Founded as ‘Shahjahanabad’ by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 as a planned city , it remained the capital of the Mughals until the end of the dynasty. It was and is a true metropolis.Today, it is home to the ever-popular Red Fort and Asia’s largest wholesale spice market, Khari Baoli, dating back to the 17th century. And at the heart of Old Delhi lies Chandni Chowk, the place to sample some of Delhi’s tastiest street food from samosas to jalebis (sticky, deep-fried cakes) and Indian sweets.
Following are excerpts from Ananya Vajpayee. Ananya Vajpeyi is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University.
Delhi is fast becoming a lost city to its inhabitants, a hazy shadow of its old glorious self
Delhi in the cooler months, between early October and late March, once a six-month stretch of mild sunshine, blue skies, crisp air, festivals of every major religious community, associated with agricultural cycles, equinoxes and other natural and cultural punctuations of the annual solar calendar braided with the monthly lunar calendar, lives now only in memory. A pall of the world’s worst air pollution descends on the city at the beginning of what used to be the festive season, and lifts only, if at all, as the harsh summer approaches, bringing with it its own problems of excessive heat and water scarcity. Our lifespans have been shortened, we are told, by sustained exposure to various pollutants, but things have reached a stage where one can only see this as a relief from having to live on in a place no longer fit for human habitation.
We cough, gasp and choke our way through these punishing winter months, with poor visibility, skies neither blue nor sunny, and a feeling of being trapped in a long nightmare from which we cannot awaken. A public health emergency engulfs us all, from children with permanently compromised respiratory systems to the elderly struck by lung cancer towards the end of their lives. The persistent itch in our throats and the dull ache in our heads will not go away for weeks at a time. Mornings and evenings are unsafe for walks; any outdoor activity necessitates the use of masks if not inhalers; natural light can only be seen when one leaves town. Eerily simultaneously, a political fog descended on the capital in 2014.
In late August Ashis Nandy delivered the Daya Krishna Memorial lecture in Delhi, titled “Lost Cities and Their Inhabitants”. He was careful to define and delineate what he meant by “lost”. A “lost city” is one whose past one can remember and relate to; one whose memory as a living city is not overwritten by an episode of final destruction. Thus Hiroshima is not a lost city, since it was completely destroyed in the form in which it had existed by the detonation of an atomic bomb in August 1945. A city may be called lost when people remember its life and not its death. The city as it continues to be and the city’s lost self are, in a sense, discontinuous with one another.
Lost cities are autonomous, to use Prof. Nandy’s term, from their real counterparts. He spoke about Bombay and Jerusalem, Cochin and Dhaka, Lahore and Hyderabad, Calcutta and Lucknow. Needless to say, histories of war, genocide and mass migration are implicit in the stories of these cities, and many others in the world, ancient as well as modern. An age passes, sometimes, before our very eyes, and what used to be our home and our haven becomes the site of myth and legend. The past serves our emotional and psychological needs, so that we keep it alive in memory to nourish our desiccated present. But it is not easy to return to or take refuge in a lost city. To try to go there is a kind of madness; to try to keep on living there is to reiterate and perpetuate our trauma of the loss and alienation we experienced when we were overwhelmed by historical forces.
Before it’s too late
A crucible of diversity, dissent and solidarity, Ganga Dhaba, for all its apparent decrepitude, symbolises every value of a free, democratic and plural India that the current majoritarian dispensation is bent on destroying. Like the city of Delhi that surrounds it, JNU too is fast approaching the state of being lost. Can we attempt to save the city that is ours and the university that we love, before it is too late?
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