Updated: April 1, 2018 5:35:07 am
The marble plinth of the towering sandstone obelisk at Delhi’s Coronation Park is a scribble board of life, love and longing — names, hearts with arrows piercing through them, phone numbers, messages. And aspiration.
“I want to become an Income Tax officer. I hope that happens soon,” reads one such message inscribed beneath the black plaque that announces that it was at this very spot that a British monarch was coronated the “King of India” over a century ago.
Above the aspiring officer’s is another message written in black marker ink: “Aarti wants to become a good stenographer”.
As reports come in from across the country of statues being vandalised or destroyed, at Coronation Park, the statues of British monarch King George V and his imperial notables, removed to this corner of the Capital from Lutyens Delhi many years after Independence, stand vanquished by time.
A group of young men, all in their early 20s and wearing track suits and joggers, run across the length of the half-complete, dust-filled park, that is spread across 20 acres in north Delhi. It’s late afternoon and the sun is still bright. Gasping for air, one of them halts to grab a bottle of water.
“He is my cousin,” says 23-year-old Alok, handing the runner a bottle. “He is preparing for the physical (test) for the job of a constable in the Uttar Pradesh Police. I am sure he will clear the test this time,” he says as he watches his cousin race towards the western flank of the park, before disappearing into a group of boys playing volleyball.
“We live in Loni (Ghaziabad)… it’s a few kilometres from here. We are preparing for government jobs and go to a coaching centre in nearby Mukherjee Nagar. We come here after our classes. He runs for the physical (test) with his friends, while I prepare for the SSC paper (Staff Selection Commission exam),” says Alok as he takes out from his bag a copy of Pratiyogita Darpan, a magazine for competitive exams, the latest issue of which has Prime Minister Narendra Modi on its cover.
Like many others, Alok is unaware of the park’s historical significance. Unaware that on a cold, sunny December morning, 107 years ago, some 562 kings and princes of India had lined up to pay their allegiance to British monarch King George V and Queen Mary at the very spot where he is sitting.
Unaware that the meandering road that he took from Kingsway Camp to reach the park, in a cramped battery-operated rickshaw, was sprinkled with oil so that the dust didn’t rise to the monarch’s face during the procession ahead of the historic Delhi Durbar in 1911, held to commemorate the coronation in Britain a few months earlier of George V and his queen.
In his novel Twilight in Delhi, scholar Ahmed Ali had described the procession thus: “The procession passed, one long unending line of generals and governors, the Tommies and the native chiefs with their retinues and soldiery, like a slow unending line of ants. In the background were the guns booming, threatened the subdued people of Hindustan.”
While the obelisk was built by the British to mark the Durbar, the statues — of King George V, along with that of his nobles, officers and viceroys — came here much later. According to some accounts, it was in 1968, nearly two decades after India gained Independence, that the statues were moved from Central Delhi and dumped in this park, then a desolate and marshy ground overlooking the Yamuna floodplain, making it a graveyard of British Raj relics.
They stood that way for years, on red sandstone pedestals surrounded by tall grass, creepers and trees, confined within a 5-ft-tall wall, topped with barbed wires, that ran along the perimeter of the park.
In 2011, when the government decided to mark the centenary of the 1911 Durbar, the statues got a new lease of life. They were taken out of their confinement and placed around the obelisk pillar: three to its right and two to its left.
If the history of the park is a chapter he missed, Alok sees his present through the prism of his immediate concern — the exam he hopes to crack. “Dost, itihaas waale section mein ye nahin poochcha jaayega ki yahan kya hua tha. Ye bhale poochch lein ki Durbar kis saal mein laga tha (Friend, in the history section of the SSC exam, they are not going to ask what happened in this park; they may ask though which year was the Delhi Durbar held). Similarly, they may ask who won in Tripura; not whose statue was pulled down. Bas, pehle naukri toh lag jaaye, phir ye sab bhi jaan lenge (Anyway, let me get a job, then I’ll learn all this),” he says.
It was the pulling down of the Lenin statue in Tripura after the BJP win that set off attacks on statues across the country.
Some yards away, standing beneath an imposing statue of white marble, 28-year-old Anil Tomar is full of despair.
A resident of Sonipat in Haryana, Anil says he fell on hard times after he lost his job at a factory six months ago. “I have mouths to feed. Someone I knew helped me get this job,” says Anil, one of 28 security guards hired by a private contractor for the park.
He is not happy with the upkeep of the park, he says. “The contractor who was to make this theatre (an amphitheatre) has left. The paths have not been paved. The plants have not been planted. The statues are broken,” he adds, pointing to the statue above him, its face defaced.
“He was a British king, wasn’t he? Look at his clothes,” says Anil, pointing to the statue’s long ermine robes in marble, the Imperial Crown of India atop his head and the Royal Victoria Chain dropping from the edge of his shoulders.
“Raja hi tha wo (He was indeed the king),” he now says with confidence.
The statue is of King George V. Sixty feet tall, flanked by trees of babul and keekar, the statue once occupied the power centre of the British Raj — the Kingsway, now Rajpath. It was housed within a 73-ft-tall dome-shaped canopy of red sandstone, which Edward Lutyen had designed taking inspiration from the 6th Century pavilion at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. From 1936, the year King George V died, till the late 1960s, the statue, with an orb in one hand and sceptre in the other, stayed in this canopy, overlooking the All India War Memorial, now India Gate.
Neither the history of these statues nor the present politics over other fallen ones amuses Anil. His concern is different. “Jo bana hai, ushko achche se rakhna chahiye. Park bandh ho gaya toh phir nayi jagah naukri dekho (What has been built should be maintained well. If this park shuts, I will have to go looking for another job).”
Anil lives with some of his co-workers in the nearby Jharoda village.
Meanwhile, though work on the park is at a halt since 2011, it earned the praise of the American Historical Council last August amid a debate in the US on the place of Confederate monuments in public spaces following violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“…all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place… Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary,” it stated.
On the north side of the park, near a white marble statue of a sword-carrying British noble in a long cloak, Santosh, a civil services aspirant, sits, unmindful of the noisy children playing on plastic slides.
For Santosh, the park is the space he craves for amidst the congested and densely populated lanes of Nirankari Colony and its adjacent villages. “My friends and I are preparing for our civil services exam (to be held in June). We stay in a small room nearby… I come here in the afternoons because it’s open and airy,” says the 25-year-old, who came to Delhi two years ago from Begusarai in Bihar.
He couldn’t clear the UPSC exams in his first attempt. “So I am now taking classes at an IAS academy in Mukherjee Nagar. Let’s see what happens,” he says.
He can identify the white statue overlooking him. “It’s of Lord Hardinge, one of the Viceroys of India. He had survived the bomb attack,” he says, referring to the ‘Delhi conspiracy case’ of 1912, when revolutionaries had hurled a bomb at the Viceroy riding an elephant at Chandni Chowk.
The life-size statue of Hardinge once stood at the foot of the Jaipur Column at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Refusing to wade into the debate over statues, Santosh packs his small bag, a bottle of water and some pages of handwritten notes. “Statues hata dene se itihaas thode hi badal jaata hai (Getting rid of statues doesn’t change history),” he says, leaving.
There is a new group in the park: of teenage boys practising for a dance show.
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