May 25, 2020
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Humayunpur Diary

The tomb is gone. The Africans are gone. The Pashto-speaking Punjabis are vanishing too. Sunil Menon takes a walk through a city as a form-shifting memoir.

Humayunpur Diary
Illustration by Sajith Kumar
Humayunpur Diary

The Tomb Raiders

If cities are like languages, ‘new New Delhi’ is a pidgin. Not a classical language, nor even a modern one, but an offspring of haphazard post-liberalisation encounters, yet to develop its own grammar of interactions. Nobody’s mother tongue, it only has a series of fathers….

But why are cities like languages? Because they have structure, they evolve, they have morphology—they change form, they are an accumulation of inflections. The other day, a Tughlaq-era tomb turned into a temple deep within the catacombs of Humayunpur. Locals moved in, painted the structure a bright white-and-saffron, planted idols, adorned it with a swastika. BMKJ. As simple as that.

Humayunpur, one of Delhi’s urban villages, forms a curious triad with Safdarjung Enclave and Arjun Nagar. The latter two are mostly Punjabi refugee by ethnography, the differentiator between them being only class. Safdarjung is upper-middle-posh. Outlook sits in one of its messiest corners. A desultory flaneur walk from my office can be like walking through many civilisational layers: an urban palimpsest. Everywhere you see traces of something older, something lost. Once I caught two Sikh shopkeepers chatting in a language that was not Punjabi. “Pashto,” they said, smiling. “We are Kabuli Sikhs.”

And within ten minutes, you are in a Jat village, walking through stricken alleys bullied by vertiginous buildings. You see a lot of Phogat nameplates. Electricity cables make a variety of avant-garde knots and tangles overhead.

Dugga Dugga

Constantly colliding with this trifecta of winners were a few other civilisational wagers. Some endured, making a tenuous peace. The swathe on the far side—near Africa Avenue (the BJP regime under the jolly, unputdownable Madan Lal Khurana had Indianised that to ‘Africa Avenue Marg’!)—has one such sub-ecosystem.

Everyone in Delhi is a bit like those frontiersmen in the Old West, venturing into the unknown. My wife’s grandfather did it twice over. Among the first wave of Bengali settlers to arrive in Delhi after the capital shifted here, he was also among the first to bet on land in this neck of the woods when they started auctioning it in the Sixties. Others followed, marking out portions of the jungle for themselves. They built a Kali temple—it has its own, bustling Pujo. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer-winning physician, grew up here. They called him Bumba. Everyone has 1984 stories, of Sikhs being protected in Bengali houses. If Chittaranjan Park is homogeneously Bongophone, in Safdarjung Enclave Bengali offers a harmonic counterpoint to an already polyglot setting.

Who Moved My Jollof Rice?

One wager that didn’t succeed. For some happy accidental factor, Arjun Nagar had become host to a thriving African expat population in the noughties. They had opened apparel shops, beauty parlours, restaurants. The Indian Express had done a feature on this Little Africa. After a first exploratory sally, I used to troop down regularly to an eatery called Many’s Square, run by George, a portly Nigerian who’d settled down and married a Northeastern girl. In 2013, I’d taken a tremulous step into the intrepid world of food reviewing with this place. For years after that, my daughter would beseech me for a visit. Last year, we finally went and…shock! No Many’s Square. Worse, no Africans. There had been some sort of an exodus. We ask around. It seems they were pretty much hounded out by the locals. We spot a lone African lady tiptoeing around a puddle in a corner. “All gone,” she says. “If you want African food, there’s a small place down there,” pointing down a rift valley of bylanes. After a huge hunt, we find the place. It’s a house taken on rent by a Cameroonian lady who called herself JB, or some such. A few furtive Africans troop up a flight of stairs to her pad, sit around sofas, drinking beer, having yam and fish, trying to feel at home.

Drop Me Near Deer Park

They say every cell in your body changes every six months, and it depends on what you eat. By which token, I have become smoked pork by now, judging by the tonnes I’ve consumed over the last two years. In Humayunpur, of course. It’s now become something akin to a permanent Hornbill festival, a hub for Northeasterners, and bursts at the seams with shops that sell goodies like axone chutney (fermented soyabeans and that Scoville scale-blaster, Naga ghost chilli)—and eateries from all over the sorority.

My favourites: Mizo Diner, run by an artist, and what in my reckoning is hands down the winner for both nomenclatural and culinary chutzpah, a Manipuri joint called, hold your breath, The Categorical Eat-Pham. Poi, its owner, serves up a blend of Meitei and Tangkhul flavours that enter all your cells in a series of amazing sensory explosions.

We chat about things. He shakes his head in disbelief as I show him images of the templed tomb. Even the BJP councillor, Radhika Abrol Phogat, seems a tad embarrassed, judging from the report. “She’s from Safdarjung Enclave,” says Poi. “Highly educated. LSR, LSE. Has married a Jat architect from Humayunpur.” Not a common street-crossing in these parts. That’s perhaps why a dim appreciation exists of the fact that culture is a double helix. Like the name Humayunpur. A Persian first name for an Uzbek-origin king, and a Sanskrit toponymic suffix.

Like languages, paintings also evolve. The artist rethinks. The word is pentimento: literally, repentance. Humayunpur is a living work of urban art, so who knows? Perhaps.








(Sunil Menon is deputy managing editor, Outlook)


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