The alacrity with which the traveller first greets Delhi inevitably—in the subsequent phase of his visit—gives way to a kind of malaise, a result of the combination of heat and foul air, dust and dirt, and public places utterly swollen with humanity, much of it, by appearances, destitute.
It must be said that New Delhi is a sprawling city, a very green city, with wide boulevards under canopies of palm, ashoka and peepal trees, with grid-patterned outdoor markets and gated residential neighbourhoods, and with myriad parks visited by enthusiastic Delhiites, often for vigorous morning exercise, afternoon naps or evening strolls. And where green transforms into glass, the heavily air-conditioned shops and cafés of New Delhi bring the traveller respite from the heat as it ticks upward of thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight degrees Celsius.
Old Delhi—Shahjahanabad—presents itself in all the layers of its history, a panoply of innumerable eras and ages—where mosques ride shotgun with temples, where the same two alleyways might intersect a dozen times in a dozen different bazaars, where classical Sanskrit begat modern Hindu-Urdu—as though it contains both its past and present “like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of steps, the poles of flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”*
Together, the new and the old coalesce into a teeming, sprawling, relentless metropolis that is beautiful and even serene at certain extreme close-ups, but almost impossible to appreciate through a wide-angle lens. Indeed, viewed from the perch of three increasingly insufferable weeks’ worth of stay, Delhi becomes repugnant, albeit through no fault of its own.
Thus, despite the traveller’s eagerness to discover Delhi, the city itself rejects him and sends him away; punishes him for deigning to curse the city for the hellishness of its air.
And so the traveller will reflect upon Delhi from the nearest point of exile, which for most travellers is the city of Agra—the city of the Taj Mahal.
(To be continued…)
* A passage from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; from “Cities and Memory 3,” pp. 10-11.