Legend has it that “he who rules Delhi, rules India.” Many have tried and failed to rule the city and reap the wealth of the northern plains. Between heaving crowds and manic traffic lie the centuries old remains of what historians call the “Seven Cities of Delhi”. But today the city isn’t just a graveyard of empires. Delhi is the nursery of the Indian Republic and the nerve centre of the new India.
William Dalrymple, one of the greatest travel writers of the last fifty years, first came to Delhi aged 18. He’s stayed longer than most travellers. Arrival in this city is a shock and what with the stifling heat, crowds, touts, and poverty, within a few days most flee north for the Himalayas, west to the grandeur of Rajasthan, or south to Goa’s idyllic beaches. Few have it in them to weather Delhi’s assault on the senses for long. But three decades on, aged 51, Dalrymple’s still wandering through Delhi’s streets.
Over the last thirty years, Delhi has exploded across its neighbouring states. In the nineteenth century, Europe was in awe of industrialising Manchester, as the population boomed to the dizzying heights of two million people and the city swallowed towns like Salford and Bolton whole. Today in Delhi, the story is much the same, but on an incomprehensible scale. Every day over half of Spain – 25 million people – jostle for work here.
Dalrymple rose to notoriety in 1989 when, at just 22, he published In Xanadu – a travelogue in which he retraces Marco Polo’s thirteenth century journey from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Kublai Khan’s Summer Palace in Shangdu, China.
After the tremendous success of In Xanadu, Dalrymple returned to Delhi, eking out an existence working as a freelance journalist for several years, before completing his second book, an award winning account of his love affair with the city – City of Djinns.
For Dalrymple, Delhi in the late 1980s “possessed a bottomless seam of stories: tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend.” Continually pillaged and fought over, the city seemed to him to be in a constant state of regeneration as it absorbed, tamed and outlasted those who sought to dominate it.
Over the four years it took him to write City of Djinns, he peeled back the layers of the ancient city, and explored Delhi’s seven “dead” cities, and showed that there was far more to the city than the obvious everyday squalor. According to Dalrymple, the city’s central paradox in the 1980s was that that even though it was one of the oldest towns in the world, what with the Partition, the evacuation of much of Delhi’s old Muslim population and the influx of refugees, Delhi “was inhabited by a population most of whose roots in the ancient city soil stretched back only forty years.” Despite this, “Somehow different areas of Delhi seemed to have preserved intact different centuries, even different millennia.”
After several years in Delhi, Dalrymple traded the hubbub for a quiet, spacious Mehrauli farm south of the city, where he hosts regular lavish parties for Delhi’s cultural elite. A prolific writer, hidden behind mountains of books and endless artefacts from his travels, with chickens and goats wandering by, he has gone on to publish eight more bestselling works.
Clad in simple Indian cotton and sporting a respectable beard, he is a warm and merry character, always willing to dish out the red wine and show you the steps to the Talking Heads.
But over the years Delhi’s caught up with him in this leafy retreat. Outside the collection of gated farms, he resides in, the city thunders on into Rajasthan, with five lane traffic and metro overpasses only a few minutes away.
“It’s strange being a middle-aged travel writer. My first three books read like history.”
“In Xanadu records an Asia where Syria and Pakistan were endlessly hospitable and the safest and kindest places to go. City of Djinns records a bucolic rural Delhi. And From the Holy Mountain records the extant Christian community of the Middle East.”
“These places don’t exist anymore. Who knows, maybe I’ll be quoted by historians in five hundred years.”
“City of Djinns is a record of a city that no longer exists. A city where there were no cars on the road, where everyone worked a government job, where everyone drove one model of car, the Ambassador. Delhi was a slightly dull Washington-like city unless you pottered around the old city where everything got more interesting.”
“None of that is the case anymore.”
Dalrymple’s brow furrows.
“There’s a huge stigma attached to the place, now. It’s now regarded as the rape capital of India. And as having the worst traffic jams in India, having the worst pollution in India and the worst corruption.”
In 2012, Delhi was thrown into the international spotlight when a 23-year-old student was gang-raped and tortured on a bus in the south of the city. She died of her injuries a few days later. Almost overnight the city became synonymous with rape and sexual harassment.
Reflecting on this, Dalrymple says, “For all that I love this city, it’s a place where I worry about my wife and daughter going out at night unescorted. The violence does exist. It is a violent city. It’s not an entirely new thing. It’s been a traumatised place. It’s one of these cities like Jerusalem where massacres have taken place throughout history – it’s a very masculinised society. This is different from Goa, Bombay, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where women are safer and have more rights.”
“But,” Dalrymple continues, “the question of women in Delhi is a very complicated one. Because in many ways at elite levels it’s a city run by women. There are more strong women in the city than there are in perhaps any other city.”
“They run a lot of the things that actually work well in the city. And often at parties I see this as a city of henpecked husbands. These amazing Indian women, beautiful, clever, well-educated. There’s a much higher priority in the Indian elite on really educating the women in the family. I’d say more so than there was in my generation of British women. The elite women here are really incredible.”
Turning back to the question of Delhi’s phenomenal expansion, Dalrymple says, “The city has really changed while I’ve been here. I mean, you still meet people, not very old people who can remember taking the bus out to Qutub Minar through fields of mustard.”
“A couple of months ago I went back to this beautiful old ruined Mughal garden called Shalimar Bagh. When I last saw it, it was surrounded by ruined houses, scruffy orchards and basically open land. And now it’s entirely hemmed in, in the midst of these enormous buildings and overpasses. It’s solid Delhi as far as you can see. It was a sunny afternoon and the park was packed with people doing exercises. It was quite sad, really.”
“But almost everything I really loved and wrote about Delhi in the City of Djjins is still there,” Dalrymple continues on a more upbeat note. “Yes, it’s more smoggy, more built-up. You just need to look harder for it now.”
“There are still old colonels walking around Lodi gardens with their swagger sticks. Nizamuddin is there and even more interesting and crowded with Sufis. There are still old gentleman calligraphers in frock coats in the old city, the sadhus at Nigambodh Ghats where they say the Puranas were washed ashore. There are still lustful Sikhs driving taxis.”
“All the central cultural moorings are still there, it’s just that now you can get feta cheese and watch the new Western movies.”
“I’ve never dreamed of living anywhere else.”
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Image credit: Bikramjit Bose / Platform Magazine