Tuesday, May 23, 2006

This cowboy song is all I know...

When it’s as hot out as it’s been, the sky bleached bone white by the sun, this is a Western town. The weary cowboy walks down an empty street past the shuttered shops of Malcha Market, as the sheriff in khakhi and his deputies play cards in a patch of shade.

The cowboy walks a lonely road, which becomes lonelier still, when he leaves behind the big white houses of the goddamn Yankees and past the crossroads, enters the wilds. The road is a thin track now through thorny Mexican acacia and thick undergrowth. Even a town sleeping in the heat of a Sunday afternoon makes noise, but nothing carries through the trees in the stifling dry stillness. The road is long and he is thirsty, dreaming already of water. The road crosses the dry bed of a vanished stream, and then a well appears by the side of the road. Excited, he jumps up on the old stone of its rim, only to see a few car tires in the dried mud at the bottom of the six hundred year old structure, and pigeons nesting in the arches.

But from atop the well, he can see past the trees to some flags, limp in the heat. The flags flutter over a dead man’s grave. People are paying their respects. The cowboy climbs up the steps to where the grave is, and walks up and down, and realizes that the grave is atop a massively thick stone wall, half buried, and stretching further than the eye can see in both directions, well into the undergrowth. If he wasn’t a cowboy he’d say ‘cyclopean’.

- That’s a tall wall, he says, to the man with the cracked spectacles who sits smoking.

- Yep. It is.

- What is it?

- Used to be a dam. Stretches all the way from Dhaula Kuan to Karol Bagh.


Mirages are known to occur in the heat, and now I can’t get images of a Delhi filled with water out of my head. The laconic man’s statement about the dam stretching from Dhaula Kuan to Karol Bagh wasn’t much of an exaggeration. In Firoz Shah Tughlak’s time, there was a whole chain of check dams, embankments, tanks and wells along the length of the Ridge, storing the water running off the slope of the Ridge, and channeling it to a series of orchards and gardens. Some names survive – Talkatora, Jor Bagh, Karol Bagh. I look out wistfully at the dry land behind the dam. Perhaps when it rains one can get a glimmer of what it would have been like to have so much water in Delhi. These days, with the pump running four hours a night, growling through my sleep, the overhead tanks run dry every day.

Beyond the mazaar, a massive orange and white dish antenna rises through the trees. This is the ISRO earth station, listening to satellites up in orbit. Right next to it is an old Tughlak hunting lodge known as Malcha Mahal, occupied for the past twenty years by a family claiming descent from the rulers of Oudh, and their dogs. Wearied by the constant attrition of journalists arriving to chase an interesting feature, they are, to put it mildly, anti-social.

But that’s another story. The cowboy turns his back to where the space age and the royals out of time are neighbours, crosses a dryness dancing with the mirages of remembered water, and returns to the grave. On the side of which is written –

Aagah apni maut se koi bashar nahin

Saaman sau baras ka, pal ki khabar nahin.

No man is forewarned of his death.

Enough baggage for a hundred years, and not a moment’s notice.

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