On 23 December 1912, on the once-stately thoroughfare of Chandni Chowk that emerges from the Red Fort in Old Delhi, a bomb was thrown at British Viceroy Lord Hardinge’s procession in what came to be known as the Bomb Outrage, or the Delhi Conspiracy Case. “It exploded with terrific force,” a report said, “blowing to pieces the attendant standing immediately behind Lord Hardinge...”
The Viceroy was thrown down from his elephant, unconscious and bleeding. Subsequently the police went on a rampage in the area, and four men were eventually charged with the conspiracy. One was captured and sentenced to jail; he had died only recently, old and invalid in an alley off Chandni Chowk, according to a report in the Express Times. The three other men were hanged, but the man who had thrown the bomb, Rash Behari Bose, had slipped away to Japan and was never caught.
It was some months after this bombing – on 21 March 1913, according to an old British travel permit – that Yunus Ali Khan, Munir’s grandfather, had arrived with his bride in Mombasa in British East Africa, where he found work as a goldsmith; a few years later he moved inland to Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, where many Punjabis had settled.
Have I come a full circle? Munir thought, somewhat stunned upon reading this snippet of history; has Delhi now reclaimed me? Dada having left Delhi only three months after the “Outrage”: is there a significance? And what a turn of fate that there would be a Hardinge Street in Nairobi – always pronounced “Laard Hardinge Street” in the home, in the Punjabi fashion.
But it was an older Delhi that caught his writerly fascination.
He was sitting on a bench in Sikandar Gardens, having completed his afternoon walk. He had never lived in any place where centuries spoke loudly from every direction. But then history in India came with a price, paid often with blood. Before him, on the green across the walking track, stood a large mausoleum, of the typical inlaid sandstone of such buildings, with a magnificent dome.
The sun was low, the ground moist, the air effulgent. Flowers were in bloom, in every conceivable colour. He watched boys at a game of soccer in the shadow of the monument. A young, furtive couple strolled by in front of him, murmuring to themselves.
He heard a woman’s high-pitched voice, and looked up to see a noisy group walking organically together like some multi-legged animal, in the middle of which was the man in white, Jetha Lal, whom Mohini had pointed out in the cafeteria as “the Purifier”. He was of medium height, somewhat stocky, and bald, with a sparse ring of white hair on his head and a smooth, radiant face. As before, he wore a folded blue shawl on one shoulder that was a sign of status, Munir guessed.
They disappeared round a bend, and Munir nodded off, until he felt his phone buzzing against his thigh. His excitement as he shoved his hand into his pocket and clumsily brought out the phone was, in his own words to himself later, purely juvenile. It was Mohini calling, of course.
“Where have you run off to? I’m at DRC, but you’re not here. I thought you might have left.”
“I’m at Sikandar Gardens. I’ve just finished my walk and am catching my breath.”
“I’ll come and join you.”
“I missed you.”
“Sure you did.”
She took ten minutes to get there. The park had fairly filled up, he observed, watching her approach on the track from the left. She was wearing a pink salwar and a white kameez, and her controlled smile as she neared brought dimples to her flushed cheeks.
“You’ve discovered Sikandar Gardens. Good. It’s wonderful, isn’t it, all this greenery. Can you believe it, we are actually sitting here in the middle of Delhi?”
He told her what he’d been up to the last few days, and she was surprised by his adventures. Not only had he been to the tomb of the Mughal Humayun, he had also gone to the top of the old, abandoned city of Tughlaqabad. And he had returned to Old Delhi by metro and walked around.
“I’m impressed. I guess as a well-travelled man you are used to exploring places by yourself. I must have been a burden the other day.”
“Not at all. It’s always nice to have a local guide. Without your initiative, I might not even have ventured out.”
How craven! She was flattered, smiled her appreciation. They discussed the various cities of Delhi and their sultans, which he had started reading about and found exciting, and which she recalled only vaguely from her history courses.
“I read that until not long ago, between the various cities of Delhi there used to be only vegetation,” he said.
“You’ll soon become an expert,” she said, tilting her head to squint and smile at him, revealing a few thin lines at the edges of her eyes. “You’re already telling me things that I don’t know. But what does a writer do with all that knowledge about the past? Does it help in your writing? Give you ideas?”
“A writer doesn’t ask himself that. Or herself. It’s simply there, the knowledge and the experience . . . and whatever. It comes out whenever, in its own way...”
“You’re an odd one.”
“No...I meant, the other day in the old city. You were hardly impressed by the great mosque – ho-hum, your face said. No – wait a minute! And then all that interest in Dariba Kalan – jewellery!”
“Yes. Well the mosque is grand, but there are many grand buildings in the world, aren’t there? But Dariba...”
“Yes. I should have told you. My grandfather came from Delhi. And he was a goldsmith.”
No need to say more. She took a deep breath.
“So you are a Delhi-ite after all! It’s karma only, I tell you! Your dada left Delhi, and now you’ve returned. Why didn’t you say before? It’s so exciting!”
“I was waiting for the right moment.”
They walked back to the Club through the parking lot. The stray dogs were annoying; cars hovered around in frustration waiting for spaces, guided by an attendant. He helped her over a puddle, quickly withdrew his hand, and she threw him a glance. She shooed away a bothersome canine he didn’t know how to handle.
They entered through the side gate, went through the library building and arrived at the front garden. It was dusk by now, the pole lamps had come on, and there were no men in guns to be seen. By this time the bar was open, but she preferred the cafeteria, which was deserted. They began their tea in a silence that felt rather conspiratorial, aware of the servers who knew them both. Finally she got up to go, and he walked her to the driveway.
“I’ll call you,” she said softly, as she got into her taxi.
And he knew from that last lingering look that something significant had happened.
Excerpted with permission from A Delhi Obsession: A Novel, MG Vassanji, Penguin Viking.