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Memories of a forgotten city

Of the many ways of learning about a city’s history, one of the most interesting must be to live in it.

books Updated: Aug 26, 2011 12:57 IST
Antara Das

capital ways
Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi
Niyogi books
Rs795 pp 342

Of the many ways of learning about a city’s history, one of the most interesting must be to live in it. Delhi is a city uniquely fated to contain within it multiple layers of history and yet, as Rakhshanda Jalil’s Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi (out in its third revised edition) shows, the past here is more of a liability than an asset treasured.

The book focuses on the “cloak of invisibility” that surrounds some of the forgotten monuments of Delhi, and Jalil’s lucid prose provides valuable inputs, guiding us through the maze of alleys or a rambling wilderness to chance upon “largely unheard of tombs, pavilions, mosques, gardens, baolis, and cemeteries” and much else. Unplanned urbanisation is the chief culprit for the gradual destruction of many of them; in his foreword, Khushwant Singh says that “it is the murder of our past heritage that saddens me most”. Sometimes, monuments like Sultan Garhi (near Vasant Kunj), surrounded by thorny bushes, fall out of the mindscape; at other times, the clutter of houses reduce historical structures to “caged beasts”, as the Lodi-era tombs of Zamroodpur.

The photographs, by Prabhas Roy, are a significant draw of this edition: capturing the beauty, enormity and the sense of decay of these structures, with a delightful play of colours and a skilful use of the melancholic impact of the afternoon sun. A lot of attention is also paid to the way the images are presented — the wide, amphitheatre-like vista of the Suraj Kund is not compressed into a single page but presented in a four-page folding panel. Nor do they focus solely on the brick and mortar of the past—a view of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s tomb, once surrounded by water, captures a municipal water tank within the frame in a subtle operation of bathos. In all, an intelligent read and a visual treat.