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City of djinns

‘I don’t love Delhi’: Meet the capital’s most compelling chronicler, Mayank Austen Soofi

The popular writer-blogger talks about Delhi, Marcel Proust, and his days as a hotel waiter.

As evening approaches, the sky slowly changed colour from light blue to pink, and finally into the dark black of night – just as he had predicted. I smile to myself, sitting on the terrace of Connaught Place’s Indian Coffee House, waiting for my friend, The Delhi Walla.

A few months ago, he started writing a series on his blog titled “100 Things To Do Before You Quit Delhi”, and it began with watching the changing sky at the historic coffee house. Taking a cue from his piece, deciding where to meet had been easy. It has to be said, he was right. It was a surprisingly calm oasis in the heart of Central Delhi, where even the cacophony of horns and traffic seemed dulled out and the simple act of watching the sky changing colour made Delhi feel magical again. He had always been good at that, The Delhi Walla, good at noticing all the nuances that we take for granted in our bustling capital.

Minutes later, a large book – The Norton Anthology of Poetry – is placed on the table in front of me, followed by Mayank Austen Soofi. As two cups of coffee – black for him and milky for me – are set down before us, he tells me he has never been interviewed this way before.

“Sometimes, I think many people have this misconception that I love Delhi. I don’t love Delhi,” he says. “For me, it’s like this – you know when you’re in a comfortable relationship with someone, or have been living with them for a long time, they become a sort of habit. Delhi for me is the same. It’s become my habit.”

I ask him, Why Delhi then?

“Well, I live here so I cannot write about any other place. If I lived in Rampur, I’m sure I would write about that. But as a writer and a photographer, I want to understand myself better – that is the end goal. To get intimate with myself in some way, I must get intimate with the world in which I operate. And I do that by writing about my environment, the things I see, the people I meet and the city I live in. Which just happens to be Delhi.”

“So if you lived in Bombay, you might be the Bombay Walla?”

“Oh, of course, yes!”

The most important thing, he says, are the lives of the people. In 2009, two years after Soofi began his blog The Delhi Walla, he started Mission Delhi. It was a plan to make portraits of one per cent of Delhi’s population – 13 million at the time, which amounted to 130,000 portraits – an absolute feat. This is how he and I met. I was the seventh portrait. Over the years, the series has been populated with an array of diverse portraits – from writers, to managers of historic bookshops, to a woman doorman, to a bottle collector, to politicians, to street vendors, to cats. People are not ruins, the introductory post to this series reads, they evolve over the years. Trying to sketch a person at a moment in their life is to get a sense of their city.

Sitting at Indian Coffee House, he elaborates, “I’m not so concerned with beauty, or buildings, or old things. What really interests me are the people, the dogs, the cats, the city’s inhabitants – this is the world, the real word. Old architecture, Jama Masjid, Humayun’s tomb – it’s all just a prop. The real thing is you, the thing is me, the real thing is that girl sitting alone there!”

In a blog entry dated November 13, 2015, he says, “It’s cool to ogle at the Red Forts and Jama Masjids of the world, but great things don’t bring us closer to our cities.” He goes on to describe how he was proven right the night before when he came across an intimate gathering of people celebrating a wedding while wandering through the gallis of the Walled City. Despite nothing elaborate having happened, the celebration made him feel connected to the city in the most profound of ways.

Yearning to be a writer

Soofi’s curiosity for the life and people of Delhi began when he moved to the city in 2007, but his love for the written word began much before that. He was born in Nainital and since his father was an engineer in the Uttar Pradesh Public Works Department, he was transferred from place to place, moving the family across various small towns in the state.

“I’ve always been a writer,” he says, “but more importantly, I’ve always been a reader. As a child, I’d read more Hindi stuff – Champak, Nandan – but when we were living in Orai, there were no bookshops. So every weekend, my father, sister and I would go to the bookshop at the railways station, where we’d get our books and magazines for the week. Every evening, the Delhi edition of the Times of India would arrive and at the time I imagined it to be as large as, say, the Sunday edition of the New York Times. How I would devour it.”

He pauses, and then laughing, continues, “There was one time that I failed in an exam, and my father announced at the dining table that he would be stopping my Delhi edition of the Times of India. As a child, that was such a terrible moment.”

A person’s arrival in Delhi can be an overwhelming feeling – their first auto-rickshaw ride, their first flat, their first encounter with the city’s infamous symphony of horns. Such a wealth of possibility resides in that first exploration of this grand old city.

“I moved to Delhi when I was about 25 years old or so. The train pulled into the station and though I had visited it many times before, that night I saw Delhi as if for the first time. I remember vividly that I was reading Gone With The Wind, and now finally being in the city, I had this sense of having arrived somewhere.”

On being asked what he did in those first few months in the capital, he casually replies, “Oh, at the time I was a waiter at Radisson Hotel, and was living in this area called Rangpuri right behind it. Hotel work is hard work, you know, and I only had one day off a week. So once I went to Khan Market; no one had told me about it, I just sort of stumbled upon it. I was walking on Aurangzeb Road, [now called APJ Abdul Kalam Road] and I discovered this lovely place with these incredible bookshops – Bahrisons, Faqir Chand, The Bookshop, and standing there in a market full of literature, I remember wanting my name to be on one of those books on the shelves. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be an author.”

Over the years, the refugee market is a location that has drawn The Delhi Walla in time and time again. Not only for its many bookshops, but also its last-remaining residents, restaurants, its neighbourhood and, of course, its new and original tenants – all of which he has religiously chronicled over the years. Apart from that, there is indeed the added charm of seeing his five books [a collection of four quaint city guides and No One Can Love You More, the only novel on life in Delhi’s Red Light District] on display in the bookshops there.

The quintessential flâneur

Two more cups of coffee replace our empty ones.

“Writing a book is good, but what gives me the greatest happiness is my blog. Walking around, exploring sights, taking photos of the places, gardens, parks, benches, trees, multiplexes, bookshops, rich people, poor people, and writing about it all. One night, during those first few months in Delhi, I decided to venture into Nizamuddin basti. I remember, there were meat pieces hanging off hooks in butcher’s shops and I had no idea then that the basti housed this incredible Sufi shrine, so for me it all seemed like a page out of Arabian Nights or something. It just happened to be Thursday night and there was qawwali in the dargah, and I didn’t know anything about Sufism or Islam, but I felt completely at home. So I went home and wrote my first entry of a new blog – How I Got Drunk and Lost My Virginity at Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah. With that, The Delhi Walla was born.”

The Delhi Walla has been described as “an excellent resource for alternative Delhi” by the National Geographic Traveller, as “showing an offbeat view of Delhi” by Lonely Planet India, as “the most compelling guide to India’s capital” by The Independent, as someone who has “the knack of bringing out the unusual from the usual” by the late Khushwant Singh, and as one of “Delhi’s most idiosyncratic and eccentric website, reflecting a real love of this great but under-loved and underrated city” by historian and writer William Dalrymple. In an interview in 2011, he talked about how he saw Delhi with different eyes, wanting to describe things exactly how they were; never to simplify complicated things, and never to complicate simple things.

Mayank Austen Soofi envelops the very essence of the word flâneur. He has perfected the art of documenting, of seeing that which not everyone can see, of making his subjects comfortable and finding stories within almost anything.

“To write about the crowd, you must be a part of it. You must become the crowd.” He smiles. “I’m only trying to slow down the rapidity of time in order to observe something, make a connection, talk to someone, capture a moment.”

But though people and their lives make up a significant part of your work, I prompt, there is more to the blog. “You write often about the history of the city, books and city parties. One of my favourite sections is your most recent addition, The Self-Written Obituaries.”

“Yes, the blog is about Delhi in its entirety. I do have sections where I record the city’s monuments, fashion, landmarks, one with people’s most beloved recipes, called Julia Child’s Delhi, the farewell notices where I encourage people to pen their own death as they want it to be, and many others – all these make up the life of a city. But, if I had to remove myself from the blog, see it dispassionately, and not as someone who is doing, I would say the best thing about it is that is not newsy. It’s not like what I am writing will get stale tomorrow or day after. What I am recording is a change; how the city is changing. That includes its people, their lives and jobs and experiences, its food, its monuments, fashion, everything. Years later, when I will be dead and when Delhi will be very different, what I have written and photographed will remain as a precious archive into the story of a city, any city, at a particular moment in time.”

I nodded. For me, The Delhi Walla had been the most comprehensive guide in rediscovering the city of my birth. Growing up in Delhi, I barely paid it any heed, taking it for granted. But often, unfamiliar eyes are best at seeing the beauty in your banality.

The Paris Walla

He goes on to say that despite his comfortable relationship with the capital, there are other cities to be explored and lived in. The New York Walla, The Paris Walla. He says he can visit GB Road every day and still not have completely captured its essence entirely. He says that he can live on the same street his whole life and not tire of exploring it. Then, he makes a confession.

“I’m working on something big about Delhi and I want to give all of myself to it. I want to lose myself completely in it so that I can get Delhi out of my system.”

“Do you think it’s that easy, to rid yourself of Delhi?”

“Like Proust said, it is all about habit. Plus, like I said, there are other cities to explore. The streets of Manhattan, the skies of Paris.”

The Delhi Walla shares a special bond with Paris. He says that he carries a guidebook of the city with him at all times, retrieving it promptly from his bag. Ever since he read Marcel Proust’s monumental À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the city has absorbed him. The Delhi Proustians, a special section on his blog, apart from the several passing references to the great author, celebrates his work through the people of Delhi.

“Paris is the city I feel closest to,” Soofi says, one hand on his beloved guidebook. “I spent a month there after I read Proust. I discovered my favourite bookshops, gardens, all the places connected to Proust, even the hotel that is modelled after his novel. Walking along the café-lined boulevards, exploring the city, I felt like I was home in a way that I never felt when I walk in Old Delhi or in Connaught Place. Delhi is reality and Paris is a dream, but where they both intersect is at the heart of Proust’s work. I connected to a novel in a way that changed my life. It altered my perception of looking at the world, including Delhi and its people. And that novel happens to be about Paris. But, of course it’s not about Paris at all because, I, a guy raised in the cow-belt of India have connected to it. Its themes and preoccupations are so localised that at some level, they become completely universal.”

Speaking of aimlessly wandering the streets, I ask about a typical day in the life of the Delhi Walla.

“I basically wake up and walk out the door with the camera and my books.”

Uniqueness in the ordinary

As far as I remember, he has had a book in hand each time we have met, and it’s always some dust-covered, dog-eared classic. He says he is not too fond of new authors, unless it’s Arundhati Roy, but that doesn’t stop him from buying books all the time. Ruined by reading, he claims.

Deriving one half of his name from the revered Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and the other from the magnificent Jane Austen, he has read every book written by his namesake twice. His Gmail name now reads, Charles Swann, the protagonist from Proust’s novel.

Years ago, in an auto-rickshaw coming back from Daryaganj’s Sunday book bazar, Soofi had asked me what I wanted to be in life. To conclude our conversation, I ask him the same thing.

“I have become all that I wanted to be, which is a writer. When I don’t write, I feel horrible. What I desire is to be able to translate every thought into words, which is difficult. Apart from that, I’m a published author and I have a platform on my blog where I write every day, so I’m quite content.”

Because he says this with finality, I begin to shut my notebook, and then just as an afterthought he adds, “You know, as a writer or a photographer, you’re a very lonely person. All these comments and praise and affection from people are transient. So I have to remind myself to write only for myself; whatever I do must come from within.”

Just then, from within the usual noise of bustling city traffic, a peculiar-sounding horn blares higher and we both look up and laugh.

“What a nice sound,” I say.

“Like a trumpet,” he replies. “Just like when they show Calcutta in those old Guru Dutt films!”

As we sit there, enjoying the sound of traffic and soft chatter of people around us, taking in the last bit of Indian Coffee House for the evening, I submit to the fact that perhaps The Delhi Walla does awaken the beauty and uniqueness in his environment, just by being able to discern that which no one else can.

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