Wednesday, March 29, 2006


I thought of this image when I read about the Nangla Majhi demolitions yesterday.
A shop being dismantled before the bulldozers come in. Jama Masjid, September 2005.
Part of the transformation, the sanitisation of the city for the Commonwealth Games - The Pushta, Jama Masjid, Nangla.
Part of the process of the transformation of a Walled City to a World City.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

graveyard shift

A friend was doing a photographic project on Living Spaces. So I took her to a cemetery.

The Lothian Cemetery is possibly the oldest Christian cemetery in Delhi, just about two hundred meters from the Red Fort as the crow flies, sandwiched now between the Kashmiri Gate GPO and the pink Lothian (railway) Bridge. The oldest readable inscriptions are from the early nineteenth century. British men and women in their mid twenties being cut down by dysentery and heatstroke. Children dying of the now unimaginable rigours of journeying from Banaras to Calcutta. A huge Celtic cross off to the left, ‘In Memoriam MDCCCLVII.’ Remembering 1857. ‘This cross is sacred to the memory of those whose nameless graves lie around.’

But the place is nowhere as grim as I’ve made it sound. The cross is sort of broody, but on the day late in January when we were there, the small homes on three sides of its base were still cheerfully festooned with Christmas decorations. On the fourth side is a large open space, which is the centre of the settlement in the graveyard. Here a cement platform has been built, possibly over some of those nameless graves. On this a group of children were busy playing pitthu. Those who weren’t busy teaching lattu stunts to my friend, that is. Or the one singing impressively offkey hymns in between snatches of ‘Aashiq Banaya Aapne’. Chickens clucked around. Adults soaked up the sun. We spoke about car thefts. It was a beautiful day.

There are about 35 homes inside the Lothian cemetery, all small single storey asbestos roofed structures. All belonging to members of one large extended Christian family, though belonging to different denominations. A great grandfather used to be chowkidar of the cemetery ‘in the time of the British’. His family has since, gradually, been moving in from the Meerut countryside. Vinod Jacob, who stitches lawyer’s robes and supplies a largely Supreme Court clientele with their legal black regalia, remembers coming about twenty five years ago, but his brother was already here. He doesn’t know how old the settlement is, but he does know that they have electricity bills dating back about fifty years. He studied in the school founded by Begam Samru in Sardhana.

Vinod got us tea and bread pakoras. If we hadn’t had lunch already, he was ready to cook us some. And buy us some beer. But we were in a hurry. It felt criminal to leave such a happy place, where one of the darkest chapters of the city’s history is made bearable by Christmas celebrated by the living, and the laughter of children at play. The Lothian cemetery is a world removed from the sad and terrifying Nicholson Cemetery, colonized by monkeys and kites and overgrown weeds, less than a kilometre away.

To break the ice at the beginning of our conversation I had asked Vinod, ‘You live in a cemetery. Aren’t you afraid of the ghosts?’

He had laughed. ‘There are no ghosts here. I never feel uncomfortable. The only place where I’ve felt their presence is in Goa.’

Perhaps because the unnamed dead of 1857 here rest in peace. A peace created by those who have chosen to live here amidst the graves.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

(not so)sneak preview

Some of you may recognise what follows from earlier in the blog.

This, as far as I am concerned, is going to be the last and final draft (at least for a while) of what is the beginning of a larger work on Delhi - a book which will be homage to this city that I have lived in and loved obsessively for almost eight years, my entire adult life, and which, inshallah, I should be leaving for a while in a few month's time.

After all, love affairs sometimes need distance to get things into perspective.

So bring on the questions, comments, suggestions, brickbats, book contracts... :-)


Or, Beginning at the End

Is the city an apt metaphor for that metaphor we know as 'the heart'? A metaphor for that matrix of memory, lust, pain, laughter, occasional ecstasy, and long stretches of disaffected brooding which cannot possibly reside in any one organ, or any one body?

My heart is a walled city. A trading town with many gates. And many streets that end in secrets, in memories and dreams too whimsical to share. Like a city that I imagine/remember/inhabit, where there is a street known as the Abode of Nightingales.

This city is my heart, it animates me. And I remember that once caravans came here, through fourteen gates, bringing a thousand tongues. Then the poet drank diluted French wine with the preacher, the mad Armenian threw off his clothes, the shoemakers laid siege to the Mosque and rained slippers from its high towers. The condemned in chains were paraded on elephants through the streets, there were drunken brawls and savage pillage, cheating, backstabbing, but yet the occasional ethereal song, an exquisite turn of verse, a sudden smile on the street. Those sunlit moments when you could see the truth in the court hack – its towers are the resting place of the sun.

One day, you came. And it was as if all the sacks of spices near the Bitter Well had suddenly burst. Your many fragrances spread everywhere in my city, my heart. You could be found in the most secret places, even in the derelict houses that had been lying empty for years. The pigeons flew up into the mad winds of spring, as the sound of laughter returned to empty courtyards, basking in the dusty light of the winter sun.

The city was more beautiful now than it had ever been. Hesitant urgent whispers remembered the old writing on the palace walls, a prophecy now transmitted through the city, perhaps to come true. That if there is paradise on earth…

But we were now afraid of everything we had to lose. Afraid of what lay beyond the walls. Our city was under siege, and it was unthinkable that the gates were open so wide when every horse was Trojan. One by one the gates were shut.

The city changed. Who can say exactly why? Perhaps only because a siege, real or imagined, makes cities run out of food, and water, and love and kindness. And what remains is the desperate fury of cutthroats. We never ate rats, it is true, but we tore each other’s hearts out. I can't remember who called the bulldozers, but now the roads are lined with rubble, and ruins grin at each other across the wide expanses.

Broad avenues built atop ruins. A new city rises, occasionally haunted. The river is a ghost, shifted away and shriveled up. The city is big hearted, river-wide; millions of lives flow in, flow through. The city pumps blood, pumps money; where arterial roads are too narrow, they make bypasses. Town planners and cardiologists flourish. People are sometimes forced to flow.


How can one pass through a gate no longer there? Those few that are left are islands, with the traffic and commerce of the city swirling around them, isolated behind iron fences. It is impossible to return now, and impossible to leave. The only one who tries is The Mad One, he who seeks solace in ruins; imagining, remembering and inhabiting the city that was, and prodding the scabs of this city, his heart.


Abode of Nightingales is a very loose translation of Bulbulikhana, a street near Turkman Gate, one of the fourteen historic gates of Shahjahanabad/Old Delhi. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (d. 1862), is the best known poet of nineteenth century Delhi, known for his fondness of wine, particularly many cupsa day of watered French stuff; and for his scathing, achingly beautiful poetry of heartbreak and humour, which never failed to take on the righteous - Kahaan maikhane ka darwaza Ghalib, aur kahaan waayiz?

Sarmad Shahid is Delhi’s best known Armenian, a seventeenth century Armenian Jew who became a Muslim mystic, wandered naked through India, fell in love with a sweetvoiced Hindu lad, settled on the steps of the grand mosque of the Mughal Empire’s grandest city when it was still being built, and acquired one hell of a fan following. The same mosque was occupied by rioting mochis in The Shoemaker’s Riot, Delhi, 1729. Nothing of the sort happened, despite the lamentation, when Sarmad’s patron and once crown prince was paraded thorugh Delhi on the way to certain death in 1649.

Bitter Well is a loose translation of Khari Baoli, the area known for its wholesale spice market. Inscribed in Persian on the walls of the Diwan-I-Khas of the Red Fort, along with the Scales of Justice – Agar firdaus bar ru e zaminast/ Haminasto haminasto haminast; If there is paradise on earth It is this, it is this it is this. They did eat rats in Paris, City of Lights, during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian war, 1870-71. The first large scale demolitions in Delhi happened after the siege of 1857. Almost as bad, the Emergency visiting Turkman Gate, 1975. And the current spate of demolitions to spruce the city up for the Commonwealth Games, 2010.

The Mad One is a precise translation of the Arabic al-Majnoon, better known as Majnu.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

This blog has a habit of being sort of shy and reticent and disappearing for months while dealing with emotional trauma. But I just saw Brokeback Mountain, and yes, life is fine, but suddenly a whole torrent of sorrow has welled up, a whole silt flood of memories hurtling downriver...

For all the loves, all the lives that could have been but didn't make it. For all the impossible loves that can never have happy endings.

I wish I knew how to quit you.

... Aloneness... A door closing, a clicking down of a phone, a cheery goodnight on the road at night. These kill you quicker than encephalitis and slower than old age. Isolated frames, cut off from each other like prisoners in separate cells, each human being trapped inside the sealed aircraft of his own life, watching the others go down, one after the other, but being able to do nothing to help.
... How can I bring a tongue to all the unsayable things in my life? Things that look at each other and drop their eyes in shame and pain and sidle away this way and that, scurry like rats over the edges of my conscience into the not-looking, into not-acknowledgement, into the cement of amnesia.

Every place in this city is a memory of loss.
Every place in this city is a loss of memory.

Ah, the fringe benefits of researching multiplexes...

Monday, March 06, 2006


The beginnings of a rant against...

I could loathe it just for the names. Beverley Park, Windsor Court, Richmond Park, Malibu Towne. Or be enthralled and repelled by the surprising French-ness of the spellings. Malibu Towne, Traffice Police, Margine Traffic Ahead. But why hate a place for wanting so desperately to be elsewhere? For being aspirational, upwardly mobile and screamingly schizophrenic? For paying semiotic homage to Amreeka, Vilayat and the French all at once? So no, I will not hate Gurgaon. I will try and love it for all it has to offer.

I love it, for starters, for the dust. Dust which rises out of the massive excavations where the basement parking lots of future mega malls will soon be built. Dust which piles up ankle deep along the side of the massive elevated superhighway being built to connect Gurgaon to the International Airport. Dust which blows into your eyes, your hair, your nose if you try anything as daft as actually walking in Gurgaon, negotiating the roads outside of the sealed environs of an airconditioned vehicle.

The ever present dust, the absence of footpaths, the general chewed up scruffiness of everything but the mall fronts – Gurgaon is one of those boom towns straight out of the Wild West, where they built opera houses in the desert heat without actually going to the bother of building hospitals and schools, or even having an audience. There is a faint robber baron gold rush gleam to all those mirrored buildings, like they have been willed here by some megalomaniac from a Werner Herzog film. Like Fitzcarraldo building an opera house in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Door in The Wall

Friday, March 03, 2006

ellora, khuldabad, daulatabad

trying to journey through a few spaces and many times
in this month's Outlook Traveller

I have become a lover of footnotes, and of footpaths. Of marginal roads that branch off from the rumbling juggernaut highways of national history, and disappear into the uncleared undergrowth of the past: forgotten, ignored, unconsidered.

I am in love, for instance, with this brief aside to a long and involved tale of royal intrigue in Delhi and Gujarat. Sometime in 1307 or so, in the time of Alaudddin Khalji, an army from Delhi camped on the banks of a river, a farsang from Devagiri, now known as Daulatabad. Three or four hundred Turkish soldiers asked, and were granted permission, to see the famous temples of Ellora.

Almost exactly seven centuries later, as one of a few thousand people visiting the stunning rock hewn shrines of Ellora on a single day, I wish that these soldiers were remembered somewhere. There aren’t many places in the world, I would think, with records of their first tourists going back seven hundred years. Why should the ‘history’ of a place not include the breathless presence of all those who have gaped at it over the centuries? Why should the history of Ellora, as told in the signage and the guide books, not tell us that in a letter recording a visit to Khuldabad, Daulatabad and Ellora, Aurangzeb described the Kailash Temple as ‘one of the wonders of the work of the true transcendent Artisan’?


To get a true sense of what Aurangzeb was talking about, you have to climb a steep footpath up the cliffside into which the Ellora caves are excavated. The geode and guidebook sellers will recommend it too, ‘Photo bahut accha aata hai.’ As you walk up the side of the cliff suddenly you are level with the top of the very inaptly labeled ‘Cave 16’, the Kailash Nath Temple. It is breath taking when seen from ground level, with its monumental proportions and exquisite, alive carving. You can feel Ravana’s ten heads screaming with the effort of trying to shake Mount Kailash. But you can also get thrown by the women in burqas posing with him. But from on top, the people and their clamour echoing in the carved spaces a hundred feet below fades away, and there is nothing to distract you from the awesome magnitude of what’s been achieved here – in panoramic wide angle top down view.

The Kailash Nath temple is an almost complete paradigm shift from the fifteen caves that come before it. It is not architecture, really speaking, but sculpture on a gigantic scale. From the top, from where you stand, the basalt rock was carved downwards, many thousands of tons of it removed, and the remains chiseled into the exquisite beauty of this, the largest monolithic structure in the world. What is even more remarkable is that though it is said to have been started in the reign of the Rashtrakuta King, Krishna I (756-774), the vision was carried forward over a hundred and fifty years till its final adjective crunching execution.

The footpath carries on, along the top of the cliff, a shortcut from the village of Ellora/Verul to the walled town of Khuldabad, where Aurangzeb himself lies buried, exhausted by old age and the constant struggle of expanding Empire southwards. As you walk along, through a scenery of rolling hills and no tourists, you come to a group of dark stone tombs gathered on a grassy plain, on the edge of a cliff. The grandest of them all, with the most exquisitely carved jalis, is that of Malik Ambar.

Malik Ambar was a habshi, an Ethiopian slave brought to India via the slave markets of Baghdad to serve the Deccan sultanate of Ahmednagar. In time he rose to become the leader of the resistance to the Mughals trying to expand southwards in the time of Akbar and Jahangir. Eighty years before Shivaji, his soldiers called him Peshwa. He never lost a battle. Today, a ten minute walk from the Ellora caves, he lies completely ignored, his tomb an echo chamber amplifying the cricket game played by its side.

It is only appropriate to pay homage to him before proceeding to the mazaar of Aurangzeb, in the compound of the dargah of Shaikh Zainuddin, in the time stopped town of Khuldabad. He lies buried in a simple earthen grave, with a tulsi plant growing out of it. A blind man recites his litany. This is the only place where Aurangzeb found peace.

Towards the end of his life, he could already foresee the end of Empire, the fighting among his sons - ‘yak anar, sad beemar’ is attributed to him in these last days, still master of the pithy Persianism. Ek anar sau beemar.


Khuldabad. Abode of heaven. Also, known as Karbala, or as the valley of the saints, for the sheer density of fourteenth century sufi shrines here. Including that of Zainunddin, the Aakhri Khwaja, the last disciple. The last in a long line of Sufis, all disciples of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, all spread out on the road between Delhi and Daulatabad, as traveled by Mohammad bin Tughlak when he transferred his capital, and his people. The Sufis came south with him, and though the stories say that he marched all the people back again, the Sufis stayed. Here, in the abode of heaven, this still peaceful place, ten kilometers short of the abandoned city of Daulatabad. Zainuddin, Burhanuddin Gharib, Zar Zari Zar Baksh…

This has to be sacred ground. Khuldabad and its saints are less than two kilometers away from the caves of Ellora, sacred to Buddhists, Jains and Hindus. Where Tibetan refugees still tie white scarves around the hands of seated Buddha idols in long abandoned monasteries. And Daulatabad, before Muhmmad bin Tughlak made it the abode of wealth, was Devgiri, the hill of the gods.


‘…wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant…’

When Daultabad first hoves into view, driving south from Khuldabad, it’s very hard not to think of Tolkien’s description of Sauron’s Dark Tower. Three massive rings of fortification, black basalt rock thrusting teeth into the sky. A slender tower almost as tall as the Qutub Minar. A conical hill two hundred metres tall, with its sides cut sheer to fall away into a massive moat excavated out of the rock, a feat of engineering on the same vertiginous scale as Ellora. Once past the moat, you reach the Andhari, the only way up to the top of the Fort, a dark tunneled labyrinth where the only illumination is torches, and where the defenders could pour everything from pitch to boiling oil on those who had managed to get this far. And then a hard steep climb up up up, long and steep enough to be a pilgrimage. On top finally, where a cannon sits on the very pinnacle of the hill of the gods, with many, many Kims astride it, and cell phones ringing.

The first time I came here the monsoon rains had just begun, and I trudged up alone through the drizzly afternoon, all alone at what seemed to be the end of the world. The walls that once surrounded a whole bustling city stretched all the way to the rain green hills around. But the city itself was gone, reduced to the stalls selling guavas to the tourists at the base of the fort.

How long does it take to build a city? How soon does it take to disappear? Even with the raucous happy chatter of school kids on excursion all around, being atop Daulatabad Fort induces deep melancholy. There is a scene from ‘Tughlak’ where Girish Karnad imagines Muhammad bin talking to a young soldier guarding the battlements of this fort at night, and lamenting that his world had grown old, and bereft of beauty and possibilities. Tughlak’s empire broke apart, with Daulatabad as the centre where the Bahmani dynasty of the Deccan broke away from his Empire. Then Daulatabad became part of the sultanate of Ahmadnagar, defended by Malik Ambar. After his death it was captured by Shah Jehan, then as the Empire crumbled it became part of the Nizam’s dominions, with a brief two year interregnum under the Marathas. Even the most impregnable of forts can’t save you from being laid low by politics, and treachery.

There is a mosque at the base of the fort, built by Qutbuddin Mubarak Khilji in 1318, when he conquered Devagiri and annexed it to the Sultanate of Delhi. The mosque is said to have been built on the remains of a Jain temple. On the 17th of September, 1948, immediately after the accession of the Hyderabad Nizam Shahi to the Indian state, an idol was installed in the central mihrab of the mosque, a year before the idol of Ram Lalla was placed inside the mosque at Ayodhya. This was an idol of Bharat Mata, Mother India. To this day, the mosque is known as the Bharat Mata Mandir, and a pujari blesses those who visit the eight armed idol, remarkably like an idol of Durga, bearing a sword and a snake and a bowl of fire.

It feels like a desecration of this sacred ground. My country doesn’t need to be worshipped through revenge for historical wrongs, whether real or imagined. I bow my head to “Mother India”, sadness welling in my heart. I ring the bell, rubbing the tika from my forehead. I walk out into the courtyard, the broken stunted pillars are rows of sundials, casting long shadows in the sun, marking the passing of time. I yearn with what cannot be nostalgia – for I have never known what I know I have lost. I yearn to know the innocence of being an incidental tourist at Ellora, circa 1307.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

moments from the margins of the anti bush march - 4 Posted by Picasa

moents from the margins of the anti bush march - 3 Posted by Picasa

moments from the margins of the anti bush march - 2 Posted by Picasa

moments from the margins of the anti bush march -1 Posted by Picasa
Listed on BlogShares