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Friday, January 21, 2022

The city that chose to forget

Delhi was not the characterless urban space it is today. It knew exile and loss, hopes and dreams, writes Asad Zaidi

Written by Asad Zaidi |
Updated: January 14, 2015 7:59:32 am
Express ideas series, Asad Zaidi, Asad Zaidi column, indian express column, ie column, delhi, delhi peopole, delhi past Delhi has altogether stopped living with the past. It doesn’t remember what it was like before the Emergency, let alone the Nehru era or the pre-Partition days.

When I came to Delhi in 1974, it was generally called a city of the Punjabi refugee, and of the babu. Those babus too liked to see themselves as exiles in a city where nobody belonged. The city always came out worse in any comparison with Mumbai, Kolkata, even Varanasi and Allahabad. Yet, I was startled to find a city full of nostalgia for the old, pre-1947 times, and the lost cultures of Delhi, and also for the lost worlds of Lahore, Multan, Karachi, Hyderabad, Peshawar, Gujranwala, Jhang. So much remorse, regret and sense of loss, however, coexisted with the hegemony of communal and sectarian ideologies over the political and social life of the city. This ran parallel to a very different stream: the national-level political elite and the Central bureaucracy lived a life of their own, which did not extend beyond Lutyens’ Delhi.

In the last 40 years, the refugees, privileged or otherwise, have accumulated from all parts of the subcontinent. Today, Delhi is as much a Bihari city as it is Punjabi, something that many now have come to grudgingly accept. Of course, the middle class continues to see itself as exiles, even when living in gold-plated, gated communities. And the poor of Delhi, so often banished or made invisible, love their city more than its rich, who have a sense of entitlement sans responsibility.

It is a metropolis in the truest sense of the word. Like all great metropolises, it has had its share of organised crime, ruthless exploitation, racketeering, illegality, corruption and murders. Cities are built on crime; good manners come later. Back in the early 1970s, the poor of Delhi did not have to contend with the civic reactionary force of the RWAs and the so-called civil society outfits working in tandem with the national security apparatus. And on the other side of the Yamuna, there was just Shahdara and Laxmi Nagar. There was no Noida, DLF, New Gurgaon, Vasant Kunj, Saket, Dwarka, Rohini, Pitampura, Janakpuri, or Mayur Vihar.

That nostalgia had started receding by the time Sheila Dikshit came to power. It meant Delhi was graduating from being the stomping ground of the likes of Madan Lal Khurana, Sanjay Gandhi, H.K.L. Bhagat and Jagmohan to a corporatised “world city”, in the centre of
a National Capital Region, needing flyovers, expressways, a metro system and a second round of “urban renewal”. This also meant the forced displacement of close to a million workers and underprivileged to the netherworld of resettlement areas far away, leaving them to find their way in commuting back to the city to whose gentry and middle class they provided cheap services.

What has made Delhi so strange and characterless lately is its wholesale loss of memory. It has altogether stopped living with the past. It doesn’t remember what it was like before the Emergency, let alone the Nehru era or pre-Partition days. It is not good at keeping records. Its intelligentsia — technocrats, bureaucrats, academia, media, professionals — is too preoccupied with its own present, which itself is organised around the central obsession of “moving on”. It doesn’t like to be reminded of the views it held or the things it valued till the other day. Its young do not, and perhaps cannot, afford to carry any baggage.

This brings us to a paradox. The city of amnesia also boasts of heritage in every corner. So, we have heritage walks, heritage talks, heritage food, heritage buildings, cultural heritage — a burgeoning industry. The loss of memory is being compensated with manufactured nostalgia and consumerist solutions. It is like saying, “Come and gain a past, reminisce without having to remember.” A sense of challenge, anguish, guilt and pain has gone out of the cultural discourse; indeed, from all creation in the city. What one sees is a round-the-year celebration.

People who come to the city do not come with dreams any more; at best, they come with hopes of careers. The poor come in sheer desperation for livelihoods. Earlier, those who came with dreams also carried a lot of attachment to what they left behind. That is not the case any more. Today, there are no dreams here and no deep roots anywhere else. Without an anchor, the city becomes a terrifying space rather than an exciting place — what is being added on is much poorer in spirit and aspiration. Nobody believes in or hopes for far-reaching political change, the possibility of a more humane, egalitarian society. But one cannot blame the newer and younger populations of Delhi for this. The city no longer stands as a place of democracy, of resistance, of dreams, mass protests, of change through parliamentary politics. The Boat Club was not a tourist spot, it was a place of resistance, of mass democratic expression — a Diwan-e-Aam of Indian parliamentary democracy. It didn’t belong to “them”, it belonged to “us”. That space was ceded too easily to the demands of “security” and the middle-class paranoia of neoliberal times. Paranoia and fear are ever-present in public spaces, instead of fellow feeling and a striving for justice.

If one wants to know the brave new India, it is there in the present Delhi. In that sense, Delhi is distinct from other metropolises, which still retain something of the old. I think they do. It is not a place to grow old or grow up in. For the old and the very young, it is just about the unfriendliest place on earth. It is meant for those whose philosophy is to “move on”. The planners, developers, builders and real estate operators know it too well — they plan, develop, build and sell accordingly. The political class has shaped its personality, and this is how Delhi will remain for decades to come.

Optimists may say that Jantar Mantar is there. The JNU, that “left bastion”, still reverberates with radical slogans and is covered with posters. The anti-Sikh massacre of 1984 is still remembered.

A young girl’s rape did cause huge, unprecedented outrage all over the city and it created an “Occupy”-like atmosphere, Anna Hazare and the Aam Aadmi Party did cause a stir, even if they have come and gone. But the Boat Club is lost forever.

Zaidi, a Hindi poet, runs Three Essays Collective, an independent publishing house

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