Could New Delhi be the city of India's future?

Could New Delhi be the city of India's future?

The Indian capital is cosmopolitan, daring, intellectual and durable: So say the scholars, and quite a few ordinary thinkers as well
Connaught Place
Spiraling inward: Connaught Circus (officially Indira Chowk) is the outer ring of Connaught Place (now Rajiv Chowk) and one of the rotating commercial centers of New Delhi.

The constant verbal sparring between Mumbai and New Delhi comes as no surprise to residents of either city. 

Mumbai's own split identity of cosmopolitanism and an historical threat of religious violence have been popularly reflected upon, in books like "Maximum City" and movies such as "Mumbai Meri Jaan".

But who has done this for New Delhi? Really sat there and pulled out the definitive threads in a book to make people sit up and take notice?

Perhaps the average Mumbaikers' apparent distaste for New Delhi arises from the latter's inherent rebellion towards being understood.

I want to understand, so I sit in on a nostalgic May lecture called The Transformations of Delhi: India's Capital at 100, where some of New Delhi's most prominent intellectuals speak about that which characterizes the capital, to an audience comprising of old Dilliwallas -- writers, editors, researchers -- and a few interested expats.

The conversation between William Dalrymple, Mukul Kesavan, Mushirul Hasan and moderator Mahmood Farooqi celebrating 100 years of New Delhi as the capital city of India, if anything, tells me that the essence of Delhi (both old and new) exists in its refusal to be stereotyped.

But, the intellectuals argue, no creation of man can exist without pattern: even in dispersal and chaos there is repetition.

These themes represent the closest we can get -- while we live in it -- to understanding the idea of Delhi and New Delhi, one of its nine districts.

Nostalgic New Delhi

Dilliwallas find a sense of belonging by romanticizing the gardens and old monuments which exist in a time passed, incongruous with the aggressive world outside their gates.

This disjunction in time exists in the classification of roads in Delhi too, claims Farooqi.

The names of roads bear no semblance with their locality and are instead isolated within biased definitions of those that contributed to India's creation, and recreation. 

As opposed to Paranthe Wali Galli in Old Delhi or Marine Drive in Mumbai, New Delhi's Aurungzeb Road or Connaught Place's new avatar as Rajiv Chowk, for example, are simply historical tags imposed on places the names have nothing to do with. 

Delhi Press ArchivesMajestic Cinema in Chandni Chowk, 1953. When telephone wires weren't as tangled and Old Delhi was fashionable.

Metropolitan New Delhi

The single contemporary pride, as opposed to its obsession with its past, is the newly built Delhi Metro Rail which converges inwards to the center or projects outwards from the center, depending on the way you look at it. 

It allows for a previously flat, dispersed city to travel both below and above ground, above the roads, flyovers and trees, for a new view.

The metro is a mechanical metaphor for the essence of Delhi -- a blurring between the edges of the city and its center, like a small base with a large outer rim, and a crack traveling through.

Delhi Press ArchivesThe Delhi Metro extends all the way to Dwarka in the west, allowing for much of the city to be viewed from above.

Delhi as a spiral

Like a cyclone burgeoning from its calm eye, Delhi exists as a spiral, both geographically and culturally, the pundits say. 

William Dalrymple theorizes that whilst central Lutyen's Delhi, inhabited by the white neo-Georgian columns and verandahs, is sprawling and quiet, the outskirts of the city are densely-populated and ripe with activity.

In contrast, cities around the world are most vibrant in their central squares and circles. 

Delhi as a pendulum

Geographically, the walled city of Old Delhi spread from Shahjahanabad to the center and then just grew further and further south.

This shift in its North and South borders mimics the to-and-fro movement in the consciousness of the city. 

Kesavan attributes Delhi's as a history of "getting away", characterized by a middle class aspiration to shift habitat with economics and hope. 

The locomotion between the old and new, between the already decayed and the modernized, is relentless.

The spiral becomes a pendulum -- circulating to and fro, a linear left and right movement in a circular city: a pattern in dispersal. 

Delhi Press ArchivesThe 1984 Republic Day parade near Parliament in New Delhi. Lutyen's Canopy is at the center, emptied of its King George Vth statue post-independence.

The future of New Delhi

Despite this existential quality to the spirit of Delhi, moderator Farooqi closes the discussion by predicting New Delhi as the city of India's future: the most cosmopolitan, daring, intellectual and durable.

The statement elicits proud and slightly shocked murmurs and a few hisses. But what if it were true?

Does New Delhi's essence exist in its freedom to assume any character, once a spiral, once a pendelum, timelessly and simultaneously becoming its own past, present and future? While Mumbai has had to endure the pressure of too many millions on one narrow strip of land, struggling every monsoon to keep all heads above water.

Himali Singh Soin is a poet and art writer living in New Delhi.

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