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.
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