Delhi is the flavour of the season and writing books on Delhi, its monuments, its ruins, its food and anything that can be connected to the city has turned into a veritable industry. Amidst all this hectic activity around Delhiana, there was one man who quietly, unobtrusively walked the streets of Delhi, or travelled in the city buses. He talked to old residents, read the old chronicles and picked up little stories, anecdotes, a phrase here a sentence there and he filed them all away, in the deep recesses of his memory. This man knew more about Delhi than many celebrated experts on the city.
His name was Ronald Vivian Smith; his books and his columns carry the name RV Smith. He was born in Agra in 1938, he came to Delhi in 1957 and Delhi became his city. Meer Taqi “Meer” and Mirza Asad Ullah Khan “Ghalib” were both born in Agra and came to Delhi, and are now known as quintessential Dilliwallahs. RV as he was popularly known, was thus following in the illustrious footsteps of the two poets whose poetry and whose language, Urdu – the language of Shahjahanabad – he loved dearly. At 7.30 am on April 30, 2020, at the age of 82, he joined the pantheon of quintessential Dilliwalas who have left us.
He observed people, the way they walk, their attire and how they carry themselves. He listened to the inflection of their voices, watching and connecting all that he had learnt to all that he knew about Delhi and its links to Agra, and to other cities like Jaipur, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Aligarh, Rampur, Faridabad, and mufassil towns like Khurja, Mathura, Moradabad, Muzaffarnagar, Amroha, Pilakhwa, and the surrounding countryside that had old connections with Delhi.
RV loved Delhi, he loved Urdu, he loved paan and he was a journalist’s journalist. Young reporters on the city beat kept dropping into his office, in the now lost-forever iconic red-brick building known as Statesman House on Barakhambha Road, to listen to his stories of Delhi and also to learn about the dogged perseverance that is the constant companion of newshounds out to follow a lead— and to learn a trick or two of the trade.
He joined The Statesman as a reporter sub-editor, perhaps sometime in the late 1960s, before which he had worked at the Press Trust of India, probably his first job in Delhi, and then for a couple of other publications. RV retired as News Editor from The Statesman in 1996. While working as a senior sub-editor or chief sub-editor, he also began a weekly column, titled “Quaint Places”, about lesser known and out of the way spots in Delhi. He also began contributing regularly to the weekly feature, “New Delhi Notebook”.
By this time everybody at The Statesman knew that RV was the man to go to for any story on Delhi. And they went to him constantly; it wasn’t only about the history of the city but also about occupations and wholesale trade centres, about which community populated which mohalla, about where to find the best of anything. No wonder then, that, aside from his regular work as chief sub-editor, or deputy news Editor or, later, news editor, he continued to be the major contributor to “New Delhi Notebook”, even while writing his weekly column.
RV had a phenomenal memory for names, places, dates, events and would hammer out his pieces on his old typewriter, filled with these details, day after day, for years on end. He rarely had to go and check a date. An idea of the reservoir of information that he carried in his memory can be gleaned from the fact that his column “Down Memory Lane” appeared continuously for more than two decades. This would mean more than 1000 pieces. Add to that the pieces that he had written for The Statesman, again as weekly features, for almost 20 years before that, and the more than half a dozen books on Delhi, a novel and much else beside.
In August company
When RV moved to Delhi, he lived at the Naaz Hotel, frequented by poets, writers and artists. MF Husain, for instance, was a regular. RV later shifted to Azad Hind Hotel near Jagat Cinema. The Azad Hind Hotel was owned by Afzal Peshawari, who was a rather colourful character and a great host.
The hotel was the haunt of all the writers, poets and artists: J Swaminathan, Husain, Sahir Ludhyanvi, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Majaz, and others from Delhi and outside. RV, being a quasi-permanent resident, must have attended numerous poetic soirees. He lived in these hotels for years with his wife and his children. In a recent meeting with Sunalini Mathew of The Hindu, he talked of the monthly credit account he ran at the famous Kareem’s at Matia Mahal, where his children gorged on biryani on a daily basis.
One doesn’t know if he picked up his habit of constant paan-chewing before moving to Delhi, or whether this was something he acquired. along with his love for Urdu, at these endless baithaks. All we know is that at least one of RV’s colleagues did not appreciate this habit.
Sometime after his marriage, RV moved out of the Azad Hind Hotel into a Statesman-owned property at Darya Ganj. Years later, he vacated this house, perhaps to move to his own house in Mayapuri, and the Darya Ganj house was allotted to someone else. The new occupant continued to complain for weeks about paan stains all over the place.
From tawaifs to ghosts
RV knew everything about Delhi – well, almost. He knew all that was interesting, and he had the ability to put it all down in a readable manner. A large number of readers of The Statesman and, later, of The Hindu, where he migrated after retirement, owe much of what they know of Delhi to RV Smith’s columns.
Many of the nuggets of information that one finds scattered through them, and of the half a dozen books that he has written on Delhi, are picked up by fly-by-night operators and used without acknowledging the source. RV didn’t know or didn’t care, he continued to write and add to the knowledge bank about Delhi. What makes his contribution unique was his ability to draw from the vast reservoir of folklore, historical events, popular beliefs and tales of the occult and the non-dead, and weave them into a story that opened yet one more facet of life in this city.
RV wrote with the same felicity about tawaifs and bahoorupiyas, or about the sahebs and memsahebs and their khansaamas, as he did about 1857 and the destruction of the city, or about the ghosts of headless riders and gossamer white apparitions that seemed to float about, screeching like banshees and dissolving into thin air without leaving a trace.
He belonged to an old family of Anglo-Indians who traced their roots to Armenia. RV Smith’s writings, aside from being a chronicle of Delhi, are also peppered with interesting vignettes from the daily lives of the small but dynamic Anglo-Indian community. His columns and his books have enriched the understanding of the city that was and is, not only for the lay readers of his columns, but also for students and scholars of the sociocultural history of Delhi. The void that RV leaves behind him is not going to be filled in a hurry.
Sohail Hashmi is a writer and documentary filmmaker, and conducts heritage walks in Delhi.