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A world tour in Central Delhi

Criss-cross Namita Kohli reads Khayyam’s poetry, connects the dots in history and dreams of Bavaria.

delhi Updated: Sep 07, 2009 13:06 IST
Namita Kohli

Ah love! Could you and I with

Him conspire,

To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits—

and then,

Remould it to the heart’s desire… Journey through Delhi

Omar Khayyam’s immortal lines greet me on a wet Wednesday morning. I am on a ‘world tour’, right here in Delhi, and my starting point is the Iran Culture House on Tilak Marg. Here, I meet Omar Khayyam and Hafiz Shirazi — the greats of Persian poetry — in translation.

Among the many Farsi books, I find a couple in English, and enter a world of soulful poetry and calligraphy, longing and grief. It’s Ramzan and most of the staff are at namaaz, but Dr S.Q. Hussain, the affable cultural counsellor, hands me a book on the activities of the culture house. He also tells me about Tahir, the friendly cook here, who does some Iranian dishes on “special request”.

I take note of that, decide to befriend Dr Hussain, and head out to eastern Europe. The Hungarian Cultural Centre on Janpath is a heritage building swathed in white — as are all the cultural centres I visit — and the serene lawns are a decent substitute for Budapest’s tree-lined boulevards.

Dr Imre Lazar, director of Asia’s only Hungarian Cultural Centre, has many stories. He starts with the building.

“This is actually Sir Sobha Singh’s residence,” he says, referring to Delhi’s prominent builder and real estate owner and Khushwant Singh’s father. There’s also the story of M.A. Rahman — the first Indian diplomat to Budapest — who sent out “real stories from the Hungarian revolution of 1956” to Jawaharlal Nehru, as opposed to the ones Nehru got from Moscow.

I learn of the fascinating historical connect between the two countries, and manage to move on to the cultural aspect only when I am told of the Zoltan Fabri film club, which holds screenings every month. Membership is open to everyone, and for people like me, who aren’t fans of the classics, the library stocks contemporary titles too. And, of course, there’s a queue of exhibitions starting next week, including one on ‘India on Hungarian stamps’, and a documentary film on Rahman, among others.

Soon, it’s time to hop across to south-western Europe, at Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish languages and cultural centre on Hanuman Road. Famished, I look for the cafeteria, but turns out the library and café are still under construction. Strolling aimlessly, I find ‘The East of Severo Sarduy’, an exhibition of photographs by the late Cuban poet-essayist-traveller. These photographs, taken during Sarduy’s travels among Asian and Maghrebi cultures (in the 1960s), were inspired by an eagerness to understand the “east in search of a dialogue… to understand his own work… and another vision of himself,” the write up tells me. I move from one bastion of Communism to another, the Russian Centre of Science and Culture on Ferozshah Road.

As I marvel at the magnificent Estonian piano in the lobby, yet another exhibition catches my eye. I revisit the liberation of Belarus in 1944, and as I study the faces of victims in Nazi camps — another chapter of history starts to open up in front of me.

I head to Café Goethe at Max Mueller Bhavan next. There’s no apfelstrudel, but I wolf down some apple cake

and cappuccino, and think of Bavaria, miles away.