There’s national ambivalence about our
capital city. Its broad avenues, late-colonial architecture and general air of
well-ordered self-importance go well with popular notions of what the nation’s
seat of government should be like. But there’s also another stereotype: that
Delhi typifies an India that has lost its soul. With its black money, five-star
hotels and shopping malls, Delhi is a place where tradition, culture and history
have given way to the flyover and the fast-food counter.
So what if Delhi is, as the intelligentsia claim, a parvenu city? It was recreated by those who had lost everything in 1947—men and women of the Punjab, uprooted Sikhs and Hindus, rejects of history who had to carve out their own futures. They worked and struggled and sweated to make it. They were unencumbered by the baggage of the past, for the past had betrayed them. They succeeded, and as a result of their efforts, created the first truly post-colonial Indian city.
So families, which had trudged across the Frontier as refugees, today drive shiny Hondas across flyovers; people whose parents had lost their houses now sip imported wine in fancy restaurants. But instead of applauding them, educated Indians sneer at their crass materialism, lamenting the transformation of a Delhi that was once a byword for elegant poetry, Mughal manners and courtly civilisation.
Old Delhi may indeed have had its attractions, but it was also a moribund place steeped in decay and disease, ossified in communal and caste divisions, exploitative and unjust. Today’s New Delhi—not the musty bureaucratic edifices of government but the throbbing, thriving agglomeration of factories and TV studios, industrial fairgrounds and software consultancies, night clubs and restaurants—is a city that reflects the vigour and vitality of those who have made it. It is far and away India’s richest city; it provides and reflects a stimulus, unfamiliar to the Indian intelligentsia, of enterprise and risk-taking; its people are open and outward looking. They may have forgotten their history but they remember their politics. They may not know why but they know how.
In its urban openness and economic energy, Delhi reminds me, in fact, of the bustling coastal ports of a bygone era. With the advent of jet travel, you don’t need port cities as your principal contacts with the outside world: the ‘coast’ can move inland. New Delhi is India’s contemporary equivalent—bustling, heterodox, anti-ritual, prosperous.
For all its inadequacies, it is a symbol of a country on the move, the urban flagship of a better tomorrow. It will lead India into the 21st century, even at the price of forgetting all that happened in the other 20.
This piece appeared in the October issue of Delhi City Limits.