Friday, July 07, 2006

Letters

In May I visited previously unvisited lanes of Old Delhi, the area known as Chira Khana, once an area dominated by the Kayastha community. The Mathurs Kayasthas of the area have been moving out of the ‘Sheher’, as they know it, for a long time now, like many other communities, a trickle at the beginning of the century becoming a flood as time went on. Many have moved across the river, to group housing societies in Patparganj. My friend Abhinandita Mathur, doing a project on her (almost entirely Mathur) building across the river, and its connections with the Sheher, organized a walk through the lanes of the Sheher for her cousins, most of whom now visit the Old City once every few years. I tagged along.

We went to the Chitragupt Mandir. Chitragupt is the kul-devta of all the kyasthas, being that he is the record keeper of Yama, the god of death. He is pictured holding a pen in his hand and writing in a note book. The Kayasthas, who claim descent from him, were scribes – keeping administrative records, preparing documents, maintaining accounts, writing letters. They thrived in Delhi, capital of Sultans and Badshahs. The priest at the Chitragupt Mandir said to the visiting children, ‘Kayastha Bachcha, ya padha ya mara.’ There was writing all over the temple, black incisions on the white marble with which it had been renovated in the nineteen thirties. A little of it was Devnagari, some was Roman, much of it was Nastaliq. The temple of the Kayasthas was covered with Urdu, including a sher written by a Suryanarayan ‘Meher’ Dehalvi. None of the Kaystha bachchas present could read.

XXX

Letters in Hindi and Urdu are written, and photo copies of these letters are taken to the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla, not the stadium, and are deposited there in various alcoves, dark cells and in the gaps between stones where the mortar has worn away, along with offerings of incense and flowers. Many of them are put in the chambers immediately below the Ashokan pillar, and addressed to Laat Waale Baba. These letters are addressed to djinns, asking them to intercede with God on the writer’s behalf to solve his or her problems. Sometimes, there are just pictures. Once, the photocopy of a missing person report tacked up. But mostly these are petitions submitted in the court of the djinns, aapke darbar main arzi laya hoon baba, and as with petitioning any sarkari daftar, the originals are kept safely, and photocopies submitted. Among the ruins of a medieval palace complex, an archive of the disquiet of the contemporary city.

XXX

I must have photocopied everything twice before my US Visa interview, even though there is no real need to. But I wasn’t taking chances. On my way to do a PhD, applying for a visa for the first time, I was nervous as hell, and carrying 30 plus documents in a file. Letters from the Univeristy, GRE Scores, Class 10 marksheet, Bank statements – my own and my fathers’, printouts of emails. One slimmish file which contained all that constituted me as a person, as a valid, solvent educated citizen of India. Some of my documents weren’t even on the list suggested by the Embassy, but you don’t take chances with a US Visa. In the long queue to get in, outside the fortress walls, I saw even more impressive dossiers, with elaborate file covers.

After about an hour of waiting, my turn came. The conversation was polite through the plate glass separating us, as the consul looked through my application. Then his eyes looked up, and his tone changed.

- You write for City Limits?

- Yes.

- Which column?

- Resident Alien.

- Hey, I really like that column.

Two minutes later, I walked away, feeling dizzy with how easy it had been , how warm his smile of dismissal had been, as he kept my passport and application for processing. None of my thirty documents even came out of the packet.

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