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"Delhi has no culture"

The generation of immigrants born post-Independence never really got a full sense of the city they had moved to, and instead idealised their native villages.

"Delhi has no culture"
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THERE ARE a few Urdu books that I have fond memories of, though unfortunately I can’t remember the authors’ names. There was Gul Feroz Shah, a slice-of-life portrait of Delhi in Ghalib’s time--it was one of the first works of literature to look at Delhi as a city, with the many daily experiences that are part of life in a city.

In my childhood, my father introduced us to Delhi through a book called Phoolwalon ki Sair, about a festival that is still celebrated in the monsoons at Mehrauli village. The book brought the entire area alive for us.

Then there is Nazir Ahmad’s Mirat ul Urus, another Urdu work that has been translated into Hindi by the Sahitya Akademi. This again is a description of the Old Delhi culture around the area extending from Ajmeri Gate to Kahmere Gate and including the Jama Masjid. It included instructive stories for young girls, teaching them about the right way to behave in accordance with the customs and mores of those times--there would be a short tale about a girl who listened to her parents, another one about a mischievous girl, and so on.

Maheshwar Dayal’s Rediscovering Delhi is full of little nuggets about Delhi that you wouldn’t know even if you’ve been living here a long time. It revisits the city’s past as well. My own book Dil-o-Danish, about a family living in Chandni Chowk in the 1920s, has been translated into English as The Heart Has Its Reasons by Reema Anand and Meenakshi Swami. It was inspired by Begum Samru ki kothi, an old mansion that used to be one of the grandest houses in Old Delhi but is today the location of an electrical goods market. Nirmal Verma’s Raat ka Riporter was an astute account of journalism in Delhi, while Usha Priyamvada, a teacher at Lady Shri Ram College, wrote a fine novel about life in the city, called Pachpan Khambe, Lal Deewarein.

What I’d like to see

It has been a cliché among Hindi-speakers to say "Delhi has no culture". This is because the generation of immigrants born post-Independence never really got a full sense of the city they had moved to, and instead idealised their native villages. Also, many people associate Delhi’s culture with Punjabi culture, which is only part of the story. Urdu poets used to know about the unique romance of Delhi, but this is largely lost to Hindi speakers. I hope today’s youngsters, who have lived their whole lives in the city, will have a chance to rediscover its culture and history, and put it into words.


This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, January 2008

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