Under my byline

Tales of ruin

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books, Living by Rrishi on 13 December 2008

OVERLEAF 9

VT in 1903, stereographic image from the British LibraryThey say that the terrorists’ targets in Mumbai were iconic sites, and that’s true of VT and the Taj at least. They are among the few fixed points in a frenzied landscape. They are still, old and heavy, and so they anchor the map of the metropolis. They, and other sites like them, are the yardstick against which we measure change in our lifetime. Therefore it is thrilling to think of them, a few hundred years from now, as magnificent ruins, representing us to whoever comes after.

I’m sure they will make a good impression: one a citadel of the elite, but an economic elite, not a feudal one; and the other an exaltation of the civic spirit. (Both are already out of date.) Perhaps future writers will be moved by their remains to fiction or poetry, as the ruins of Rome once moved so many literary Europeans on the Grand Tour. There’s something transformatory, immediate and life-affirming about decay.

And Ghalib — take our Ghalib of Delhi. His Delhi was not in its heyday, and in its late-Mughal decline proved very inspiring to the poet. Not for him the sentiment of Amir Khusro’s famous lines, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this,” spoken about Kashmir but inscribed in Shahjahan’s new palace in Delhi. Indeed, if Khusro were ever right there would be little left to yearn for. And that makes for bad politics as well as poor literature.

Well, Indian cities are going through some sort of heyday right now. Suddenly we have the resources and the reasons to reshape the city extensively, and in piecemeal Indian fashion that is exactly what’s happening. With every new luxury apartment block, glass-walled office tower, flyover and shopping precinct — not to mention parking lot — we promise ourselves a paradise on earth. What we get isn’t quite so heavenly.

Take Delhi again: in Delhi more than any of the British-founded cities, we live on the skin of a historical beast, whose bones jutting above the surface are the monuments and ruins of extinct sarkars. To an extent, what VT and the Taj may be to Mumbai, the ancient sites and British-built palaces of government are to Delhi — anchors and markers of place and identity. What is Ferozeshah Kotla without Firoz Shah’s kotla?

And yet: never in history has this city been bigger or richer, and never has it devoted so many resources to protecting its monumental heritage. That is very important, but it does have one drawback. Preserving heritage means halting the process of decay, putting up a fence, diverting traffic around it, cutting it off from life and change. Surviving as mere landmarks and ornaments, old sites cease to mean anything. So, what VT and the Taj can do for the imaginations of Mumbaikars, now and perhaps in the future, the Red Fort cannot for Delhi. Delhiites are proud of these things, but how can they know them intimately enough to love them?

The rest of Delhi, unlike large parts of Mumbai and Kolkata, is very new and constantly renewed. Appropriately to context, its writers generate a lot of fleeting, forgettable, middle-class fiction: chick-lit, conspiracy thrillers, momentary memoirs. So where are the great writers of contemporary Delhi? Mumbai and Kolkata certainly have a few.

If only — it is probably too late — we could redesign the city so that different times and classes could come face to face, so that the old would not entirely cease to serve as a model for the new, writers might be inspired to create a literary heritage that lasts longer than the buildings in which they live and work.

(I owe the inspiration for this column to a very fine book called In Ruins, by a British museum director and art historian named Christopher Woodward. Here’s a link to the publisher’s website.)

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