Two authors representing two generations stand back to back, as if ready to pace off the distance for a duel. Malvika Singh looks back on memories of the Delhi that the Raj left behind, a city of gracious bungalows built by migrants for migrants, where prime ministers drove out in an Ambassador like everyone else and their children shared the citizen’s idea of a good time, which was a drive to India Gate for ice cream from a cart. And with one eye on the future that Delhi is eternally grasping at, Rana Dasgupta regards the rattle and hum of the present-day capital with mingled admiration and perplexity. Both their accounts are true to life, though they are mutually exclusive, hinging on the turning point of liberalisation. But entitlement, the word that has always defined Delhi, is loudly absent from both their narratives. They do talk about it, but they sort of talk around it. They paint jujus of the beast but can’t bring themselves to name it.
In the world remembered by Singh, entitlement is a gracious thing. It consists of listening to Abida Parveen at the Old Fort, eating phulkas with a knife and fork, making Monaco biscuit canapes for extraordinarily posh parties. Dasgupta’s Delhi has left such niceties behind. His portrait of the city begins in a farmhouse whose chief produce is financial power. It ends with a night-crawl with a man on the make, a Walter Mitty figure who dreams of hitting the big time but loathes the high life where big-time connections are made. It is the sort of evening which should logically end in a five star coffee shop but is doomed to wash up at a bun-omelette cart.
In between, Dasgupta wanders into resettlement colonies which are garbage dumps for the jetsam of the city, the homes of the call centre workers who are the city’s newest migrants, and the warrens of wholesale markets where personal fortunes of thousands of crores float free in hard cash on informal webs of trust. Unaccounted for, untaxed, undeclared, they give P Chidambaram sleepless nights but their owners rest easy in the knowledge that not a rupee will go astray.
Dasgupta’s Delhi could have turned into yet another exercise in airport lounge normalism, adding to the literature of cities which appear to be grimily, grittily identical until you actually go there. Singh’s Delhi could have turned into yet another ubi sunt ode to a Delhi that senior citizens will miss but no one else knows about. They preserve themselves from the banality of genre by giving play to the multiple, contradictory, simultaneous realities of the city.
Indeed, Singh’s reading could be the last hurrah for a great city that is already a dim memory — the Delhi of Nikhil Chakravarty, Girilal Jain, Patwant Singh, Ajit Bhattacharjea, Amita Malik… That is the Delhi she came to from cosmopolitan Bombay, a city of open hearts and minds. Then came the bleaker city of Sanjay Gandhi and Jagmohan. And then there was the city of 1984 when darkness fell and faith died. In between, there are extraordinary scenes like that in which the author, her mother, the editor Raj Thapar and her aunt, the historian Romila Thapar, demolish a bottle of Slivovitz to celebrate the imminent accession of Indira Gandhi, the “goongi gudiya” who would become the most successful prime minister ever.
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Ironically, it is Dasgupta, at the border between the present and the future, who explores the ubi sunt mode, which is typically associated with the past (Where have all the flowers gone? is a contemporary classic). He explores a city which is changing so rapidly that “no one can visit the Delhi they had come from because it no longer exists.” In fact, growing old in Delhi is a process of self-erasure as geographies, communities and even the words used to describe them fall off the map, and people lose touch with their recent selves because they no longer have the words to connect the dots. With that nod to Heraclitus, who established that you cannot cross the same river twice, Dasgupta dives into a series of encounters with a huge cast of characters, from business tycoons to Lamborghini salesgirls, Nagaland lottery hackers and policemen.
Generally, the two writers are oppositional. Singh finds the faceless, replicable branded cafe an inexplicable development after the India Coffee House, which had character and identity. Dasgupta sees the anonymity of Cafe Coffee Day as a great liberator of the youth. Singh declares the Delhi farmhouse to be an execrable attempt at exclusivity by surgical removal of the world. Dasgupta understands that it was never supposed to be organic, never supposed to raise cabbages. But oddly enough, they both ignore some of the most surprising moments in the life of the city. Where is Rahul Goswami, who sparked off the politics of reservation? Mahendra Singh Tikait, who brought the village to the capital, stinks and all? Or the Kalashnikov, which has stalked Delhi for 35 years like a living thing? In Heraclitean Delhi, it appears, it is all too easy to forget.