Friday, February 24, 2006

Local Histories - a tale from Lado Sarai

This is the first of a new column I write, called 'Resident Alien'.

It's actually an extract from a presentation I made at a conference, and is still readable, so my future in academia doesn't look too bright!!!

It's about Dilli, ruins, myths, and turning recieved classroom notions of history and the past on their head.

Predictable, really :-)

Lado Sarai has the famous f Bar and lounge, the Bed Lounge, and many carpet showrooms. On what used to be the agricultural land of the village, the government, in 2002, erected a Prithviraj Memorial, valorizing the last ‘Hindu’ king of Delhi, who went down bravely fighting the Muslim invaders. L K Advani, at the inauguration, drew a sword and thundered about fighting terrorism from Pakistan. The story of Prithviraj, as told to me in Lado Sarai, is slightly different -

One day, in his old age, the good king Anang Pal Tomar decided to go on long pilgrimage, and leave the kingdom in the care of two relatives, Prithviraj and Jaichand. Prithviraj was given custody of Delhi and Ajmer, while Jaichand took care of Kannauj.

Prithviraj told Anangpal that his custody was useless unless he had authority which other kings would believe in. “Give it to me in writing,” he said. “No King can enter Delhi without the permission of Prithviraj.” So Anangpal gave it to him in writing, and went off on his pilgrimage. Not much later, when he returned to his city, the gates were closed to him. No King can enter Delhi without the permission of Prithviraj. And so it was that Prithviraj came to rule Delhi.

Flashback. A trader from Afghanistan decided to start trading with India and thus expand his business and his profits. So he loaded his goods on camels and came to India, and to the court of the vigorous but childless king, Anangpal Tomar, along with his beautiful daughter. He offered Anagpal his daughter in marriage. “I know that you will have children with her.”

The marriage was consummated, the child was conceived, but the older, queen was jealous. While the younger queen was pregnant she forbade Anagpal from meeting her, and when the child was born, she threw him out on a garbage pile, ghor in Sanskrit.

The child was picked up by a passing childless potter, who then brought him up as his own. When the child was seven years ago, King Anangpal passed a judgement which dissatisfied his people. The potter’s son suggested another way in which judgement could be done. The news spread like wildfire and reached the palace.

Fearing the king’s wrath a servant from the palace went and told the potter who his son really was, and asked him to send the child off to Afghanistan, to his grandfather.

Years later Mohammad Ghori marched on Delhi to reclaim his inheritance, and Jaichand joined him. Prithviraj was defeated. Lad Singh, a soldier in Jaichand’s army settled in what was to become Lado Sarai village. His four sons lived in four domed structures, four gumbads which existed there prior to their settlement, and around these domes the village of grew.

Karan Pal Singh, about seventy years old, who told me this story, also told me, There are three kinds of history. One is those written in school books. This is written by those in power, and cannot be trusted. Then there is the history by the person who sits with books and tries to make sense of the past for himself. The third is oral tradition, what people remember from what ancestors tell them. There is some truth in both of these.

Friday, February 17, 2006

this is not photoshopped!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


SOAP, or SOP - Statement of Academic Purpose.

When you squeeze your intellectual life upto this point, and what you plan to do with it for the next few years (and the rest of your life) into two pages.

What follows is most of the text of mine - I applied to a few places in the States this past December, and have so far recieved one offer of full funding for a PhD in History, to study the politics around ruins in Delhi...

A bit pompous, I must admit, but a fun read I think.

I came to Delhi when I was eighteen years old. I fell in love with this modern city full of broken walls and derelict domes. I knew, I know the sadness it takes to resuscitate Carthage.

I studied history for three years in Delhi University, environs rich in remembrance, but only as ‘historic’ as one chose them to be. I chose them to be historic, to be weighty with the burden of past ‘events’; with the outbreak of rebellion in colonial cantontments, with the establishment of imperial durbars, with viceregal marriage proposals, and so on. It was a solitary, geeky pleasure - to inhabit a landscape so different from everyone else’s.

I read as much as I could about the history of the city, fascinated as I was by its profusion of ‘medieval’ ruins, manifest traces of the past. I started taking people for walks through landscapes thick with events, my city as palimpsest, reconstructed from chronicles, histories, architecture. (I have written up a set of these walks for students of Delhi schools) I was and continue to be part of the loose movement of conservation of Delhi’s built heritage.

I went on to study photography and the theory and practice of film-making at Jamia Millia Islamia. I began to think of visuality and power. I became acutely aware of the way in which (some) ruins were made into monuments, how the past was appropriated into urban planning, into the grand designs of Empire, and of the post-colonial nation state.

My training as a documentary film-maker also made me very interested in conversations, with the stories people have to tell, with what could be characterized as ethnographic/anthropological encounters. These brought me to the realization that my relationship with the city was not an isolated one; that for many people in the city, its history is very important. That Delhi is not a historical city because of the chronicled events that happened here, but because how important ‘history’ is to those who would make claims of this city, who would call it their own.

The histories that attach themselves to Delhi’s ruins (as opposed to its monuments), are unrecognizable when seen from the archive. For these are not ruins left by wars and bombings as in Europe. These are the traces of long abandoned cities, ruins abandoned by events. Rulers vanish from their palaces to be replaced by vanished saints. The heroes of conventional received histories become the villains. Normative notions of community and communal categorization get thrown out of the window. Time behaves strangely. Not homogenous, certainly not empty. The moments we recognize from the chronicles – 1857, 1947 for example – are strangely reconfigured, and share narrative space with the foundational myths of villages, with stories of migration and violence, with more recent histories of land acquisition and oppositions to it.

In the landscape of a global city, the forlorn remains of the past play a strange and compelling role, standing, as it were, at the messy, overlapping intersection of at least three distinct discourses. One is the discourse of property. The ruins are property, standing on lands claimed by the state for purposes of development and planning and the creation of ‘national’ histories. These claims are challenged in the court of law by referring to the land records of the pre-colonial and colonial states, and to waqf grants. The second is the discourse of memory and identity. People’s genealogies, their stories of being and belonging, are often attached to the ruins they live next to. There are customary, religious usages to the monument which are sometimes invented to challenge the state’s bids of acquisition. The third is the discourse of heritage, which seeks to preserve the ruins as built heritage, to replace them in their context in the chronicles, to preserve them from ‘encroachments.’

The heritage discourse is very popular in Delhi these days. The ‘local’ histories of ruins are unknown. The politics of land acquisition seldom talked about. Any work on ruins at this point which is distinct from both statist and heritage discourse would be invaluable even if only as documentation.

My work on ruins/monuments, oscillating between the ‘archive’ and the field, between records and conversations, between the domains of the historian and the anthropologist(and film-maker), has so far been brief projects on two sites in Delhi - The village/ruin/monument/refugee camp of Purana Qila/Indarpat and the village of Lado Sarai. This work has resulted in a published paper, presentations at international conferences, and a ‘documentary’ film which has been included in the syllabus of Delhi University.

In between, I’ve been busy doing other things. For the past year and a quarter, I’ve been working at the Sarai program of the Centre For Study of Developing Societies. Sarai is a space which encourages both research and practice, and thrives on conversation and debate. While here, I’ve worked and written on multiplexes, on cinema, on Don Quixote. I have extensively photographed, written and walked the city in affective, rather than ‘academic’ registers. But it is, to invert a trope, the ruins that continue to haunt me....

Sunday, February 12, 2006

in the centre of a vanished city

I wrote this almost a month ago, without having been to the Begampuri Masjid for six years, from how I remembered it.

Today, I revisited it, and am glad to say that my evocations were not inaccurate...

How does it feel to stand in the empty heart of a vanished city? Walk past the posh parts of Sarvapriya Vihar, past the grunge and garbage of Begampur Village, and into vast, empty courtyard of the Begampuri Masjid, and perhaps you will feel your heart fill with strange, wild sorrow.

In a town filled with ruins as plentifully as Delhi, it is surprisingly easy to escape the indescribable feeling of sadness that the contemplation of the lost past often induces, and for which ‘nostalgia’ is a very inadequate term. Many of them are living monuments, the past not quite past yet; others have so many tourists with digital cameras as part of the landscape, that ‘the true picture of the past flits by’, unnoticed, unnoticeable.

In the Begampuri Masjid, however, there is nothing to distract from the almost oppressive weight of history. A few goats perhaps, and a miniature group of card players, framed by one of the twenty four arches of the mosque’s massive interior façade, at the far side of an empty courtyard the dimensions of a football field. This was the Jama Masjid, the congregational mosque, of Jahanpanah, the bustling mid fourteenth centre of all the ‘cities’ of Tughlak era Delhi. A city that Ibn Batuta lived in and described with awe and love. A mosque on a high plinth, with forty three now dark domes, which must once have been white and shining. One of the seven great mosques in Delhi said to have been built by Firoz Shah Tughlak’s wazirs, Khan-i-Jahan Telangani and his son. A Jama Masjid comparable in size and in grandeur to the Jama Masjid of what we now know as Purani Dilli. Imagine if that Jama Masjid stood derelict and abandoned, with Shahjahanabad crumbled around it in a heap of ruins.

Imagine the magnitude of loss. The city of Jahanpanah, Refuge to the World, disapperared leaving a few ruins and the ghost of a name. By the nineteenth century there was a village settled inside the courtyard of the mosque, its high walls giving shelter from the tumultuous politics of the disintegration of an Empire. Early last century, the Archaeological Survey removed the village from inside the mosque, to where it is now, huddled around it. A not so secret covered passage leads from the north west of the mosque towards the ruins of a grand palace, the Vijay Mandal, about a hundred metres away. For the Begam who gave the village its name?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Hindustani main ek ghazal

Zard roshni, ujla aasmaan; raat bhar neend kidhar aati hai?
Der saver hi sahi, chithdon main hi, magar aati hai.

Saari sadken ab keval one way, flyoveron ke saaye main
Is sheher ke chhupe raazon ko ab kaun dagar jaati hai?

Bus mein virah ka sticker poochta hai ‘Ghar kab aaoge?’
Usse kehna Blue Line me naa aaye, agar aati hai.

Mere padosiyon ka naam tak mujhe nahin maloom
Hollywood me bewafaiyon ki par roz khabar aati hai.

Sadak paar, hijde ki khoobsoorat aankhon ka ishara
Shareefon ko na karne main bhi sharam magar aati hai

Sheher ek tapti bhatti hai, pak rahe hain gusse
In laakhon bechainiyon ki bhaap kidhar jaati hai?

Dasht e Tanhai main dhoondte hain Aab-e-Hayat
Sahab ko pyaas bhi ek samandar nazar aati hai.
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