Delhi, the Evolving City

Whenever I walk down the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk, I am always reminded of the famous couplet by Mirza Ghalib on his love for the city:

“Ik roz apni rooh se poocha, ki dilli kya hai,
Toh yun jawab mein keh gayi, yeh duniya maano jism hai aur dilli uski jaan.”

(I asked my soul, what is Delhi? It replied: The world is the body, Delhi its soul).

Delhi, the magnificent city of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, whose lanes echo the shayaris of Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan (1797-1869), fondly remembered as Mirza Ghalib, has always been at the heart of centralised authority over the subcontinent. Naturally, the city has been reshaped time and again according to those who sat on the throne.

But the lanes of Chandni Chowk that house the famous Ghalib ki Haveli – where Ghalib spent his last days – have somehow managed to sustain the essence of the era.

The narrow streets, dotted with modern brick structures and painted house walls almost leaning into each other, still can’t hide the remnants of Mughal architecture. You can see it in the uniform large stone slabs, the dome-shaped entrances.

Chandni Chowk, located near the majestic Red Fort, is awash with colour and life: a blend of stalls selling decoration items, shiny clothes, slow-roasted meats of various types (kebabs, biryani, mutton keema) and colourful, syrupy sweets (imarti, balushahi).

Being in Chandni Chowk, one is compelled to feel that the city is trying to keep pace with today, yet, is still stuck in time – a confusion which is visible both in the movement of people and in the stillness of its buildings.

The overhead wires block the view of the sky, making one feel small, filling the self with unrest, with a longing to break through the complicated social fabrics towards the bright blue sky, towards freedom. It is in this instant one realises that this is the same path that Ghalib tread every day, filled with despair and gloom; pondering over the futility of life and yet the importance of living it with love, for love.

Also read: The Outliers of Our Everyday Gaze – Lockdown and the Streets of Chandni Chowk

Visible in the splendour of its architecture that has changed shape and structure over time, without losing its charm, the city has always been home to syncretic traditions, supporting the diverse cultures and belief systems of all its inhabitants.

However, in the first quarter of 2020, the city witnessed communal riots for the first time in decades. Beginning on February 23, waves of violence washed over the streets of Northeast Delhi, not far from Chandni Chowk, in reaction to the protests against the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act championed by the BJP-led Central government.

The riots claimed 53 lives and left hundreds severely wounded. Like all riots, many haunting stories of mutilation and humiliation were recorded. Like all riots, the dead never returned, the wounded never healed and dignity was never restored. The simmering tension that has existed in the country since the saffron party’s ascent to power in 2014, visible through the rising cases of violence against Muslims in India, finally broke the city.

Hindu mobs attacked Muslim-dominated parts of the city, burning and razing mosques, homes and shops. One group even climbed a minaret at a mosque and planted a saffron flag. In the aftermath, the authorities have continued to inflict legal and mental violence on many of the victims.

All this has changed the city. A walk through the riot-affected areas and the temporary shelter homes for those who were rendered homeless tells a tale of how the city has changed for the foreseeable future. The burnt walls of houses give an account of distrust that has emerged out of the ashes of everything that burned inside the house – people, belongings, dreams and aspirations. People now keep a watchful eye on those walking through the streets, suspecting everyone. The same city which once accepted a migrant from Agra – Ghalib – with all its heart, has suddenly started seeing its own people as the enemy.

Walking through the streets of Chandni chowk, one can’t help but notice that the stench of fear has replaced the aroma of meat and sweets. People have started to look at passersby closely. The poems of Ghalib have started to be replaced with those of Kumar Vishwas and Rahat Indori. And therein lies the strain. Although tensions have eased, for now, it feels like the city will now always be on the brink of violence.

Ghalib is dead and so, apparently, feels the city. Reeling under the increased fractures between communities, the resilient and transformative spirit of the city is being tested.

Ghalib’s couplet, an ode to his beloved city, lends a sliver of hope:

“Hui muddat ki ‘ghalib’ marr gaya parr yaad aata hai,
Vo harr ik baat par kehna ki yuun hota toh kya hota.”

(It’s been long since Ghalib died but his memory resurges,
Saying what would have happened if things were like this or that).

Featured image credit: Suanlian Tangpua/Pixabay