All great cities have great stories. New York, Cairo, Istanbul, Moscow, Shanghai among others, all have their grand, capacious histories, replete with triumphs, setbacks and even the odd comic interlude. Delhi has its glorious chronicles too, but they compete with those of New Delhi and more recently of all the Newer Delhis in the making.

But these days the pandemic has silenced all such urban legends. When cities make the news, it is the statistics of positive cases rather than monuments that will come up on TV screens. In this strange moment all the virtues and vices of a city are bizarrely magnified, all normal discourse thrown into relief by the sudden perceived fragility of all we know, even as “normal” life sputters on somehow.

This is not new. Daniel Defoe writing of the Plague that swept London in 1665 in A Journal of the Plague Year noted ruefully that while the face of London was strangely altered, “disorderly tippling in taverns [which was] the greatest occasion of dispersing the plague”, continued unabated.

Yet fear of death and how to live with its inevitability has figured in the earliest of human writings on cities. Over four thousand years ago the Epic of Gilgamesh, a long meditation on kingship and mortality, not only explored the themes of life and death, but also described the lives of the people of the city of Uruk–in today’s northern Iraq–and extolled, among other things, the thickness of its walls and the beauty of its prostitutes.

How cities are written

The impulse to record the spirit of a city as a reflection of the lives of its people is as old as cities themselves – a timeless and universal belief that cities possess some kind of soul which may change through time and differ radically from writer to writer, but much great writing through time, space, and cultures has been devoted to figuring out what that is.

One of the most acclaimed fictionalised forays into a city’s dark heart is Laurence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet and his reflections on the city as the corrupter and simultaneously the ennobler is a persistent one in Justine, the Quartet’s first book. Here the characters, all in some way damaged by the mysterious city, are trying to escape it – but cannot.

While the city as an idea is, on one hand, the site of unbelievable aspiration, its streets paved with gold, its thoroughfares bristling with opportunity, its pleasures eclectic etc, it can also be lonely, dangerous and degrading. Bombay is the golden city in Majrooh Sultanpuri’s immortal lyric, “Zara hatke, zara bachke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan,” in the film CID; but behind the exuberance is also a clear warning: learn the ways of the city or it will destroy you.

The city as a place of political violence is also a familiar trope. The city is the natural home of politics, both the formal kind that takes place in parliaments and palaces and the other sort which plays out in squares, alleys and slums; and the threat of violence is palpable – the violence of the Sate as well as that of the mob. And it has always been so; nothing changes.

In her biography of ancient Rome, SPQR, historian Mary Beard’s description of the aftermath of Caligula’s assassination in Rome in 41CE when the emperor’s private guards rampaged through the streets systematically murdering those they encountered, is all too familiar to those of us who were in Delhi when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated in 1984.

But perhaps all ancient cities have myths so indestructible and pasts so magnificent that no amount of tawdriness in the present can shake their hold on their dwellers’ imaginations. Istanbul is one such and it is no coincidence that the granddaddy of all city biographies is about this city.

Orhan Pamuk’s magisterial Istanbul: Memories of a City is a rich meditation on his own past and that of the fabulous city’s; he is the most delicate and dedicated of flaneurs, reprising the gentle melancholy of a city in irretrievable decline, of a State bent on destroying the past and his own ambivalent childhood: “Every visit to my grandmother’s apartment brought me a step closer to a realisation:…the cloud of gloom and loss that the fall of the Ottoman Empire had spread over Istanbul [had] finally claimed my family too.”

Chronicles of the pandemic

Delhi under the shadow of the pandemic has become, many people have come to believe, the worst version of itself. At the best of times it had a mean streak: drunk with past glories and then bloated with smug complacence at being at the heart of the nation’s politics – what some call the “Lutyens’ Delhi” syndrome. Nonetheless, to be fair there was also much else to celebrate – its unique mix of communities, glorious buildings, spreading trees, tempestuous history and heavenly chaat – above all, the belief that if there was going to be some unspecified history-changing person, event or idea that would redeem India, it was lurking right here.

Delhi once inspired a million stories a minute; but the pandemic has changed that. There is now one story: “Who can think of kissing a stranger? Of jumping on a bus or sending their child to school without feeling real fear?” asks Arundhati Roy, Delhi resident, Booker Prize-winning author and activist in the Financial Times, recalling a world that now seems as distant as Mars.

Focusing on these darker times, a recent anthology on the lockdown, The Phoenix Rises: Lockdown Diaries explores the impact of the pandemic. The response to it, Antara Dev Sen notes in “Weapons of Virus Destruction”, befitted the ancient civilisation we are: “We had special weapons, the thali, for instance. At the appointed hour, we the nation have crowded onto our balconies... to clang them as instructed. For extra power we have blown conch shells, ding-donged bells, chanted mantras [and] sang songs.”

Since Delhi went into a third surge thereafter, it clearly didn’t work. Navtej Sarna reprised the horror of desperate migrants trekking home, while Lalita Panicker pointed out the rage wasn’t only found outside: ”But inside the house is sometimes no safer as the incarceration has triggered an increase in gender-based violence.”

Sushmita Bose, faced with the dreaded Whatsapp, “Hey how are you doing?”, rediscovered – as many others did – cooking: “because it balanced creativity with a method bound timetable.” Some actually managed to find redemptive features: Jayashree Mishra Tripathi observed, “These past weeks have been strange, waking up to bright sunny mornings, blue skies, white fluffy clouds and birdsong. In Delhi!” (Emphasis mine.) The editor of the anthology, Amit Dasgupta, wondered if after all this we will “emerge kinder and gentler, still pause to watch the sunset, that we would reconsider our words if we felt they would cause hurt …” Honestly, at this moment, it seems unlikely.

Delhi in history, history in Delhi

Yet given this city’s record of overcoming disasters – the Mongols, Partition–nothing can be ruled out. The older Delhis have been extensively chronicled; the newer ones almost as much. The writings cluster round an uneven timeline, but are the largely accepted defining moments in Delhi’s journey to the present day. These are: 1857, the founding of New Delhi, Partition, the Emergency, 1984, and, possibly the peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Shaheen Bagh (two books have already been published on it).

William Dalrymple, who awakened a new generation to the city’s heritage with A City of Djinns, also wrote on Delhi and the events around 1857 in The Last Mughal and in an essay, “Religious Rhetoric in the Uprising of 1857” in Celebrating Delhi an anthology edited by Mala Dayal (which has a stellar cast of Delhi’s great chroniclers, with essays on Delhi’s Kayasth community by Ravi Dayal, its trees by Pradip Kishen, and its ancient history by Upinder Singh).

British reprisals after the defeat of the uprising destroyed much of the old city’s way of life that was cultivated, refined and filled with a certain joy. Narayani Gupta records the diverse pleasures of Shahjahabad in Between Two Empires 1803-1931: “…in the fragrance of fresh flowers and watered earth in the back lanes, …in the story spinning by the dastan-go on the steps of the Jama Masjid, in the wrestling, patangbazi, kabutarbazi and satta gambling, in the gatherings in the evenings in the Urdu Bazar…”

For a knowledge of Delhi’s past and present, Khushwant Singh’s loving yet cynical gaze made him possibly the best known and perhaps greatest of Delhi’s raconteurs, as well as its most vivid nature writer, outspoken political commentator and historian. While Train to Pakistan is arguably his best, most enduring novel, his non-fiction is highly acclaimed as is his magisterial History of the Sikhs.

His magnum opus to his home, Delhi A Novel, which took twenty years to complete, is an eventful journey through the city’s past and present, weaving between the courts of Ghiyasudin Tuglaq, Janhangir, Aurangzeb, the Delhi Durbar, the building of New Delhi and the 1984 violence against the Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the present. Rich with detail and personalities, it’s easy to skip the all too frequent sex scenes (the protagonist and his hijra lover Bhagmati mostly, but there are others as well) for a deep dive into the making of this city.

Partition and violence

The new capital was inaugurated in 1931 and barely seventeen years later the Delhi countryside witnessed bloodshed again in the summer of 1947. The cataclysms of Partition are still a live issue in Delhi. In many ways the refugees who came from West Punjab, Sindh and Multan to settle in Delhi, still drive the city’s collective memory and the newer generation is also invested in exploring those moments.

From Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence to Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of Separation, Partition still defines attitudes to history in Delhi and Anis Kidwai’s exceptional memoir In Freedom’s Shade (translated by Ayesha Kidwai) brings home to us why this is so. This is a first-person account of Delhi in 1947, when desperate, dispossessed refugees crowded into temporary shelters while others, equally desperate, were trying to leave a city that had been their home for generations. Kidwai was working in rehabilitation and was witness to both the terrible inhumanity as well as the moments of kindness that this forcible uprooting of millions unleashed. She records both unsparingly.

The Emergency of 1975-1977 was Delhi’s first visible sign of the fissures that were developing in the young republic. It was a deeply polarising moment and its effects still being felt. Coomi Kapoor documents its malign impact on her personal life and on Delhi in The Emergency: A Personal History.

If the Emergency was an early indication that all was not well with the State, the violence against Sikhs in 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination showed the extent of the corruption that had taken hold. In his thoughtful, insightful essay, The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi, written a decade after the event, Amitav Ghosh, then a young academic in Delhi, reflects on the responsibilities of a writer when describing violence and how people respond when confronted with it.

The events he witnessed in the aftermath of the assassination undoubtedly influenced his subsequent writing, he explains, but it took time to write about the violence as he first needed to process how he could do so without turning it into a simple spectacle, or a singular event that apparently just happened. It remains one of the most compelling descriptions of that time.

The swish set

Being the national capital, Delhi has figured in memoirs aplenty. Novels on its politics and the politicians and bureaucrats and socialites appear regularly, but the heyday seems to have been the sixties and seventies, possibly because the class composition of the politicians was then more akin to that of the writers of English. Nayantara Sahgal, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala and Anita Desai were very different novelists, but they farmed the same acres, so to speak: Aurangzeb Road, Malcha Marg, Sundar Nagar, Civil Lines, Lutyens bungalowland. Thus Desai’s Clear Light of Day, Jhabvala’s Esmond in India are set in the capital’s upper class enclaves and their characters could have even known each other; Desai and Jhabvala, however, ceased to write about Delhi in their later years, though Nayantara Sahgal’s work has remained located here.

Sahgal’s interest has always been the intersection of politics and morality and the motivation of those who seek power and what happens to them when they get it. In This Time of Morning, the protagonist is a Krishna Menon-like figure. Finally achieving a South Block office he thinks triumphantly that he stands “at the heart of Delhi.”

If power is one of the great driving forces in Delhi, so is its close cousin, status. Capital cities by their very nature are preoccupied with rank and status. From earmarked seats in Shahjahan’s Mughal durbar in the seventeenth century to the allotment of government housing in the twenty-first, the signifiers proliferate. In Delhi it’s not just your clothes, make of car, or address; it’s your access to the powerful. In his Introduction to City Improbable, an anthology of writings on Delhi, Khushwant Singh noted:

“The most loathsome aspect of Delhi is the new caste system that has evolved: the caste hierarchy of the bureaucracy, because Delhi is essentially a city of bureaucrats and politicians. You are judged by your status in the civil service: steno, upper division clerk, undersecretary, deputy secretary, joint secretary, additional secretary, full secretary. Likewise, politicians have their own hierarchy and means of letting everyone know how important they are: their cars have special number plates; their windscreen proclaim they are MPs. They have red and blue lights flashing on their vehicles. The brahmins of this hierarchy, known as VVIPs have armed escorts and often when they drive past the traffic comes to a deferential halt.”

Nor are hierarchies restricted to babus and netas. Anthropologist and pop culture watcher Meher Varma in an article in Himal South Asian, noted the calibrations that separate Panchsheel Park style from Greater Kailash (the former is more subtle) and how to recognise a JNU Girl or a Golf Links Brat. Inter-colony distinctions are also illuminated in Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society, a modern-day rendition of Emma set amongst Delhi’s old money rich in Prithviraj Road, when the heroine tries to prise her protégé out of a relationship with a man who owned a garment shop in Lajpat Nagar.

The underbelly

Inevitably most English writing on Delhi deals with situations and issues familiar to those who read and buy English books. But there are exceptions. Mayank Austen Soofi went as an English tutor to the children of Sabir Bhai who owned a kotha – No 300 GB Road, Delhi’s old red light area. He got to know the inmates of the house and in Nobody Can Love You More writes about their lives with tenderness, seeing the humanity beneath the paint and the stereotype. Soofi has become Delhi’s best known flaneur giving to us a granular feel of life in the city. For over a decade, he has recorded the city in The Delhi Wala blog, his ever curious, unjudgemental gaze as arrested by the dispossessed as by celebrities.

Another flaneur, Sam Miller, shares the ability to see the extraordinary in the mundane, which is why his Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity is one of the most unusual city biographies ever written. He eschews the guide-book destinations for the uncelebrated suburbs and his gentle ambles through familiar territories like Dwarka, Greater Kailash and Pragati Maidan that makes one see them anew.

Also far from the corridors of power is Delhi Noir, a collection of path-breaking stories, part of the Akashic Press’s famous city “Noir” series which explore the criminal underbelly of cities (titles include Addis Ababa Noir and Helsinki Noir, as well as the more predictable London, Brooklyn, Paris). Delhi Noir is a set of very edgy, idiosyncratic incursions into Delhi’s illegal spaces – its “sordid corners” in the anthology’s editor Hirsh Sawney’s words.

Each world is malevolent in its own way: Manjula Padmanabhan’s prescient “Cull”, a set-in-the-future account of a plan to destroy the residents of the notorious Golden Acres slum by infecting them with a deadly virus; Radhika Jha’s look at the addicts under the Oberoi flyover; or Irwin Allan Sealy’s auto rickshaw driver’s encounters with the killers Cobra and Sidey, in “Delhi Ridge” and the sleaze-laden cops of Ruchir Joshi’s Nizamuddin story. These have the jerky, immediate feel of a hand held camera – an alternative reality to all the Lutyens’ power play and Khan Market brand one-upmanship.

The same sense of an unknown but all too real Delhi is found in Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line where three children, Pari, Faiz and Jai, living in Delhi’s margins as ragpickers, investigate the mysterious disappearances of their companions from the neighbourhoods around the purple metro line. These are smart children: they watch the news, keep up with the local gossip and care fiercely for their missing friends. Anappara has created a convincing universe, a place where people try to eke out smidgeons of happiness from the stoniest of environments.

A similar sense of the quiet density of life in Delhi’s unsung neighbourhoods comes through in Delhi: A Soliloquy by M Mukundan set in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s among Delhi’s Malayali community against the backdrop of the wars with China and Pakistan and the 1984 violence. It gives a vivid sense of those decades and is bristling with local details as the earnest, meditative protagonist Sahadevan walks to Sewa Nagar, shops at INA Market and cycles to Jangpura to meet his friends. It gives a feel of period and locality we rarely encounter – for instance Sahadevan going to the UNI canteen to have a dosa catches sight of Safdar Hashmi on his way to Vittalbhai Patel House.

Perhaps because of all this writing on Delhi in books, newspapers and blogs, there has emerged in the past decade or so in Delhi, an awareness – perhaps even pride – in local realities. Today there is a fledgling movement to capture the present and past of Delhi’s localities on platforms other than books. Shapno Ekhon, a Chittaranjan Park-based initiative headed by Shahana Charkravarty records oral histories of the beginnings of the colony in the 1970s, the markets, the Durga Pujas as well as the memoirs of older residents, some of whom still have memories of East Bengal.

Another lovely archive in the making is the Ambedkar University’s Centre for Community Knowledge. Written records are still forthcoming (according to a message on the site) but there are some wonderful photo collections, including the fascinating Jan Friese collection. One of the featured galleries has a photograph of Ali Manzil haveli at Kucha Pandit, Old Delhi which was the home of the late President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed sisters. It was here that Ahmed Ali wrote his immortal classic Twilight in Delhi; the protagonist Mir Nahal’s house was based on the haveli.

Local colour

Charting localities is perhaps a new trend in Delhi histories. Swapna Liddle in Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi explores the meaning of “CP” for Delhiwalas. Till recently it had the feel of a place which has seen better days, but it’s had a revival in the last few years, largely because of the Metro and is now a more inclusive reinvention of a space where once only those shopping at the establishments proclaiming themselves “by appointment to the Viceroy” trod.

Similarly, in Delhi Darshan, Giles Tillotson, also a longtime Delhi resident and a leading architectural historian, not only showcases the city’s standard Sultanate, Mughal and colonial glories, but also looks at more contemporary buildings, from the flurry of embassy building in the 1950s (he calls the British High Commission a “disgrace” to the land of Wren and Lutyens, but gives a thumbs up to Durrell Stone’s classic US Embassy) to the ‘Star Wars’ (his phrase) look of Gurgaon’s Cyber City.

The idea of a city is not located in famous monuments or parks or seats of power. It is in the minds of its inhabitants and floats in the streets, above condominium and tenement alike. Amita Baviskar makes a passionate plea in Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity and the Commons, for the continuing protection of its public spaces because, a city, Baviskar declares, “is a living embodiment of what humans can create: the marvellous, the moving, the absurd and the awful. But first and foremost, the city is a collective endeavour, an ongoing public works project that involves us all.”

The pandemic has sharpened the sense of this city as a dangerous place. Delhi was never “safe” – it didn’t need the tragic gang rape and murder case of December 2012 to alert women to predators on dark streets. But Covid-19 has turned even previously benign spaces – the well-lit, the crowded – into danger zones. Perhaps in the longer arc of history, the pandemic will become another milestone and “Delhi in the time of Corona”, a routine chapter in future city histories.