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ETERNAL CITY

Perpetual city: A short biography of Delhi By Malvika Singh, Aleph, Rs 295

A publisher’s request to pen a “short biography” of a city has led Malvika Singh to write a book on Delhi, the city she has come to love. Delhi’s organic ties not only with its resplendent past but also with a promising future form the core of Singh’s reflections. That these links need to be guarded and their legacy celebrated is something that Singh reiterates in this slim volume. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy, lacking the kind of sensibility and vision that Singh brings to her work, has always striven to severe these bonds, thereby imperiling the future.

Singh’s success lies in projecting Delhi not merely as a city-space but also as an idea. This is not to suggest that Singh’s knowledge of Delhi’s map is sketchy. Here is an instance of Singh detailing a location in the capital that is synonymous with State power: “Queensway, …intersects its ‘male’ counterpart at its central axis, flanked by the National Museum and the National Archives, leading on further to Connaught Place, and beyond, to Jama Masjid…bridging the two distinctly different hearts of Dilli.” A visitor on a discovery of Delhi may find Perpetual City to be far more informative, reliable and enjoyable than editions of the Lonely Planet.

Delightful nuggets about ancient structures and localities that remain relatively unknown add to the volume’s appeal. For instance, Malcha Mahal on the Ridge, Singh tells us, was inhabited till recently by the descendants of the last Mughal emperor. Again, Tees Hazari (meaning thirty thousand), where the courts stand today, got its name from the fact that 30,000 Sikh troops had encamped at the spot while on their way to storm the Red Fort.

The city’s association with dynastic power notwithstanding, the essence of Delhi, Singh argues, lies in its culture of inclusion that survives, albeit precariously, in the city’s architectural wonders, gastronomic delights and musical traditions. The institutional neglect of heritage buildings such as Baroda and Patiala House, beautification drives that have altered the Old City’s character, the unabated poisoning of the river, are not merely instances of civic apathy. Singh reminds us of the need to view them as assaults on Delhi’s syncretic identity itself.

Singh unravels Delhi’s recent past by referring to specific epochs: the optimism of the Nehruvian years, the brutalities of the Emergency, the impact of liberalization and, finally, the emerging contours of a truly modern metropolis. Each transitory phase coincides with chapters in Singh’s personal life, a life, its privileges notwithstanding, that has been enriched by the presence of some of India’s best and brightest minds. Singh’s anecdotes — some trivial, others poignant— are an added attraction because they reveal little-known incidents about iconic figures who have shaped the nation’s history. One hilarious incident concerns the wife of a former president who, while drying her hair in the traditional way by lying on a cot with smouldering coal below it, set off the fire alarm, sending the staff in a tizzy. In another tale, Nehru startles Singh and others who had sneaked into Teen Murti House by demanding to be photographed along with them.

But not every story is a celebration of such graceful and humane gestures. In the days after Indira Gandhi’s assasination, Singh recalls attending a dinner in which a senior bureaucrat declared that Sikhs needed to be taught a lesson, forcing her and her husband — a Sikh — to leave the room. Delhi had changed, altering lives and intimate relationships in the process.

Singh remains sceptical about some of the other changes that appear to have swept away the relics of the Delhi of yore. Malls and gated communities dot the city; Masita, which served delectable kebabs near the Jama Masjid, has been demolished. But Kinari Bazaar continues to thrive, even though the dhobis, patwas and kalaiwallahs have dwindled in number. Perpetual City holds out the hope that the past still lurks in the corners for those who seek it.