Under my byline

Hidden in plain sight

Posted in Architecture/Design, Living by Rrishi on 9 March 2009

BBC journalist Sam Miller discovered Delhi on foot. He takes us through four worlds in one morning

“That’s the cheapest house in Panchsheel Park,” says Sam Miller, pointing. This is one of the priciest parts of Delhi, so why is it cheap? The house overlooks a neighbourhood park on one side, and on the other the stumpy remains of the 13th-14th-century city walls of Siri — spectacular in the morning sunlight. But behind the old walls are three tall tin roofs, marking a cremation ground. “They’re afraid of bhoots,” says Miller gleefully, pronouncing it “boots”.

Miller is a BBC journalist who’s lived in Delhi for years and recently published a book about the city, as it is experienced on foot. It’s called Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, and it’s at the top of non-fiction bestseller lists right now — proving (if proof was still needed) that Indian citydwellers are eager for new perspectives on their own cities. We’re taking a walk with Miller to see what he sees.

He’s dressed wisely, in a bright red T-shirt and khakis, well-used trainers and floppy hat. And he is tall, so he stands out. This is good, because it’s school drop-off time, and big cars are pelting down the colony lanes. Observing a foreigner, the drivers pass us with inches rather than millimetres to spare.

Miller plans to walk us through “four worlds, within the space of one kilometre”: Panchsheel, Siri, Shahpur Jat, and Asiad Village. It’s not quite the sort of walk that his book otherwise reveals, where he frequently tramps across the interstices in the maps of Delhi, places where the car-borne and the middle-class never go. But it is one of his favourite walks.

We squeeze through the school parking lot towards the Siri walls, and there’s a first surprise: a construction site where material for the ASI’s ham-handed repair work on the ancient walls is collected. The workers have a line of small huts, and on the beautifully flattened earth in front a dog yawns while men drink tea. Behind them is the southern gate of Siri, and beyond that the enormous Siri park.

Miller points out two landmarks. “That red house — that room is where I wrote the book,” with a broad view of the Siri walls seen through scruffy native scrub. And, just beyond the walls, an enormous water tower, painted an institutional yellow but still somehow noble.

The tower is Miller’s reference point, and indeed we will see it from various distances and angles in the course of the walk. In his study at home there are two small oil sketches of this water tower by a friend, which reveal how “it changes in the light, time of day”.

“One day,” Miller says, “you’ll hear of a journalist arrested for climbing it — that will be me.” It’s the spiral staircase that particularly fascinates him. He used the spiral as the organising principle of his book, in which he started in Connaught Place, the centre of the city, and then walked in an expanding spiral all the way to Gurgaon.

Scarcely have we entered the park, it seems, than we are out of it: a turnstile puts us at a small crossing that Miller calls “the junction of Panchsheel Park and Shahpur Jat”, an urban village. We’re still following the line of Siri’s walls — there’s a tall and well-preserved section alongside. In the village, in the lanes below the looming, overbuilt houses, morning things are happening: brushing of teeth, drinking of tea, seniors with walking sticks buying vegetables.

Miller takes a sudden left into a long, dim corridor between two buildings. To left and right slippers are parked outside small apartments. Above, the gap is being built over. But at the far end we exit abruptly, magically, into the very belly of a bastion. It’s a semi-circular segment of wall, complete with merlons and medallions. “It’s quite useful to the locals,” Miller points out (while surprised hut-dwellers look on), and indeed it’s piled with bricks and other things. “If it wasn’t useful, it wouldn’t have survived.”

How on earth did he find it? “You can just see the top from a street in Panchsheel,” he says, and then he tracked it down by asking.

We trickle back through Shahpur Jat, and Miller finds a tiny bridge over to Raj Rewal’s Asiad Village, built in the early 1980s right on top of the ruins of ancient Siri. The change of scene is indeed shocking: from dust, bustle and a vegetable market to the relative sterility of a single architectural imagination. It’s a relief when Miller quickly walks us around a corner and through the narrowest metal-barred gate I’ve seen — “It’s an anti-bicycle gate” — back into the wilder stretches of Siri park.

The park is enormous, and its red-earth pathways stray through trees, scrub and stubbly grass. There are peacocks and jungle fowl. A couple of years ago, Miller used to see jackals. It’s poetic and, in Delhi, possibly prophetic: animals wandering the ruins of an imperial capital.

Then: a dense thicket which turns out to hide the ruin of an enormous building. “This building is unlisted,” Miller says. “It seems to be early 14th century. Nobody knows what it is. It’s not a mosque, not a barracks, so it must be some sort of palace.” If you know to look for it, you can’t miss it.

And that’s the key to Miller’s wandering. From a car, one sees scarcely anything. It’s only to a walker that the city truly opens up. Many secrets are hidden in plain sight, and you have to walk right up close to see them.

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