New literature on Indian cities


Nakul Krishna in The Caravan

I bankrupted myself while writing Maximum City: Suketu Mehta Count on Urdu to have a word for it: shahr-i-ashob, lament for a city. Here is Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda, a poet from the eighteenth century:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi? There is no house from which the jackal’s cry cannot be heard. … In the once-beautiful gardens where the nightingale sang his love songs to the rose, the grass grows waist-high around the fallen pillars and ruined arches. … Jahanabad, you never deserved this terrible fate, you who were once vibrant with life and hope, like the heart of a young lover.

Some centuries before, it was Sanskrit, like Urdu a language of many cities but identified with no one province, that had the most extensive literature of the Indian urban. As human beings are irresistibly drawn to visions of a bygone golden age, this literature too has its share of lament. An early example depicts decay by describing perfection:

The people in that city were happy, virtuous, learned, experienced, each satisfied with his state, practicing his own calling, without avarice … None was indigent or dwelt in a mean habitation … In that city … none was a miser or a swindler, none was mean-spirited, proud, rash, worthless or an atheist. Men and women were of righteous conduct, fully self-controlled, and in their pure and chaste behaviour they equalled the great sages … They bathed daily … there was none who had not learnt to subdue his mind.

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