I sometimes look at the members of my family and think, ruefully, of how little I know or understand them. My knowledge of those who live around me is so coloured with subjective experience that it’s impossible to credit it as even remotely authentic. These people — my parents or siblings or friends — do not appear in the theatre of my mind as individuals with a personal history, with strengths and foibles, with embarrassing secrets to hide. Rather, it is merely as “relations” that I see them, casually summing up their characters by virtue of the bond they share with me. As a result, I only have a foggy idea as to what it really means to be them (the definition of empathy). One day, I want to sit my mother down before me and ask her the definitive question point blank: “Who are you?”

Our way of regarding the cities we live in — and were born in — is similarly incurious and inward-looking. This perhaps accounts for my yawning indifference towards Delhi, where I was born in the mid-’80s and have resided, but for one long interval, since. I have never got to know Delhi, never had a conversation with this city, in a way I have had with some of the cities I briefly visited or even read about. It never occurred to me to ask of Delhi any questions. And especially the question that goes, who or what are you?

Yet it has been constantly around me, this city with its tree-lined avenues and twisted alleyways, its sprawling flatness (as opposed to Bombay’s verticality). To what extent this mass of stone and concrete has shaped me as a person, and to what extent it still would is a question I refrain from asking. Still, the answers pour in from every direction. The Delhi stereotype is vulgar, loud, ostentatious, business-minded, money-obsessed. The Delhi-wallah is street smart and resourceful. He is miserly and can get aggressive if you force him to pay up. Things have come to such a pass that the (irritating) term Delhiite is being effectively employed by people across the country as a devastating put-down, except, of course, when used by a fellow Delhiite.

I don’t buy into such insinuating nonsense. But if Delhi has a cultural identity of some sort, there haven’t been many attempts made to capture it. The blame for this, to be sure, lies with our young poets and novelists. The writer Rana Dasgupta called it for good reason the “unimagined city” in his thoughtful book Capital, which is a critical look at the changing face of Delhi in the 21st century. Although the city once played host to the greatest of Urdu poets, witnessing a renaissance of language and thought aided by figures as grand as Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir, Delhi never went through a modernist phase. This was quite unlike cities such as Kolkata (where new frontiers were being reached in writing and painting in the post-Independence era) or Mumbai (where artists and poets, infused with great confidence, were launching organised movements).

Delhi was much quieter in this regard, perhaps because artists like to distance themselves from the political seat of power. But there’s one more important aspect of Delhi’s past; in fact an aspect that has recurred throughout its history: the many waves of trauma faced by this city. Dasgupta, who calls ours a post-traumatic society, dealt with it in his book; as did Mir, who had to flee to Lucknow after the sacking of Delhi by Ahmed Shah Abdali in the 18th century. “Both heart and Delhi may have been worn out,” Mir wrote. “But some little pleasures still remain in this ruined house.” 

Although the city once played host to the greatest of Urdu poets, witnessing a renaissance of language and thought aided by figures as grand as Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir, Delhi never went through a modernist phase. This was quite unlike cities such as Kolkata or Mumbai.

This trauma, this heartsickness has historically been integral to the Delhi experience, and it can’t easily be disregarded by someone who comes to live here. I am thinking of a phrase coined by the American novelist Saul Bellow in one of his novels set in Romania: “air-sadness”. The air of Delhi — apart from being murderous, as recent reports on pollution levels have shown us — has great potential to sadden its denizens. Which is why I was surprised somewhat by the results of a recent widely-reported survey that ranked Delhi as the “happiest metro” in the country.

Dropcap OnI know that the surveyors here have used the term “happiness” in its shallowest sense: the sample they studied, I am sure, is happy in a way the couple in the toothpaste advertisement is always happy. And my own use of the word “sad” is not as facile as it may seem. I am more interested in these terms — happiness or sadness — in an ontological sense. What does one feel when directly engaged with this city, walking or driving through it? When exploring its architecture or heritage?

The Hindi essayist and novelist Nirmal Verma, who spent a large part of his life in Delhi, once wrote a very moving piece on visiting the city’s old Mughal-era ruins. Verma wrote (and I am translating from the original Hindi): “I often think how unfortunate are those cities that don’t have their own ruins. Living in them can be as dangerous an experience as meeting a person who has lost his memory, a person without a past.” Delhi no doubt has a past so rich it sometimes gets overbearing. I don’t usually like visiting the ruins myself, but in my rare excursions to Delhi’s historical sites — those enclaves of memory that Verma talked of — I felt more unnerved than elated.

It’s true that my scant knowledge of architecture prevents me from making an honest appreciation of the physicality of these structures. But it’s more than that. I also don’t identify with them, certainly not to the degree that Verma could. For me, they are geographical outliers, even though they occupy such a prominent space on the very street I grew up on, somewhere near Daryaganj. And when I do visit a Mughal-era monument, I do so with the objective of reading the graffiti on the walls.

It’s illegal to scrawl missives of unrequited love on historical monuments — it’s called defacement — but it still happens, as I saw at the Safdarjung Tomb a few months ago. I was bored. So bored that I decided to extend my walk all the way to the great tomb itself. Having reached, I bought a Rs 5 ticket and went inside out of idle curiosity. My aim was to look for some memorable or funny scrawls, of which there were a lot, especially belonging to the I-heart-you variety. But then I saw this message, which was not so much scrawled as carved into the stone. It went, “Incomplete without…” The message itself so fittingly left incomplete. What was it? A cry of despair or a statement of some deeper philosophical intent? I read it as a joke — a joke that modernity plays on the historical consciousness. This is Delhi’s story. The city’s modern avatar is a joke on — a light defacement of — its historical grandeur. And a joke can only make us laugh; it can never make us happy.

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