“Did you know there was only tall, wild grass here once upon a time? Nilgai would come to graze right where we are sitting and grazing today,” said Delhi’s beloved chronicler Ronald Vivian Smith, with a chuckle, as we ate cucumber sandwiches on the India International Centre (IIC) lawns last August.
Conversations with Smith, who turned 83 in January, traversed through anecdotes, stories of odd dishes and lanes, and were peppered with tales and fables of the kings and ghosts who inhabited the Capital. On Thursday morning, Smith — author, columnist, journalist — passed away at a city hospital after a brief illness.
With 11 books and countless columns on Delhi’s rich culture and history across major dailies to his credit, Smith is survived by his wife Elvina, and children Enid, Bunny, Esther, Tony and Rodney. His funeral service took place at the Burari Christian cemetery on Thursday afternoon, with just six people in attendance due to the lockdown.
His son Tony (48) told The Indian Express, “He had a breathing problem and recently suffered from a kidney ailment too. He complained of shortness of breath on Monday and we rushed him to the hospital. He wasn’t really conscious these last few days, and kept asking for his mother.”
An Agra boy, born to Anglo-Indian parents, Smith’s love affair with Delhi began in the 1960s when he moved to the city and started to work at the Press Trust of India. He had a room at the Naaz Hotel in Jama Masjid, and then moved to a permanent room at the Azad Hind hotel. Smith often mentioned how his room at Naaz Hotel was earlier occupied by the legendary painter M F Husain.
“Soon, he got a job at The Statesman, from where he retired as News Editor in 1996. Even after he got married and had us, he stayed at the hotel. He loved the Walled City and we grew up there, and moved to our house in Mayapuri in 1978,” said Tony.
His books such as Delhi: Unknown Tales of a City and Delhi That No One Knows have informed readers about the many suggested names of Chandni Chowk, the kebabs and parathas of Gali Paranthe Wali, Holi and Diwali in the havelis of Old Delhi, and of course, the ghosts that roam those streets.
A few months ago, Smith asked me to stand on the steps of the Jama Masjid and look at the balcony of Haji Hotel, where I would see its owner and his friend Haji Faiyazuddin. “He will tell you everything you want to know about Old Delhi like he has told me for decades… everything, except the number of his bank account. Meet him, tell him Smith sent you,” he had said, grinning toothily.
On Thursday afternoon, as the 82-year-old owner of Haji Hotel found out about Smith’s demise, he recalled their days of youth spent in the hotel balcony in the company of poets. “He went to an English medium school but loved Urdu poetry. We would eat at Karim’s, talk about language, monuments, havelis, Begum Samru for hours and he would put those details in his book. I was always Haji Miyaan for him,” recalled Faiyazuddin, choking up over the phone.
Every year, Faiyazuddin sends biryani, korma, kebabs and paan to Smith’s house in west Delhi’s Mayapuri after Bakr Eid. “Badi mohabbat thi unse. My father Zahooruddin and Smith’s father Thomas were close friends, and would meet for a meal every time the Smiths would visit from Agra,” he said. Smith’s last book, Delhi’s Curly Tales (2018) is dedicated to Faiyazuddin: “the successor of a historic family of Delhi and a repository of cultural heritage of the Walled City”.
Smith studied English literature in college in Agra. It was in the 1950s that he began writing under the guidance of his father Thomas Smith, an English teacher in Agra, who too went on to work at The Statesman, and was a master chronicler of Agra. Smith compiled a book of his father’s pieces and his own, which he self-published, and also wrote about his family in The Smiths of Agra.
“His father got him a typewriter, and till January this year — just before he fell sick — he used a typewriter,” said Tony, who often typed out his father’s pieces on a computer and sent them to editors.
In the 1990s, Smith began his column at The Hindu, and also worked at The Indian Express briefly. His last column appeared in The Hindu on April 25.
A column by Smith in 2011 was the beginning of his friendship with Delhi-based advocate Udayan Tandan. The 30-year-old told The Indian Express, “I read his column and wrote him a letter to which he was kind enough to respond to. I met him as his reader, and soon we became friends. He had a story for every occasion. He lent me a copy of The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and I told him how much I enjoyed it, so when the author was visiting Delhi, he took me along to meet her. That I could not be a part of his last journey is heartbreaking.”
Writer Sadia Dehlvi, who called him Ronnie, reminisced about Christmas meals at the Smiths’ in the 1980s, and the regard that the late Khushwant Singh had for Smith’s writings on Delhi. “Ronnie was also a romantic, I still remember the lovely poem he wrote for me,” Dehlvi said.
Historian Narayani Gupta remembers Smith as a “humble chronicler of the city, who would call to check facts, and had no problem in being corrected. It was a rare attribute.”
City chronicler and writer Sohail Hashmi credited Smith with bringing Delhi to life for those who do not know the city at all. “His contribution to the city is absolute,” Hashmi said.
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