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'Delhi, the perpetual city, has a soul unlike Mumbai'

Delhi is full of interesting stories and no one knows it better than Malvika Singh, the grand old lady of Delhi's elite club. Her new book is as much about her life as it is about her 'perpetual' city Delhi. We bring you a bit of both.

brunch Updated: Dec 07, 2013 18:46 IST
Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain
Hindustan Times
Books,Delhi,Malvika Singh

Delhi is full of interesting stories. And Malvika ‘Mala’ Singh, publisher of the monthly in-depth magazine, Seminar, and the grand old lady of the city’s elite club, knows them all.

In the 1950s, when she was about 12 years old, her family moved from Bombay to Delhi. Her parents were journalists Raj and Romesh Thapar (they started Seminar in 1959 after the Communist Party began using Crossroads, the tabloid they then edited, as a mouthpiece). Her aunt is historian Romila Thapar. At Modern School, Barakhamba Road, she met – and later married – Tejbir Singh, the grandon of Sir Sobha Singh (the legendary builder of New Delhi who was also called, ‘Aadhi Dilli ka Malik’ ) and the nephew of Khushwant Singh. Anybody who is somebody in the city is a friend of hers – and so her new book, Perpetual City:

The grand old lady: Malvika Singh at the Seminar office in Janpath

A Short Biography Of Delhi (part of Aleph’s series of short city biographies) is more about her life in Delhi than the city itself. Reading the book is like having a conversation with her, there’s some gossip about the crème de la crème of Delhi, there is her disdain for babus and their mismanagement, there’s nostalgia and there is the delight at being a Delhiwallah.

We met her at the vibrantly furnished Seminar office at Janpath to talk about her book and her love for Delhi, the perpetual city.

Excerpts from the interview:

Did you deliberately set out to write the book like a memoir?
When David [Davidar] asked me to write a biography of Delhi, I said to him, “I’m not a historian, so the way I would consider doing it would be to weave the city through the changes I saw while growing up.” So, I took a 50-year chunk [from the late Fifties until now] and wrote it. The historical thing is obviously researched.

But the book is not about Delhi as much as it is about my life. There’s no other way I could do it. Who wants to read a book that says you know – [Delhi was established in so-and-so year]? It’s just too boring! And nobody really knows when the first city of Delhi really was. If you go back to the Mahabharata, there is Indraprastha... so, the idea was that the reader could imagine what may have happened in the past and what could happen in the future.

You were born in Mumbai and lived there till you were 12. What do you think of the city now?
I know that city well. But Bombay was very different in those days – there was a lot of theatre and music and art. It has become a glorified slum now. I find it very difficult and superficial as a city.

I have very old friends there, so once a year maybe one makes a trip. But I don’t connect to the city.

Over the years, Delhi has grown into a very exciting city at all levels – culture, literature, journalism, art, fashion. That’s why we decided on the title [of the book] as Perpetual City because that’s what it is – it keeps on adding value! Delhi is a layered city in each of its avatars, it has a soul that is unlike Bombay.

Bombay used to be the lively cultural hub. It has just dissipated. It tries. It will have a little lit fest, but it’s not like this city where the galleries are jumping, there’s music – something or the other is happening in the city right through the year! It’s not like there’s a season, ki October mein season shuru hua, February mein khatam ho gaya. Delhi is the only city that encompasses that ethos of a civilisation, which is quite special. Some of this needs to be replicated in all the state capitals.

But in your book, there are also tones of a growing dissatisfaction with the city.
Not with the city, but with the people who run the city. And I think the angst is, here you have the space to spread out but there is no creativity or regulation in new buildings. You need some autonomous bodies which work with governments to infuse unusual ideas into bureaucratic mindsets and make the cities vibrant.

It is unforgiveable that a historic city like Delhi, which can be equated with Rome and Cairo, can be maltreated by the municipalities in the manner it has been.

Five places you can't do without in Delhi
All of Delhi! But Lodhi Garden is one; Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid; the new energy in Lodhi Road, every day something new is happening there; the Ridge; and in a strange way, Sujan Singh Park. I think it is the most amazing quadrangle of flats that leave you independent and yet in community. It’s the single-most civilised place to live in India.

So why do you think Delhi has such a bad reputation?
Does it? It’s never happened to me, so I can’t comment. I’ve always enjoyed myself when I travelled because people have sought me out and said, “What’s happening in Dastkar?”, or “What is the PM up to?” or “What’s happening behind the scenes?” There is a great interest. When I go to Bombay, I don’t say, “Arre, what’s happening behind the scenes in the Maharashtra government?” In reverse, when I ask what’s happening in city, I hear, “You know, five days ago we had a qawwali performance.” But for us you want to hear a qawwali you go to Nizamuddin on Thursday or Friday night and you hear a qawwali. We’re privileged as Delhiwallas.

Do you like the way the city has changed?
The reason I love Delhi is because it is never static. I loved it when I came in as a child. It was a capital city, it was politics, it was well-known people (and their doors and gates were open, everyone could meet them. They weren’t like these nutcases who keep their doors closed, six guards toting guns). But I love it for that also, you’ve got the old, you’ve got the new, it’s constantly changing.

But you liked it better then.
I tried to curb it. But there is nostalgia because I tell you, it was happy! Even growing up, you know, I was thrown out of [Delhi] University, I went to drama school [National School of Drama] but never did theatre and film except Masoom. I’m a misfit, I’m proud of being, what I call, a professional dilettante. I have lived my life dabbling in lots of things, enjoying it thoroughly.

Is it difficult to run a magazine like Seminar now?

The difficulty is the rather intellectually mediocre community that has the money to advertise. The advertising support of Seminar are old business houses – the Tatas, the Mahindras, these guys supported intellectual ventures because the corporate world in the Fifties was part of nation building. They understood the need for platforms like Seminar and other news magazines and tabloids. Today, you have to beg for advertising support.

I once wrote to Keshub Mahindra for the renewal of ad-contract and he wrote back saying, "Mala, you do not have to write to me. As long as I am alive, Mahindra will support you in your advertising." The fear is, how long can this last?

But this is the only anchor in my life. It is the pivot around which all people I like – in art, music – keep coming back. This office is like an adda. This adda culture, you only have in Delhi. You do not have it in Bombay.

Misty water-colored memories from New Delhi and Shahjahanabad. Excerpts from Malvika Singh’s new biography of Delhi, Perpetual City.

I moved to Delhi from Bombay in the 1950s, and was immediately struck by the broad avenues and wide open spaces of Delhi, punctuated with weathered monuments, their aging patina reflecting the dancing rays of early morning and evening light. It was all larger than life, powerful and fragile at the same moment.

I thought then, as I do now, that Delhi was about those who rule us, and we the ruled, who are at their ‘call and mercy’. It was (and is) a city of ‘them’ and ‘us’, while Bombay was, in comparison, equal and cosmopolitan, all-embracing, and did not exude that alienating sense of absolute ‘power’.

My grandfather, who was more angrez than the angrez, would take us to eat at Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, at least once every visit during our school vacations when we were living in Bombay. I suppose it was his way of retaining his links with the real Dilli, its tandoori chicken and bheja fry. We would all pile into the car and drive through Dilli Darwaza that separated the twin cities of new and old, to this iconic restaurant.

Kundan Lal, the owner, with his lush twirled moustache, wearing his trademark pathan suit, would greet my grandfather with a hearty ‘Welcome General Sahib’, and create a long table for the family, at a distance from the singing qawwals who for years and years sang a song I will never forget—‘tere pairo pe mehndi lagi hai, aane jaane ke kabil nahin hai . . .’ The standard order was tandoori chicken, kali dal and naan as the staples with delicious curried brain, grilled chops and, sometimes, butter chicken that was more Punjabi than a delicacy from the wild and rugged frontier of undivided India. Kulfi with falooda, a tasteless vermicelli, would always be the finale of the meal. Grandfather had served in the North West Frontier Agency and was addicted to its special cuisine. It was a treat for us Bombaywallahs to savour the wonderful barbequed meats of the restaurant. Many decades later, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we were invited to Moti Mahal to taste food cooked by none other than the renowned British chef, Gordon Ramsay. He had constructed an eclectic menu, worked in the traditional kitchens of Moti Mahal with its clay ovens but, alas, what he churned out was no match at all to the consistently excellent fare that made Kundan Lal a star conductor of his time with a great team of sous chefs.

The other eating place that sits in a galli adjacent to the Jama Masjid is Karim’s. Here, the early morning, breakfast Nihari, a marrow and meat stew, cooked overnight in fragrant spices, warm and delicious when scooped up with a roti and heartily devoured, remains an unmatched specialty. I have eaten Nihari at dawn, sitting on a wooden bench in the eatery that has been there forever. The test of its excellence is that Jaisal, a generation after me, takes off every now and again, after a late late party that ends at dawn, to savour this iconic dish before going to sleep a few hours into daybreak. The only way to eat Nihari is at the correct time, for breakfast, and not as a dinner ‘dish’ which has become its new avatar served up at weddings in impersonal five star hotels that are now trying to ape an Indian past, getting it wrong.

Flashback: Delhi's greatness can be sourced back to the Old City. Here, Jama Masjid as it was in 1965
Decades before the DDA and other such authorities rode roughshod over the state of Delhi, there was a happy energy and carefree vitality in this city that was infectious. The first crop of private entrepreneurs were opening shop despite archaic regulatory mechanisms that seemed to want to defeat enterprise. Government servants were always around, asking for their ‘hafta’ that had become the easy way of receiving some loose cash. They were suffocating the city but equally, the ‘flower generation’ of the sixties was not to be held back or contained.

The Tea House, at the corner of Regal Building, gave way to The Cellar, Delhi’s first ever discotheque that opened in March 1968. It was the brainchild of my brother-in-law and celebrated the young, the flower children who shared the sound and song of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones with their peers across the world. Our young generation came together regardless of cultural differences, language, caste or colour on the back of the music of the moment and the international dress code of blue jeans. A liberation of the spirit was happening and we were an intrinsic part of that psychedelic change.

In contrast, Gaylord, with its Art Deco interiors, was a genteel restaurant in the same building where late morning ‘parties’, over tall, etched glasses of cold coffee and hot cups of cona coffee with chicken patties laced with chopped green chillies in vinegar, took place while checking out ‘good’ girls from ‘good’ families for eligible boys. The old and the new overlapped.

Further down, in the same building of which we were landlords, was Regal Cinema. It had a grand lobby with stairs leading up to the ‘boxes’ at the rear end of the hall. The pastel coloured walls along the sides were embellished with plaster of Paris statues painted white. It was quite spectacular in its heyday.

Perpetual City: A Short Biography of Delhi by Malvika Singh, Aleph Book Company, 136 pages, Rs 295

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From HT Brunch, December 8

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First Published: Dec 06, 2013 18:53 IST