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Of love and longing in the city

Everyone loves the city they are born and brought up in. But not everyone bothers to know about its past, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2006 00:36 IST

Everyone loves the city they are born and brought up in. But not everyone bothers to know about its past. Some cities have long histories which makes the knowing an arduous task. Others have shorter histories; so its citizens extol its quality of life.

Three of our metropolitan cities — Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai — were creations of the British; they have no ancient monuments worth mentioning. Delhi, on the other hand, has a hoary past that dates back to the 6th Century BC It is creamed with ancient monuments built by its Hindu-Rajput rulers, Muslim Sultans and the Mughals. The British came last.

Being among the oldest surviving Dilliwaalas, I smugly assumed in knowing, as much as anyone else, about my city. I am disillusioned with myself. First came the series of lectures at the India International Centre organised, by my nephew Preminder Singh in memory of his grandfather Sir Sobha Singh, the principal builder-contractor of New Delhi. Among the speakers was Upinder Kaur (daughter of the Prime Minister) and a professor of History at the JNU who spoke on pre-Mughal Sultans.

She was followed by Professor Sunil Kumar on Sufi shrines and KT Ravindran on post-independence architecture. Pradeep Krishan spoke on the trees of Delhi, Sheila Chhabra on pet birds. Yet to come are Dunu Roy on city makers and breakers, Narayani Gupta on Delhi’s sarais, William Dalrymple on Bahadur Shah Zafar, Alok Rai on Delhi dialect, Iqbal Ahmed on Dilli gharanas, Vidya Rao and Rakhshanda Jalil on Zafar’s last mushaira. All these are being put together and published by Penguin-Viking.

My confidence has been shaken by Dalrymple. After reading The Last Mughal, I realised there were many gaps in my recollection of the city. For instance, like many others, I discovered that Zafar’s melancholic poems were written after his arrest and in exile in Rangoon.

By then Zafar had not only lost his mind but also had little means of writing them down. He was under four hours of vigilance and subjected to humiliation by English visitors. who he was required to salaam. Some addressed him as buddha, a few pulled his long beard. This is on record.

Contrary to my belief, the rebels put up a stout resistance and came close to driving the British and their Indian collaborators off their entrenchments on the Ridge. After the monsoon broke, snakes, scorpions, flies, mosquitoes and cholera took a heavy toll of life.

The stench of rotting human corpses made breathing difficult. After the northern city wall was breached, thousands of families fled the city, hundreds of havelis were broken; mosques were used as stables or billets for soldiers. This went on till the Britishers’ lust for revenge and thirst for Indian blood was satiated. It makes one sad reading it.

Parroting prayers

The trouble with reciting prayers in that high-pitched sing-song voice is that people don’t pause to understand the meaning of the words they parrot. It is unfair to those men who put them together after much thinking. Often, two lines are recited at the end of every Sikh prayer; the Ardaas:

Nanak Naam Charhdi kalaa.
Tevrey bhaaney Surbat da bhalaa.

In these lines are four distinct attributes of faith: Naam, Charhdi kalaa, Teyrey Bhaaney and Sarbaat da bhallaa. Naam simply means the Name of the Lord and refers to prayer; Charhdi Kalaa means to never give up hope; Teyrey Bhaaney stands for divine grace; Sarbat da bhalas means goodwill towards everyone.

These lines pretty well summarise the creed of Sikhism. They came to my mind (a non-praying Sikh) on the birth anniversary of the founder Guru Nanak on November 5. He used strong words for people who did not use their minds to understand the meaning of words: he called them real donkeys — asl khar.

Diwali dhamaka

This past Diwali, I was made aware of a tradition which must be uniquely Indian. Without appointments, friends started calling at all hours and ringing my door bell. My servant let them in because they carried gifts in their hands and it was Diwali time. They know I am a sucker for free goodies. The tempo gathered speed, as one left and another arrived. My work came to a stop; my cup of patience was full.

I instructed my servant to tell them: Sahib is unwell, keep the gift and I will write them a letter of thanks. This trick was partly successful. I was able to resume my routine but in fits and starts. I also realised that I had become somewhat irritable. They were nice people and they meant well. But in my case, it was only one-way traffic; I accepted what they gave me but I gave nothing in return.

I also realised that in the West sending gifts was limited to family and close friends at Christmas time; sent usually by post. People called only if they were invited. They also seemed to evolve a modern method of keeping in touch, through email. None of them intrude. But we stick to our tradition of meeting people on festive occasions without appointments. We value neither privacy nor one’s time.

Matter of one

Banta: India has been given the number one position in the corruption category!
Santa: How much bribe did we pay to get the number one position?
(Courtesy: Rajeshwari Singh, New Delhi)