In Delhi, one is surrounded by history, but oblivious of it.
Worn stone and brick arches with peeling MCD plaster, whitewashed either white or the color of basic clay pots, soot-blackened and carrying crudely carved avocations of love, appear suddenly across noisy traffic-filled roads but don’t jolt one into a reverie about the world that once was. Overgrown crumbling fragments of monuments in roundabouts seem disconnected and undistinguished.
Part of the obliviousness to culture stems from the fact that Delhi is a city of immigrants, as William Dalrymple states somewhere. Immigrants not only lack that generational connection that people have to a city’s monuments, but they are often also committed to establishing their own culture than embracing what was there before. And then many of those who came in after partition, living in tents for years, found themselves too busy with necessities of life and subsequently establishing and reinforcing their own (financial) roots. A countless number of poor laborers, middle-class professionals, alike, who have immigrated to Delhi since then, share the same drive, and the same blindness to history around them.
The city is a backdrop of the daily hustle to carve out a living. Monuments are either to be ignored or to be forcefully enjoyed, loud praise barely enough at hiding disappointment. These forlorn palaces, forts, and landmarks, eviscerated remorselessly of their jewels and glory by the British and Indians alike, uncared for by poorly funded and corrupt ASI, need a somberness of mood and mind, a willingness to step back and fill in the melancholy silences evoked by neglect, and commonness. These monuments need time and care.
The Delhi Walla attempts to capture these moments, more than the monuments. He often partially succeeds. His achievement, however, is greater than the sum of its parts. In a slow progression of hasty glimpses, he seems to be instilling in us the ability to look, and to look past the deficiencies, into the past, and into ourselves.
From worn monuments to worn out people, The Delhi Walla redeems. In a society so split by class, “Mission Delhi,” perhaps gives many a new capacity to look at each other as human beings.
Given the achievement, it is all the more galling that many a time the writing on The Delhi Walla is forgettable – words are ill-chosen, thoughts left marooned in a grammarless sea, and glimpses of wit and style never nourished to full health. This isn’t calumny but fact. And it is as much our loss as his that the writer doesn’t have the time. Good writing above all needs time; time allows for reflection about what we want to convey and how.
While The Delhi Walla wouldn’t have come about without its author, some of the interest in Delhi’s history and culture is a result of sociological forces gathering pace in a post-liberalization India. The Delhi Walla has found an audience in the expatriates, some of the “youth” who finally have the time and money and nouveau middle-class energies and sensibilities bred partly on Western media, to seek higher culture than saas-bahu dramas, and more generally a people beginning to create and form identities, less based on family than on cultural consumption, which are so essential to modern capitalism. Culture is being commoditized finally, by Indians. This in itself is a welcome relief from genuine doubts about whether we had a culture to speak of.