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From Monument To Metropolis

The intellectual life of the city has acquired a vigour not to be found even inside the Washington beltway (or so a Chicago professor told me). Delhi, in short, makes me wish I could live my life over, once again.

From Monument To Metropolis

In a few days, I will have lived in Delhi 60 years. When I came to live here on March 8, 1946, the past dwarfed the present. The modern city consisted of little more than what is now called Lutyens’ Delhi. It began at Minto Bridge and ended at Sujan Singh Park. North of Minto Bridge one meandered down a narrow road through sparse jungle till confronted by the forbidding silhouette of Khooni Darwaza—the Mughal execution gate. A few hundred metres beyond it stood Delhi Gate. The ramparts of Shahjaha-nabad stretched unbroken on both sides of it. Asaf Ali Road was not even a glimmer in a greedy developer’s eye.

Beyond Daryaganj, the Red Fort towered out of a plain that swept up unbroken to Jama Masjid. All the power of the Mughal imagination was still there to savour in that vista. Kashmiri Gate was still intact and we passed daily through it, never dreaming that one day it would become a DDA storage site for uncut stone. The walls on both sides were intact and pockmarked by the cannonballs of the British as they attempted to retake the city in 1858. 

We lived in Sujan Singh Park at the southern limit of the new city. The jungle of keekar and babul began just beyond the Humayun Road T-junction and stretched almost unbroken till Mathura. Purana Qila, the Lodhi tombs and Humayun’s Tomb reared out of this jungle. To me, they were both sentinels of the past and dimly understood, and therefore frightening—reminders of the transience of human life.

The Delhi of the ’40s was beautiful, but it was also lifeless. Everyone in this tiny Imperial town knew everyone else and gossip was the main form of entertainment. There was literally nothing to do. New Delhi had one shopping centre—Connaught Place—and four cinema halls—Regal, Rivoli, Plaza and Odeon. The typical evening’s outing was a stroll on the lawns of India Gate followed by a visit to Bengali Market to eat golgappas and chaat.

Delhi grew exponentially after Independence but its character did not change. The past continued to dwarf the present till well into the ’70s, and the city remained lifeless. The bureaucracy continued to rule. Every fad it could think of was tried out first in Delhi, be it rationing or prohibition. Liquor was taboo except in homes and, later, at five-star hotels. Even the import of Hollywood films was banned. There was an all-pervasive suppression of private enterprise—even middle income housing became a public sector monopoly.

That is why, despite its huge and teeming population, its mad traffic, its impossibly aggressive drivers and the smog of perennial construction that hangs over the city, in the evening years of my life I have grown to love Delhi. For the future has finally freed itself from the shackles of the past.
New restaurants, bars, discotheques, and boutiques, entertainment plazas, multiplex cinema halls and delicatessens are springing up every day. Behind all of these is a new generation of confident young people in their 20s and 30s who are not afraid to take risks, to borrow money and to look all over the world for new ideas. The intellectual life of the city has acquired a vigour not to be found even inside the Washington beltway (or so a Chicago professor told me). Delhi, in short, makes me wish I could live my life over, once again. 

This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, January 31, 2006

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