Vignettes from Life: My Delhi

By Mitali Chakravarty


Delhi was a beautiful town — a lifetime ago, an age ago, an era ago.

Gulmohars and Amaltaz blooms announced the onset of summer and before that a spray of different flowers — verbena, phlox, pansies, sweet peas, calendulas, roses, dahlias, chrysanthemums, gladioli and many more — announced the onset of winters and spring in Delhi. Gardens and roads bloomed with the colours of nature. The residents of Delhi were considered lucky by people from other parts of the country. I remember an uncle from Calcutta saying that Delhi was comparable to London!

Surely, the buildings are still there — but right now one needs to skirt past pan stains, turds and the stench of urine when one explores the lordliest of structures in Delhi — the Connaught Place. Earlier there was a huge fountain in the middle of Connaught Place in a large circular garden. The fountain spewed water the colours of rainbows with lighting at night. To me, it was the most fascinating sight on Earth — watching the water change colours and sometimes even become like a candle flame.

There was no Shaheen Bagh. And roads had cosmopolitan names — Curzon Road, Minto Road, Shah Jahan Road and many more. I remember the name Curzon particularly because I went there to visit my future aunt for the first time. She lived in an apartment in Curzon Road. She eventually became my aunt when my uncle opted to marry her— an aunt whose mother was a Kashmiri and father, a Punjabi. My uncle of course was a Bengali. We grew up in a Delhi where our neighbours came from diverse cultures, where we mingled with people from diverse religions and lived in harmony with differences. Tolerance was not a problem. I remember we had a boy in our school whose father was a Hindu and mother a Christian. We even had family members of mixed heritage. That was in the 1970s and 1980s.

People critiqued the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, when she implemented Emergency as the tide seemed to turn against her in1975, after the veneer had worn off from victory celebrations of the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence. Many activists were jailed — but we had grown up in peace. The only interruption had been the Bangladesh War, where the exceptions had been brown papers pasted on windows, hiding under tables during the black outs and semi-blackened car headlights. Even then, we had school. Our inclusive secular upbringing made us feel proud that India won a war to sort out issues between two neighbours.

Today I notice, both the countries (Pakistan and Bangladesh) involved were of Muslim faith but divided by distance and the barriers of culture and language, torn from the subcontinent because of greed. We never thought of that then. Perhaps, because we did not feel the need to think so much about the accepted lore of syncretic culture. We thought of our dreams and future when we were young.

I remember as we grew up in the eighties, my mother acquired a sitar teacher and another for Urdu. The two ustads or maestros would come home and teach her these skills. She was taught Urdu by the tabla teacher who accompanied the student and teacher sitarists. During Eid, the teachers would get biriyani and kebabs for us. Those were absolute gastronomical delights!

The strangest thing happened one day with one of these gentlemen.

In the 1980s, like all journalists, I had odd hours of work. Sometimes, I would come home from work at The Times of India office in the hot summer afternoons and head straight for the coolness of my room. Now, my room was used by my mother for learning to play the sitar. That day, as I broached the room, I could hear interrupted sitar renditions. And then I saw my mother who sat facing the door, attempting to bury her head into her neck and trying hard, very hard, not to laugh with her mouth closed, a bit like an ostrich but her neck was not as long. The result was a series of gentle snorts. Sitting with his back to me was a bald man! The bald man had the voice of my mother’s sitar teacher. There was a dirty looking black mop like thing on my bed. It took me a while to put it all together and figure out that he was indeed my mother’s teacher and the black thing on my bed was his wig! The summer heat had forced him to divest himself off his hirsute ornament. We laughed but the gentleman was kind and forgiving — I think he was smart enough to figure out the cause of my mother’s mirth.

Then as I grew up, I had a couple of batch mates who fed us kebabs during Eid— scrumptious tasty morsels that could perhaps be beaten only by my Pakistani British friend’s rendition in China. She would send over the most delicious kebabs to our home during Eid, tempt us with lovely tandoori chicken during normal parties. So much so that my twenty-three-year-old still swears by her kebabs. Also, we never quite figured out if tandoori chicken was Indian or Pakistani. She would insist on spices from India because she said those were the best and what she used in UK.

Her dream was to visit Bollywood and see Amitabh Bachchan. She had watched the Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham at least twenty times and could not figure out how I professed to fall asleep every time I tried to watch this megahit!  In China, where we lived in a multicultural neighbourhood with multiple nationalities and religious diversities during the first decade and a half of this century, I ate fantastic mutton baked with just tomato and basil in a Libyan lady’s home. My Muslim friends would avoid cooking beef when I was around because I did not eat this meat. But my Indian Parsi friend insisted on making beef ularthiyathu for an international charity event saying that many Hindus in the South did eat beef, and this has  subsequently been confirmed by some of our Keralite friends.  Beef ularthiyathu is indeed a specialty from their region.

While in China, I heard my cousin had married a Bangladeshi Muslim in India. While my aged father wanted them to become Sufis, they took a stand and continued Hindu and Muslim — celebrating all the festivals and letting their children grow up with an unusual syncretic lore which can perhaps be compared to what Nazrul had envisioned in his poetry and songs. This was a poet who was a Muslim but sang of Kali and Krishna and married a Hindu widow. Lovely rich poetry and music emerged from the confluence of the two cultures and religions.

And yet, we seem to have forgotten the beauty of all this rich lore, forgotten how to let go and soar towards a more tolerant and humane world, forgotten the meaning and intent of the words of our own national anthem, which translated to English stands thus —

Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people, 

Dispenser of India’s destiny.

The name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sind, Gujarat and Maratha,

Of the Dravid and Orissa and Bengal;

It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas, 

Mingles in the music of the Yamuna and Ganga

And is chanted by the waves of the Indian Sea.

They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise. 

The salvation of all people is in thy hand, 

Thou dispenser of India’s destiny.

Victory, victory, victory to thee.

One has to note that the Punjab and Sind (an area that is nonexistent now) referred to here are prior to Partition and inclusive of Kashmir, Pakistan, Bangladesh. The lyrics were written, and music composed by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911.

Why have we given up this Ganga Yamuna Tehzeeb to become divided and full of hate? Why is it we are succumbing to terrorism and our colonial legacy of divide and rule? While I ask these questions, I must share with you what a friend of mine with a majoritarian Indian heritage said in a group chat in what’s ap — he suggested that we encourage our youngsters to marry people from diverse religious backgrounds — thus paving the way to an inclusive, secular, syncretic society … what a lovely thought!


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