Thursday, September 23, 2010

Celebrating Delhi

Edited by Maya Dalal

Penguin, Rs.350


With time, landscapes get sedimented over with new meanings and new maps of movement; but the submerged Histories resonate at the sound of a place, says Narayani Gupta on the History that gets lost when names of streets are changed to adhere to the politics of the time. We learn stories about the curious mix of names in Lutyens Delhi for instance. Kasturba Gandhi had to step into Lord Curzon's seven league boots, and Copernicus was randomly chosen to replace Lytton in the naming of that road that we now associate with Mandi House. In Celebrating Delhi, a compilation of  eleven lectures  that were delivered at The India International Centre in 2006, we are treated to an intelligent digging into Delhi's past and present, it's streets, its music and even it's first foundation stone.

In My father, the builder, Khuswant Singh writes in a warm, humourous style about how his father Sir Sobha Singh transported secretly, the foundation stones of Delhi in the middle of the night and how he watched the birth of New Delhi, brick by brick . Going back to the First War of Independence, William Darymple critically examines the religious rhetoric around it and why what mattered most then was the threat that the Company posed to religion. Dunu Roy brings us back into independent India's Delhi, questioning who makes a city, who breaks it and in the course of History, who is completely excluded. The city of Delhi, he says, was claimed for the elites, with the acquisition of the Southern basin and then the approval of the slum clearance project in 1924.Roy outlines what he calls selective inclusion and systematic exclusion - a history from Independence to the Commonwealth games.


The book then shifts from politics to food with Priti Narain talking about the asli khana of Delhi. She traces the eating habits of the Mughals (Apparently many were vegetarian and Akbar started his meal with curd and rice).We learn how colonisers influenced our food. It is the Europeans who first brought chilies, tomatoes and potatoes ,now such an integral part of Indian cuisine. In the last piece, Ravi Dayal concludes that there is thus no such thing as a Dilliwallah anymore and this absence seems to be part of the present, amorphous identity.


If the question is whether the collection is comphrehensive, the question itself is not valid because comprehensiveness can only be attempted for a subject as varied as Delhi with its many histories. As a cohesive whole, you can sense that these are words written(spoken?) with love and from a point of belonging and knowledge. Celebration , in its true sense and for the average reader, the best moments are the "Oh really? I never knew that.." ones.  When you pick up the book, attractive cover design apart, you get the sense that you are in for some drab Historical non - fiction but in fact the prose leads you in and makes for a breezy informative read. We would have liked some photos!  A good introduction to understanding the capital and its many facets- some glorious, others just dubious.





cwlq said...

But what did Dalrymple say about it? Everyone knows that he is the ultimate arbiter of all books concerning Delhi.

Y? said...

clearly,you haven't read my post but felt the need to vomit your gora knowledge. He is one of the writers, and he cannot comment on his own books. Chris, please.You are the only true reader of my blog. Even if you don't read it, I may as well shut it down.