Different from the ongoing Central Vista project in some ways, but not so different in others.

Last August, Malayalam writer M. Mukundan’s Delhi Gathakal (2011) was published in English as Delhi: A Soliloquy. It observes the early decades of independent India through the eyes of a Malayali community that lives in the modern, post-imperial city rising out of New Delhi. Its characters live in official quarters built to furnish the new bureaucratic class and its attendants, and in the surrounding colonies springing up to house Partition refugees. 

In Delhi Gathakal, our modern city emerges from a string of villages, the transformation often violent. Bulldozers approach Turkman Gate during the Emergency, evoking both the architecture of the city’s romantic past, and its parallel history of harsh exclusion and domination. “Sahadevan had thought of Delhi as a city of love, heartbreak, separation and melancholy,’ Mukundan writes. ‘It was the novelist in him that made him believe that. For the journalist Kunhikrishnan, Delhi was a city of death and starvation.”

The third book is Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits, published at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Set in a not-too-distant future, it imagines Delhi’s political and social milieu almost up to the minute, overlaid with wonderfully creative, dystopic, too-real technology. Delhi’s public spaces still exist, but the city’s elite rarely comes into contact with them. Nehru Place, for example, is an avoidable hotbed of illegal activity. The capital’s protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act are figured as a beautiful but repressed memory, of people standing together in the streets. Meanwhile, the promised future resistance to state iniquity grows out of virtual meetings in cyberspace.

In each of these books, Delhi’s streets hold both the promise of community and the threat of violence. The latter can easily overshadow the former, for Delhi has always been a political playground, a sandpit rife with mud-slinging, toy-stealing, smashing, and rebuilding by each successive dispensation. Yet every shift of power opens the door to new residents, who add their own character to the capital. We keep tearing down the spaces where this layered diversity can mingle; and we keep replicating the ancient architecture of exclusion – gates and walls, exclusive zones and guarded entries – sometimes even in our social media bubbles. 

Watching and amplifying the requests online for medical help, we see a city full of compassion and pity, and a desire to help. On the ground too, volunteers and government workers are coming together to aid strangers, neighbours and constituents. Sometimes it feels like compassion alone isn’t enough. It is so easily overwhelmed by atomized, personal desperation: fights break out in hospital lobbies, profiteers and con-men squeeze families searching for oxygen, politicians scramble for credit. As Delhi’s lives are looted again, the architecture of the city too shifts beneath our feet. While crematoriums and graveyards strain to swallow up the losses, new foundations of power are again being dug in the heart of the city.

Those of us who are lucky enough to observe the present must be wary of becoming like those people of a Delhi past, who as Ali described, “Even during the terrible days of 1857, when the guns were spitting fire … used to climb up on the roofs to watch the fun of cannonballs shooting red hot out of the cannon’s mouths…” The conflagration isn’t over yet. But when it’s time to rebuild, let’s meet in the streets

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