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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Delhi --Invisible City

The Delhi we live in is like a giant, hungry amoeba. She keeps changing her shape, and keeps gobbling up new lands The debris of her past is scattered all about; few know or bother to find out the correct names of the many dilapidated tombs, pavilions, mosques, baolis and dargahs. Built over and over, built around and about, Neophyte New Delhi lives on when all the other nine Delhis that preceded it are dead and gone. Blythe, blasé, heedless, the newest Delhi has been quick to discard as many of the inconvenient dribs and drabs of her past as she possibly could. She has allowed the cloak of oblivion to fall, hiding several inconvenient piles of old rock that stand in the way of urbanization and development. Through years of misuse, she has coaxed the forces of urban renewal to obliterate several of these blots on her shining new horizon. 

Where it was possible to make the law look the other way, she has allowed many of these monuments to be pulled down, chopped and carted away or cannibalized, brick by brick, stone by stone. Where wanton disregard for the laws of the land has not been possible, where stray vigilante groups have raised voices of protest, she has allowed – reluctantly and with ill-concealed contempt – some of these structures to stay. Like guests who have long outstayed their welcome, she has through sheer dint of brutal neglect reduced them to mute spectators.

And, yet despite the odds stacked so heavily against them, many of Delhi’s lesser-known monuments survive. In great part, this is more to do with the sturdy good-sense of their builders than any especial effort on the part of the Archaeological Survey of India who is their official guardian. Unknown and unvisited, they stand about on islands of neglect, rendered virtually invisible by the cloud of unknowingness that hangs about them. Some of us, especially those who live in South Delhi, might drive past them, or walk our dogs in their unkempt grounds, or take a shortcut through them, keeping a vigilant eye for the louts who invariably hang about ‘such parts’, but they seldom cause a blip on our radars.

Rarely do we stop to ask why we are so entirely heedless of our past. Why have we allowed a cordon sanitaire, as it were, to fall on our city, demarcating two clearly-defined spaces: one neatly labeled “organized”, the other falling under a broad category of “unorganized”. Other epithets can be used for these two categories: clean/filthy, authorized/unauthorized, orderly/chaotic, spacious/cramped, cared for/uncared for, and so on. Pockets of abysmal neglect exist cheek-by-jowl with oases of privilege. Yet it seldom causes so much as a raised eyebrow let alone any real degree of concern or introspection, either on our part or on the part of those who head our civic bodies. Many years ago, struck by this study of contrasts, I began to visit the urban villages of Delhi, one by one, and each time I marveled anew at the chaos and clutter of the lal dora villages and the glitter of Shining India often barely a few yards away. At the heart of each urban village, reached through many a winding alley, past many a malodorous heap of rotting rubbish, I invariably found an old monument or two.

I began by writing a stray essay or two on the villages themselves, graduating to a couple of articles on the ruins I had chanced upon by happy serendipity. Three years ago, I began writing a monthly column, called “Invisible City” for a magazine called First City. While I had enough material to get by for the first few months, I began scouting for newer and lesser-known monuments to write about each month. Soon, this search became an adventure, a journey of discovery into the unknown in which I was joined by family and friends. Acquaintances and readers of the column began to pitch in – with reports of “some old building” they could spot from their balcony, or sightings of “something” they drove past but whose name they didn’t know. On sunny winter afternoons these became enjoyable excursions. On scorching hot days or in pouring rain, less-than-pleasing experiences. But the pot of gold at the end of these monthly rainbows was always very rewarding. The thrill of finding something new – yet completely unknown -- either buried deep inside an urban village as in the case of Zamrodpur, or in the heart of a bustling neighbourhood as in the case of Sarai Shahji has still not deserted me. Even today, I feel elated every time the curtain of invisibility lifts and these old buildings reveal something of themselves.
In these past many years that I have been writing and researching these monuments, I have ended up with more questions than answers: Why do certain monuments fall off the tourist map? Who decides whether a certain historical building is worth a visit or whether it ought to be consigned to the rubbish heap of history? Should historical monuments be allowed to crumble into dust or “put to good use” by being incorporated into new constructions, or should they simply be razed to the ground and built over? Who is to decide what stays and what goes? Also, what stays in which form and is put to which specific use? Does a monument have a sell-by date pasted on it? Does history not have a sanctity that is above current use? Must we judge history as “relevant” and “irrelevant”? For that matter, is the past itself expendable? Must it make way for the present? Why have we allowed our history to be caged and confined like a beast – as in the case of the tomb of Mubarak Shah? Why do we stand by and watch it being brutally cannibalised  -- stone by stone, brick by brick? Is the ASI’s way of deliberate brutal neglect the only way to deal with an ugly situation? Clearly, there will be more questions than answers till someone somewhere decides that there is more to conservation issues than mere catchy phrases. Clearly also, many of these monuments will crumble and disappear under their cloak of invisibility till people begin to visit them.
-- Rakhshanda Jalil

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