Tag Archives: History

A Conversation With: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

A Conversation With: Literary Critic and Novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi ♦

faruqiIndia’s literary establishment is abuzz about the recently published novel “The Mirror of Beauty,” a 984-page fictional account about the life and times of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famed Urdu poet Daag Dehalvi, set mostly in Delhi and its environs during the 19th century. A beautiful and spirited woman, Wazir mingles with the noblemen of the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the English officers of the East India Company, the poets of the age and a whole panorama of other unforgettable characters.

“The Mirror of Beauty” is a translation of the original 2006 Urdu-language novel “Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan” by its author, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Mr. Faruqi, 78, who retired as a top bureaucrat in the Indian Postal Service, is a leading figure of Urdu literary criticism. He spoke to India Ink in Delhi about how he created the world of 19th century Delhi for “The Mirror of Beauty” and what he hopes young readers will get out of the book.

You live in Allahabad, a relatively smaller city, and your work has mostly been read by those within the Urdu-speaking or academic world. Suddenly you have a celebrity author like Orhan Pamuk calling your book “an erudite, amazing historical novel.” What’s it been like to step into the global literary spotlight?
I feel uncertain about all this. I am not sure that I really deserve all this attention, all this lionizing. I told my editor that I feel small, knowing that you guys are building me up so much, like a colossus. I am now long past those things. I have faced so much criticism in my life, from my own people, and also I have earned praise, love and appreciation. It makes no difference to me whether it is the global environment or the backwater of Allahabad. If Orhan Pamuk writes well about me, I’m happy; if he didn’t write well, I wouldn’t mind.

Writers in English can usually assume a global readership. Though Urdu was a lingua franca, at least in India, 150 years ago, its contemporary literature has a more specific audience. How did the shift in audience affect your translation?
The novel is slightly longer than the Urdu version, because I had to explain certain things. And of course translating two lines of verse in Urdu might expand to four or five lines in English. One theory of translation is that it is worthless unless it sounds like translation. I really don’t agree with that at all, because when you are transferring a certain kind of cultural code and symbolism, which is so utterly alien, it is unfair on the reader to make her feel, all the time, that “yes, I am reading something in high Urdu in the English form.” Like some English woman wearing Indian dress.

How did you go about researching and reinventing the worlds of 19th century Delhi — from the descriptions of carpet-weaving to courtly etiquette?
I didn’t do any systematic, formal research. As I wrote, I did consult a few books when I needed to verify some particular detail, dates mostly. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the novel had always existed in my head as an amorphous, identity-less entity. Facts, memories, impressions — and of course my reading before I’d began to compose the novel — it was all there — a chaos, especially because I didn’t have anything like an idea to write a novel with Wazir Khanam as the chief character.

Of course, I was incomparably enriched by my love for pre-modern Persian and Urdu poetry. Later, what went into my unconscious, more than I realized, was my reading of the Dastan of Amir Hamza, a series of loosely linked oral romances whose 46 volumes and 42,000-plus pages and more than 20 million words I read, and in some cases reread, since about 1980. I’ll always remain obliged to Frances Pritchett [professor emerita at Columbia University] who directed my attention to the Dastan.

For both Urdu and English novels, you restricted yourself to words from the 19th-century lexicon. “The Mirror of Beauty” is very readable, but is the original book a challenge for native Urdu speakers?.
People have been admiring it for sheer size and expanse, but everybody has complained: you didn’t give a glossary, you should have given the Farsi [Persian] in translation. Even in Pakistan, people complained. Not that it was not popular – it went through two editions in four years or so, which is somewhat remarkable for an Urdu novel. I made it the way it is quite consciously, writing in a register which is no longer spoken — archaic Urdu which is unfamiliar to most people. I didn’t care. I was doing my thing. I had to be faithful to my own vision.

There’s a strong rapport between Indian and Pakistani authors writing in English – they review each other’s books, travel to each other’s festivals, make the same award lists. What about Indian and Pakistani writers in Urdu?
On a personal level, there is a lot of friendliness, a lot of coming and going and writing and reading, but it’s not wholehearted promotion. I can promote a Pakistani writer or book wholeheartedly, but the Pakistani literary establishment is reluctant to promote Indian writers so strongly. Almost every important writer who died in Pakistan or is taken as a Pakistani now – take Faiz [Ahmad Faiz], Rashid, [Saadat Hasan] Manto – everybody has written about them in India. You can’t find a comparative example [in Pakistan]. Otherwise, they are extremely cordial; they will feed you, they will wine you, they will dine you.

You’ve mentioned your interest in the historical fiction of A.S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd, among others. Are there any fictionalizations of India, particularly its Mughal history, that you looked at?
In English, Amitav Ghosh’s novels, which I have read and admired: “Sea of Poppies,” followed by “River of Smoke.” A lot of history has gone into them, although it is a history of a very narrow area, that is Bengal of the early 19th or late 18th century, particularly the opium trade. He certainly has full grasp on the material.

You’ve suggested that you wrote “The Mirror of Beauty” not just as a pleasant trip back through time. Could you talk a bit more about that?
I was hoping that if young people read this book, they will learn more about themselves – where they came from, how they were formed — the pain of separation, of discontinuity [from] what the world was before 1857. Though it was already crumbling, they had a world which was self-conscious, which was sure of its self-worth, which could match with any other culture or any other society anywhere – but for the adverse information and propaganda handed out to us by our colonial master.

In any case, every past is worth revisiting, even if it is the dirtiest possible past. But this past is not dirty. This past is honorable. And this past is more literate, more cultured, more sophisticated than today’s present. I am hoping people who take the trouble of reading it will find it an easy book to read, in the sense that the story goes along and keeps you interested, and ultimately they will know where they came from, what they were.

Originally published in The New York Times“India Ink” blog, July 17, 2013.

Published: July 17, 2013

Eternal returns

William Dalrymple on researching Return of a King, his history of the First Afghan War ♦

returnkingIn Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, William Dalrymple’s third book set during the decline of Mughal rule, the Scottish historian and adoptive Dilliwala chronicles the first British military foray into the land of Khurasan, between 1839 and 1842. To tell the story of this failed expedition and the British-backed reinstatement of Shah Shuja, the last Sadozai Durrani ruler, Dalrymple not only drew from several neglected Afghan sources but also retraced the routes of various campaigns and retreats – thus bringing to life the arduous terrain and colourful cast of the conflict in an engaging, anecdotal style (the book also includes a wealth of archival images, miniature paintings and useful maps). Besides sharing some of his travel photos with Time Out, Dalrymple discussed his trip – and the far-ranging implications of the First Afghan War – in an email interview.

Given your interest in languages, what was it like to travel in an area with so many different ones, from different backgrounds, intermixing? Can you recall any anecdotes in Afghanistan where a knowledge of any particular language played a crucial part in the outcome of your trip (or even just provided amusement along the way)?
Given that so many Afghans were refugees in Pakistan, and many more love Bollywood, Hindi is surprisingly widely understood across the country. But Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, is the key language, and most of the new sources I’ve used in this project – two epic poems, the autobiography of Shah Shuja, three court histories and the letters of various resistance leaders – are in Dari or Farsi. The Durrani court at this period was Persian both in court culture and language.

While physically tracing back over the routes you were researching must have been incredible, your list of sources – some of them never used before – indicates that a good many of your adventures must have taken place within the dusty reading rooms of the archives of Delhi, Lahore, Kabul and London. Can you describe a particular wonderful moment of discovery within the stacks?
The first big discovery I made, and the one which convinced me there was a book here, was the archive of the first Great Game spymaster, Sir Claude Wade, which I unearthed in the Punjab Archives which lie in Anarkali’s tomb in Lahore, the most romantically situated archive in the world. Wade was the first to train up Indian agents to send him intelligence from beyond the Hindu Kush and he built up a whole network of “intelligencers” across the region. I found new Afghan sources in Herat, Kandahar and even in the Persian collection of the National Archives in Delhi, but the biggest haul was from Kabul. Here, a young Afghan Fulbright Scholar took me to a bookshop in Jowy Sheer where the bookseller, Hayatullah Habibi, had bought up many of the princely libraries in the the 1970s and ‘80s. In a few hours, I had in my hands nine major printed Persian accounts of the First Afghan War, all well-known to Dari-speaking Afghan scholars but entirely unused by historians working in English.

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels

In the book, you talk about how people you met and Afghan sources you read tended to mythologise the First Afghan War and use this story to paint the current American occupation of the country. As a foreigner travelling in these parts, how do you think your efforts to retell this history were perceived?
The First Afghan War is largely forgotten in Britain, but is remembered by every Afghan. It is their freedom struggle, their Waterloo, their Trafalgar, their Battle of Britain, all rolled into one. It is the defining conflict that the Afghan remember as the source of their independence – that they alone in this region never succumbed to colonial rule. The diplomatic district, Wazir Akbar Khan, the Chanakyapuri of Kabul, is named after the Afghan prince who murdered the British envoy while he was negotiating the surrender terms.

Conversely, you argue that Western powers still haven’t taken to heart the story and lessons of their first military foray into the region. Do you think this is in part due to the kinds of histories that have been written about the struggle for a English-speaking audience? In the context of Western historiography, what’s your hope for the political power of Return of a King?
The First Afghan War is a conflict with remarkable parallels to the current mess. Around the time I was finishing The Last Mughal, I became aware that events in Afghanistan were beginning to closely resemble what had happened there in the 1830s and 1840s and that to some extent, history was repeating itself. The closer I looked, the more the West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distinct echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the First Afghan War was waged on the basis of doctored intelligence about a virtually nonexistent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare – in this case, about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe British ambassador, wrote from Tehran in 1838: “We should declare that he who is not with us is against us… We must secure Afghanistan.” Thus was brought about an unnecessary, expensive and entirely avoidable war.

The failures then contain many instructive lessons for us today. Indeed, the whole conflict today proves Burke’s famous dictum: those who do not know history are destined forever to repeat it.

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels in Afghanistan

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels in Afghanistan

It’s been almost 20 years since the publication of City of Djinns and your exploration of the strong Sufi tradition of South Asia in Delhi. What was your impression of the legacy and potential power of this mystical strain in Afghanistan today?
The Taliban tried to crush the Sufis, and in many shrine-tombs in Afghanistan you find barriers they erected to stop people circling the saints’ mazars. But such deep-rooted habits, and such profound philosophies, are difficult to crush, and I saw thriving Sufi dargahs all over Afghanistan, and an especially powerful wajd ceremony at the great Timurid shrine of Gazar Gah outside Herat.

What was the most hair-raising moment during your travels?
As my car entered the airport perimeter in Kandahar we received a sniper shot in the rear window. Luckily the car was armoured and the bullet didn’t penetrate the second layer of glass. I also witnessed an IED go off just below Kandahar at the shrine of Baba Wali – just beside the compound where Bin Laden plotted 9/11.

And the most exhilarating or wonderful point of your trip?
Visiting the shrines and ruins of Herat. The city is the Agra of Afghanistan, containing the ruins of the great buildings constructed by Shah Rukh, the son of Timur, and Gohar Shad, one of the great women of Islamic history. Anywhere else in the world these spectacular buildings would be swamped with tourists. But today you have them to yourself.

In many ways, the history of the First Afghan War is a knot with many threads tied to other very interesting stories – the tale of the Koh-i-Noor, the rise of the Sikh Empire, and the 1857 Uprising. Has researching this book inspired you to embark on any new projects, or are you thinking of working on something completely different next?
This is the third of my trilogy set between the fall of the Mughals and the rise of the British and it is bookended by White Mughals and The Last Mughal. Next, I’d like to do a book which uses my training as an art historian – a sort of updated, art historical version of AL Basham’s classic, The Wonder that was India. I’d love to do something really ambitious and sweeping – a wide-ranging cultural history. I know the landscape I want to explore but haven’t yet found my map through it. So lots of reading and museumvisiting lie ahead of me – and I’m much looking forward to it.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Bloomsbury, ₹799.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 2012.

Published: December 4, 2012

Choose your own Delhi adventure

377185_515880551771315_634309273_nTime Out Delhi’s 5th anniversary issue ♦

“For over five years, Time Out Delhi has brought you the best of what’s happening in town each fortnight, as well as enabled armchair exploration of city culture and cuisine. We hope our special cover story spurs you to action – starting with your fingers, which will have to do quite a bit of flipping through the following pages. Use this game-style guide as a primer for your day out; we know the real adventures happen when and where you least expect them.” From August 2012.

Read the full story below, or download it as a possibly prettier PDF here.

Published: August 31, 2012

Spirit uprising

Once upon a time, the Old City was besieged by ghosts ♦

Read this article as part of Time Out Delhi’s “Haunted Delhi” cover story.


Illustration by Tara Sapru

“No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in a short story from 1888, “but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.” Kipling understood the distinction between the gothic Christian notion of once-living souls trapped between this plane and the next (your basic bhoot) and our more colorful native procession of djinns, yakshis, churails, vetalas and other spirits and demons.

With its concentration of defunct nineteenth-century Christian cemeteries, Mughal tombs, crumbling walls and abandoned gates, the Old City is the natural haunting ground for the ghosts of real people. And if ghosts in general are the spirits of those who died violent, untimely deaths, it’s not surprising that many of Delhi’s archetypical ghost stories – still just about in circulation – are rooted in the twilight of the Mughal empire and the bloody months surrounding the Uprising and siege of 1857.

In the years just before 1857 though, there were stories of restless white ghosts wandering the galis and gates of the Old City. The most famous is that of British Resident William Fraser, who was murdered on the orders of Shamsuddin, a young nawab of Ferozepur, on his way home from a nautch in 1835. He’s said to lurk around Hindu Rao hospital, formerly his residence in the northern Ridge.

That area, between the Ridge, Civil Lines and Kashmere Gate, was the locus of most of the action during the siege, and it has its share of apparitions too. In May of 1857, after the rebel army attacked, the enthusiastic editor of the Dehli Urdu Akhbar wrote that “Some people even swear that the day the horsemen came here, there were she-camels ahead of them, on which rode green-robed riders. Then they instantly vanished from sight; only the troopers remained, and they killed whichever Englishman they found, cutting  them up like carrots or radishes.” Some of these julienned Englishmen may not have vanished quite so quickly: Delhi chronicler RV Smith recalled that in the early 1900s, a headless horseman soldier would be seen riding on Lothian Road, and another “sar kata bhoot” in Tees Hazari.

Civilians wander the battlefield as well. Like George Beresford, the manager of the Delhi Bank on Chandni Chowk, who had written a Delhi guidebook just the year before. He passed up his chance to escape the city and was butchered, along with his wife and five daughters on a roof in the complex on May 11, and possibly left unburied until the end of 1858.

There’s the deep Khuni Jheel in the Northern Ridge, which became a mass grave for British civilians and Indian sold­iers. It’s almost gentrified and pleasant now, but in the aftermath of 1857, dead soldiers, women and children would be seen there.  The actual graveyards in the area – the Lothian, Nicholson and Mutiny (Rajpura) cemeteries – were of course haunted too. Brigadier-General John Nicholson, who was mortally injured in September 1857 while leading the crucial push to recapture of the city, is still said to haunt the hallowed ground where his remains are interred. Though no one in
the area – least of all the caretaker’s family – wants to talk about it, we have it on good authority that the warrior’s ghost appears atop a white horse, brandishing a naked sword.

When British reinforcements wrested control of Delhi, it was the turn of Mughul royals and aristocracy to suffer execution and murder most foul. Both the prison of Salimgarh Fort and the execution ground at Khooni Darwaza had histories of previous haunting, and the events following the Uprising helped entrench their reputation. Salimgarh Fort, where Bahadur Shah Zafar was incarcerated briefly after trying to escape via Humayun’s Tomb, has a haunted past thanks to Aurangzeb, who supposedly kept his ghazal-writing daughter Zebunnisa (pen-named Makhfi) here. She died single, and her ghost is said to haunt the prison. Perhaps she consorts with the ghosts of the minor princes of the late Mughal period, allegedly raised captive in jail-cells here to make sure they were incapable of revolt. Flash forward from 1857 to the next war of Independence, and Salimgarh was used to incarcerate members of the Indian National Army, some of whom died and can be heard rattling their chains.

Prisoners and royals haunt the Red Fort too. In the 1960s, the Hindustan Times sent a photographer to spend the night in the diwan-e-khas, after the caretaker heard eerie sounds and saw ghosts. And while the Uprising was long over and Bahadur Shah Zafar far away in Rangoon when he died in 1862, people who lived around the Lal Qila said they would see him, his wife Zeenat Mahal and a retinue of his dead family members, circumambulating the fort on Thursday nights. How awkward if they were to encounter the restless spirits of the British soldiers, who still prowl the tunnels below the Fort, seeking Mughal loot.

A day before Nicholson died, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons and grandson were shot at the “Bloody Gate” and are said to haunt it still. Khooni Darwaza is near the graveyards behind the Indian Express building and was used by other capital punishers, including Aurangzeb, who mounted Dara Shikoh’s head here. The Khooni Darwaza is one of the few sites that retains its ghostly notoriety, partially perhaps due to the rape of a medical student here in 2002. But in general, the commonly held belief in ghosts around the ruins south of Shahjahanabad has petered out. Writer Sohail Hashi remembered that even as recently as his father’s youth, it wasn’t considered safe to mill about around the area. “But many of these ghost stories have died with the expansion of the city,” he said.

It’s difficult to now find old Dilliwalas who believe or even know the stories about the phantoms of 1857. Mostly, they’re found just wandering down the memory lanes of people like RV Smith, who know the Old City well but have studied its history too. There are still a few haunted spots around – an abandoned house near Turkman Gate, a white lady who smokes cigarettes at Kashmere Gate – but these are just a fading part of the fabric of daily life, nothing much to talk about.  Maybe the stories of these specters will return some day. Smith certainly hopes so. “Everybody loves ghost stories,” he said. “There was a time that it was fashionable to read them. Now they’re making a comeback, especially on TV shows.” Or perhaps it’s only fair that those old ghosts of old Delhi be allowed to die, at last, a natural death.

Read more about the city’s ghosts in Time Out Delhi‘s “Haunted Delhi” cover story.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2011.

Published: October 28, 2011

Driving passion

Three transport museums light up the road ahead ♦

This article is part of a longer story on Delhi’s museums.

coolie cycle

From the Heritage Transport Museum’s collection

The words “Guggenheim”and “Gurgaon” have rarely, if ever, been uttered in the same breath. Yet Vikas Harish had the audacity to refer to the New York landmark as he talked about an upcoming suburban museum. It was no idle boast. Harish, a museologist and the curator of the staggering 85,000-square-foot Heritage Transport Museum, described how a Lloyd Wright-inspired system of ramps and atria will create interior vistas across its four levels.

The museum is one of three projects driven by car-mad Delhi collectors, who are racing to move their antique vehicles out of the garage and into curated museums, parking them within the context of India’s history.

The first to rev up was Diljeet Titus’ Pro Bono Publico Museum for Vintage and Classic Cars, most of which were formerly owned by royalty. It’s currently in the shop for a major overhaul, but Titus hopes to reopen the place to visitors, by appointment, next March. In keeping with the princely nature of his collection, his museum will be set up like “a giant 25,000 square-foot drawing room,” he said, with antique carpets and cars, palms, and Oslo chandeliers. “The effect is of a 1930s-’40s showroom,” the way cars were typically displayed at Western motor shows at the height of Art Deco style. “I’m not using any technology or electronic gimmickry,” Titus said.

Pro Bono Publico is geared towards serious enth­usiasts; every vehicle will have supporting photographs or artefacts that belonged to its first owner. Titus explained, “I’m trying to show that these cars have documented provenance.” In Delhi, it’s a small miracle to hear the word “provenance” matched with “museum”.


At Sandeep Katari’s museum

Three months ago, restorer and collector Sandeep Katari opened up a little labour of love in Jaunapur Village. Katari sold his accessories shop to fund his museum. “I couldn’t afford a fancy place,” he said. “I want to show that you don’t have to be super-loaded to do something like this slowly. It takes time – and getting used to abuses from your family – but it should not deter you from doing it on a small scale.” Katari has an abundance of secondary sources: memorabilia, posters, photos. His museum is a small but tantalising appetiser before the big event: the Heritage Transport Museum, slated to open near Manesar by December.

Time Out first spoke to Tarun Thakral, an obsessive collector who also happens to be COO of Le Meridien, in February of 2009. He was just beginning to institutionalise his private collection, which includes palanquins, antique autos and a royal rail saloon. At the time, he said it would be ready in nine months.

Three years later – and with nearly ten crores of Ministry of Culture funding, private donations and sponsorship – Thakral’s vision for the Heritage Transport Museum has grown to incredible scale. It promises to be a deluge of immersive audio-visual displays, archival photos and documents, and a large dollop of the good old-fashioned wow-factor. Its exhibits will include a Bollywood section with Shah Rukh Khan’s Dil To Pagal Hai clown car, Gond and Warli artists’ renditions of modern transport, kitsch trucks surrounded by hand-painted hoardings, a period mechanic’s shop, “jugaad” or modified transport, maritime transport, postal stamps, video art, a railway platform and possibly old engines from the Ministry of Railways. Then add a conference centre, a cafe, a library and an auditorium, along with Thakral’s 1947 Piper JC3 Cub plane, and “something big in aviation,” Harish teased. “We really can’t speak about it right now!”

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Superman? Ultimately, the real surprise at the Heritage Transport Museum will likely be the thought and research behind it. Harish, the head curator, got his start at the National Museum Institute in Delhi but has lived in Paris for the past few years – he knows the wrecked state of local museums.

“There’s a museological joke,” Harish said. “Somebody’s up in a balloon and asks ‘Where am I?’ and the museologist on the ground looks up and says, ‘You’re in the air!’” Whether it’s a hot air balloon or a horse carriage, we expect to be told a lot more than that.

Read more about Delhi’s museums.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2011.

Published: September 30, 2011

Buried treasure

Digging out the weird and wonderful in Delhi’s museums ♦

For this Time Out Delhi cover story from September 2011, the team visited almost every museum in Delhi and found everything from accountancy methods to dinosaur eggs. Read the full story below, or download it as a PDF here.

Published: September 30, 2011

Mission accomplished

An American architect in Delhi ♦

scan0004Some of Delhi’s most beautiful buildings sit on foreign soil. In Chanakyapuri, the American Embassy’s Chancery and Ambassador’s residence are two of independent India’s oldest diplomatic buildings – and arguably the most successful at blending modern minimalism with motifs from Mughal and British architecture. Architect Edward Durell Stone, who had already co-designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, completed the Chancery in 1959. The Ambassador’s residence, called Roosevelt House, opened in 1963.

The complex was much admired in the West, garnering a Time magazine feature and the praise of Frank Lloyd Wright, who called it “a perfectly beautiful building”. The Delhi buildings were especially celebrated because they were the first to implement a new American diplomatic policy of building foreign missions in a culturally sensitive manner. After a trip to Agra, Stone was inspired by the Taj Mahal, and drew on Indian elements to design a climate-sensitive building. A roof canopy above the top-floor ceiling dissipates the heat, and there was extensive jali-work in the residence, which became climbing walls for Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith and his sons in the ’60s. It became a tradition for guests, including Jackie Onassis Kennedy, to step across the water garden in the Chancery’s central courtyard. Once, a visiting US Colonel marched straight into the pond.

The building contracts went to Mohan Singh and his sons, who would later extend American influence in Delhi by partnering with Coca Cola when it arrived here. Stone formed long-lasting friendships with the Singh family: Stone’s son Hicks told us that the Singhs nicknamed the building the “Taj Maria”, after Edward’s new wife, who had helped him through a low point in his career just before the Embassy project. Besides being the backdrop for 50 years of diplomacy between Delhi and Washington, DC, the Embassy buildings had a far-reaching architectural impact. Stone took the same ideas and spun them into landmark buildings in the US, notably the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, back in the American capital.

Watch a newsreel of the inauguration of the US Embassy in New Delhi:

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2011.

Published: September 5, 2011

The Lady and the Landmark

Ethel Bates wants a cooking school in the historic Corn Exchange. The city just tore part of it down ♦


An architect’s 1833 drawing of the Corn Exchange. (Photo courtesy HarlemBespoke.com)

Until she starts talking, Ethel Bates looks like anyone’s grandmother with her maroon windbreaker, a dun scarf wrapped turbanlike around her head. Short, forceful and sharp as a whip, this energetic 77-year-old community activist has spent much of the last decade in court – mostly pitted against various city departments. “She’s a little dynamo,” says Garry Johnson, Community Board 11’s treasurer and Economic Development Committee chair.

Johnson’s architecture consultancy on 125th Street looks right over the Corn Exchange, a landmark building that is the locus of Ethel Bates’ legal struggles. From the street, the 126-year-old red brick building decorated with ornate white masonry looks to be in good shape, though cosseted with scaffolding. From Johnson’s window, though, the building’s dilapidated innards present quite a contrast to the ordered lines of the adjacent Metro North station.


The building after demolition began in September. (Photo by Tim Kiladze)

The city is in the midst of carrying out an “emergency demolition” of the five-story building’s top three floors. Since 2003, Bates has officially been in charge of renovating this building, one of 125th Street’s scattered 19th-century landmarks. Bates, who harbors an above-average suspicion of government, claims that the disrepair is due not so much to neglect on her part as to obfuscation by the city and to the Department of Buildings’s “secret agenda.”

The Corn Exchange was built, in the Queen Anne and Romanesque-style, as the Mount Morris Bank by architects Lamb & Lamb. With well-appointed apartments on its upper levels (it earlier had seven stories, with gables at the top), the building later became the Corn Exchange, a bank that eventually merged with JP Morgan. Used briefly as a church, the building was abandoned in the 1970s and lay empty for almost 30 years. A fire destroyed the decaying upper levels before Bates decided to adopt the Corn Exchange as the site for a pioneer culinary school in upper Manhattan.

The Economic Development Corp. had doubts when Bates first approached the city with her proposal in 1999. “I wasn’t anybody as far as they were concerned,” Bates said. Bates said she got a boost from developer Lew Rudin, who put in a cameo appearance for her at an EDC meeting – “you would have thought a saint had walked in, or God himself.” Bates eventually landed an appointment with then-deputy mayor Rudy Washington.

Washington had “heard on the one hand that here was this elderly woman that had a good heart but who didn’t know squat and it would be a disaster to let her have this building,” Bates recalled. “On the other hand she was a person who had these certain merits.” Impressed by Bates’s personality and business acumen (she had studied business at New York University and City College), Washington told Bates that he was on her side.

So she was surprised to find that the building had suddenly been auctioned off to Elie Hirschfeld (son of Abraham), who she said just wanted to sell it back to her for three times the cost. Bates sued the city. It took a year for the decision, but she won her case as well as control over the Corn Exchange. In 2003, Bates held the property deed with a promise to develop the building in three years.

It wasn’t the first time Bates had sued New York. In the 1980s, she was involved in the restoration of Marcus Garvey Park. She sued the parks department after she was handcuffed by some of their officers.


Ethel Bates speaking at a Town Hall meeting (Photo by Edmund J. Eng)

Bates’ dream of opening a culinary school stemmed from a long history with foreign travel, food and art. Bates was born in Birmingham, Ala., but moved to New York with her father, a railway employee, her mother and her six siblings when she was a child. After college, Bates traveled to Europe and lived in France, England and Italy for several years. She worked as a contract negotiator for performers and traveled to Israel, Palestine and North Africa. When she returned to New York, she did everything from being an accountant to running a bakery.

Bates wanted to open a culinary institute because she felt that “in this community you have so many people who are able to do some cooking but they can’t compete. They can’t afford the Culinary Institute of America, they can’t afford the French Culinary… you can’t go and compete with somebody who’s got a reputation behind them and all you’ve done is work in a greasy spoon place.”

She was set on this building, “a place that gives you a certain amount of cachet… That’s my idea: save the building and do a culinary institute.” Bates had already signed on Ark Restaurants and several other potential tenants for the New Corn Exchange project.

Finding a developer proved more difficult. While candidates came to her in droves, Bates felt that each was after her valuable property and had no interest in creating a community culinary institute. Her unwillingness to cede equity control kept stalling the project.

Johnson felt Bates bears some responsibility. “I believe she’s had opportunities,” he said. “The real estate boom has come and gone now.” He said he knew of a big-name developer who had offered Bates a 49 percent stake in the building and that she had refused. He also said that the Community Board approached Bates with a proposal financed by its members. If Bates could not find a developer, he said, she should have tried to open the school elsewhere first, so that it could build a track record.

Bates’ account of her dealings with developers over the years is a laundry list of shady proposals and corrupt maneuvers. About once a year, a newspaper would report that restoration was about to begin. But Bates repeatedly wound up in court, fighting with would-be developers who she claimed wanted to wrest control of the building from her. The city held off on taking any action until 2007, when it moved to rescind Bates’ ownership.

Bates said she has spent $300,000 of her own money fighting cases and paying various fines the city imposed. She also arranged for the protective scaffolding that surrounds the Corn Exchange. Eventually, Bates filed for bankruptcy in order to restrategize. “We fought it nip-and-tuck,” she said.

Bates lost her plea for bankruptcy and the matter reverted to Supreme Court, where a judge ruled in January that the city could take over the building in a non-final disposition. The city claimed that the building was a danger to pedestrians and the 125th Street station and moved to tear down its top floors. Demolition began in early September, but Bates still hasn’t given up. She says her legal status is “sensitive,” but that she hasn’t given up on regaining control.

There is a discrepancy between the Court’s ruling that the deed revert to the city and an April 20 letter asking Bates’ group to take immediate action on repair and demolition. The letter stated that if Bates failed to take action, the city would move to demolish and “recover its expenses from you.” This summer, Assemblyman Adam C. Powell wrote to the Economic Development Corporation strongly backing Bates. The advocacy group Historic Districts Council wrote to Deputy Mayor Edward Skylar in August, stating that council members had visited the building and found the proposed emergency demolition unfounded. The members asked the mayor to intercede until “a more experienced developer can be found.”


The Corn Exchange in its heyday, circa the 1920s or 1930s. Until recently, the building had five of its original seven stories. (Photo courtesy HarlemBespoke.com)

The demolition of the Corn Exchange’s top stories may have been drastic. Calling for an emergency demolition allowed the Building Department to bypass authorization from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the name of public safety. In an April field report, investigators cited loose bricks in various places, but maintained that the protective scaffolding around the building was sound. Johnson, for one, believes that demolishing three floors was overkill and that the fifth floor is the only one that really had to go. “As an architect, I believe those are load-bearing walls,” he said.

Bates suspects that the city will wait, then propose another demolition and eventually hand the building over to a prominent developer. Developer Vornado owns the lot across the street and the Corn Exchange is prime property, with empty lots and the train station just next door.

If the building is restored by the city or someone else rather than commercially developed, it may never be profitable. Real estate agent Eugene Giscombe, whose office overlooks the Corn Exchange, thinks the building is “economically obsolete.” He estimated that even if the Corn Exchange were raised to 10 stories, the cost of building (about $13.5 million) would be far beyond the recoverable yearly rent ($1.35 million). Giscombe believes the only commercial solution would be to combine that lot with others around it. If the building remains a low-rise, he said, the landlord might be able to get tax incentives to rent to a non-profit.

In all this controversy, the building’s historical significance has been largely overshadowed. Johnson thinks the city should have better preserved the building’s shell. He pointed to the example of a mental asylum on Roosevelt Island that has been kept intact pending future development.

“Had it been in the Upper West Side or Upper East Side there would have been meltdown,” he said. “People would have been screaming bloody murder. This wouldn’t have happened. It just shows a complete disregard for the community.”

Originally published in The Uptowner, November 17, 2009.

Published: November 17, 2009

The collector

Meet Tarun Thakral – a different sort of transport mogul ♦


Tarun Thukral (Photo: Anshika Verma)

When the COO of Le Meridien hotel first showed a tendency towards hoarding, it seemed an innocent enough personality quirk. Tarun Thakral was studying hospitality in France in the early ’90s when he noticed that the people around him seemed more interested in their side projects than their courses of study or jobs. “People spent a lot of time on their hobbies there. Growing up in India, one was urged to focus on school or college,” he said.

We glanced around his office as we chatted with him. Behind him were display shelves filled with rows of toy cars. “When I returned, I wanted to spend some time on myself. I was in Rajasthan when I started collecting gramophones and other antiques,” he said. Soon enough, he was a feverish victim of the collecting bug. His first vintage car was a 1932 Chevrolet, which he bought in Rajasthan. Today, he has 31 cars parked in his garage.

But that’s not all. “I got tired of just collecting cars. There are so many museums and collectors of antique cars. So I thought I would expand to trains,” he said. Until recently, he had a 1932 railway saloon, which once belonged to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, parked on his farmhouse plot. “I wrote to the Indian railways asking if they had anything and eventually they wrote back telling me they had this saloon that was about to be scrapped.” Thakral had the carriage restored and converted into an apartment, where he and his family would spend weekends.

rickshawThat saloon and all of his other transport wonders – along with a 1947 Piper Cub aircraft, purchased through an open UP government tender – are currently in storage. That’s because Thakral has big plans for his collection. “The government has approved plans for India’s first transport museum in Manesar,” he said. “We’re beginning construction and I hope to open it to the public in November.”

Besides the cars, train carriage and plane, he’s got lithographs from British times that depict or describe indigenous modes of transport. He’s also the proud owner of some motorcycles, rickshaws and bullock carts, and even a motorcycle- rickshaw. “Those used to be everywhere until the government banned them in 1999. One guy sold me his for about 5,000 rupees. We may not think anything of this vehicle, but look at it from the point of view of tomorrow’s generation,” Thakral said. “This one was painted by a Pakistani tribal-truckpainting artist, and I think it’s beautiful,” he added, showing us a photo, and we had to agree.

Thakral also has old-fashioned enamel petrol pump signs – “this is actually meena work, like what is done with jewellery” – as well as old postcards, automobile stamps and more. His plans for the museum include a cafeteria, a children’s area and conference area.

planeThakral has hired a curator and the museum will be divided according to centuries. “It will be like walking down a street of the 1800s, with the carts and carriages – and then turning on to a street of the 1900s.” The man certainly has enough material to flesh out his idea.

We followed Thakral around his office as he showed us some mementos, framed articles about his collection and strange knickknacks. We were particularly fascinated by two alcohol flasks doubling as music boxes and shaped like Mercedes grills. We’re looking forward to more when the museum opens.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2009.

Published: February 9, 2009

Ten spiritual trails

Exploring Delhi’s religious landmarks ♦

Excerpt from a Time Out Delhi cover package from October 2008. Read the excerpt below, download it as a PDF, or read text of the individual stories on Old Delhi walks or Delhi’s cemeteries.

Published: October 13, 2008