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The Circle Of Memory

Connaught Place has lost much of its lustre; I've lost my youth; but Delhi hasn't lost all of its enigmatic charm. I still think of it as an irresistible maharani in mad glad rags.

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The Circle Of Memory

It’s a late winter afternoon in the early fifties. Delhi has all but absorbed the hordes of the dislocated and the disinherited refugees from the newly carved Pakistan. I belong to this tribe. Once or twice a week I absent myself from my routine and loaf about. On this particular afternoon, I get off a bus or, perhaps, a phatphatia at Madras Hotel and walk over to the famous paanwala, red in tooth and claw, perched on his little throne in the corner. Fortified by a pan and a Capstan cigarette, I enter the Central News Agency and browse at leisure among the newspapers and journals, foreign and domestic, displayed there. Occasionally, I also buy some weekly or other carrying a piece by me or some friend or foe. I walk over to the foyer of Rivoli where I briefly gaze at the stills of the forthcoming attractions in English and make mental plans to sneak a morning show some day. I cross the street, peer through the windows of American Express with absurd yearning, and move on. The Wenger’s bakery and the restaurant upstairs beckon me in vain—they are for rare occasions. My next stop is Ramakrishna. Owned by an elegant man with handsomely chiselled features, curly hair, a lordly stoop, and a benevolent smile, the place is narrow and crowded and rich with overflowing bookshelves. Prakash, the ever-helpful owner, lets you linger and browse as long as you like; he also fishes out any book that you can’t find. And he gives you generous discounts and lets you buy on convenient credit. We don’t have a bookshop like that anywhere in Delhi now. After resisting many temptations at Ramakrishna, I stop briefly at the office of Shankar’s Weekly in the building that houses Odeon. I hand over my piece sheepishly to the shy assistant editor, Vishvanathan and nod gingerly to Shankar himself. Then I ogle my way through the crowded corridors to the end of the Circle or Circus, cross over to Janpath, vacillate between going to a lecture by Mulk Raj Anand or dropping in at a new art show, and enter instead the Indian Coffee House, the Mecca of obstreperous Delhi intellectuals. It is a smoky womb where you find refuge from your stressful real life. I look around for my cohorts and join them in their noisy debates about fundamental problems facing the nation and the world. A few years later, I’ll devote a whole section of my novel, Bimal in Bog, to Bimal ruminating among the argumentative patrons of this place. The Coffee House serves the best coffee, employs civilised waiters, and is overwhelmingly male in its clientele. Occasional visitors of the other sex are rare sights to feast one’s starved eyes upon. Their male companions invite murderously envious stares. As the night begins to fall, people who have to take a bus or, perhaps, a phatphatia home get restless. I pay my part of the bill, walk out, and take a short cut via Regal to the Madras Hotel.

The Indian Coffee House has had many avatars since then but none worthy of the great original; Connaught Place has lost much of its lustre; I’ve lost my youth; but Delhi hasn’t lost all of its enigmatic charm. I still think of it as an irresistible maharani in mad glad rags. I also think of it as a dear dusty threshold of my vocation as a writer.

This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, December 15, 2005

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