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What a capital idea

india Updated: Sep 05, 2009 23:12 IST

The modern Capital of India is not ‘Dilli’ or ‘Dehli’. It’s Delhi. The name, the pronunciation and the spelling is not simply the anglicisation of an older, traditional name. It’s a self-conscious attempt to make the mispronunciation the official proper name. And if you don’t believe me, here’s the proof: in a letter to Lord Hardinge, then Viceroy, Malcolm Hailey, then Chief Commissioner Delhi, wrote in 1913: “We have misliterated a great number of names in India… But there comes a stage when the misliteration becomes sanctified by usage. I think that Delhi has now reached that stage.”

This delightful nugget has been gleaned from Malvika Singh and Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s captivating book, New Delhi: Making of a Capital. It’s a sumptuous coffee table item with a riveting collection of black and white photographs and tells the story of how the modern Indian capital was built. I spent hours flicking through its pages, pausing over the photos and allowing my mind to race back to the Delhi I knew as a child.

With careful and evocative detail, the photographs and commentary recount how and why the capital of British India was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, how Raisina Hill was chosen in preference to the Ridge for the centre of the new city, how Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were picked as the principal architects and how five Indian contractors — one of whom, Sobha Singh, Malvika’s grandfather-in-law — were selected as contractors.

As you turn the pages, the photos illustrate how the wild and wooded countryside was tamed to create the majestic capital of the jewel of the British empire. Picture by picture you see Viceregal Lodge, North and South Block, Parliament House, India Gate and the grand sweep of Rajpath take shape. These pictures need to be seen.

All the architectural landmarks of the modern capital are there bar one. The missing element is what I consider the most beautiful house in Delhi: 10 Aurangzeb Road. Built by the Bloomfield brothers and originally owned by Baisakha Singh, it became famous as Jinnah’s Delhi home before ending up as the Dutch ambassador’s residence, bought for a mere Rs 4 lakh. Look at it as you drive past the Claridges round-about and you won’t be able to take your eyes off its magnificent front.

But it’s Malvika’s introduction that brought back memories and a sad but undeniable thought. She writes, “I can remember... the sound of wailing jackals at our gate every night and cobras wandering in the large open gardens that encircled our home… We never locked the front door except at night… life was content. Life was ordered.” How long ago and far away that seems.

My first memory of Delhi is driving from Army House — then on King George’s Avenue, now Rajaji Marg — to Hauz Khas in the early 60s. After Safdarjung Airport, it seemed we were heading for the wilderness. There was no INA market, no AIIMS, no Yusuf Sarai, no Green Park — just open fields and tall grass.

Today, it’s an increasing expanse of buildings, traffic and urban noise. I can’t help feel that as the capital has spread and grown, it has forsaken much of its genteel charm. Malvika and Rudrangshu’s Delhi is lost and gone forever.

The views expressed by the author are personal