A Tale of Eight Cities

My heart raced as the wheels of the plane dropped out, jolting everyone who was dozing off. Peering out of my window, I could make out the shapes of small blots of light, slowly becoming denser, larger, and morphing into each other until all there was was a golden sea stretching as far as the eye could see. Already, the sounds of the city welled up in my ears (and already I could feel the satisfying burn of stretching my legs within the hour). I was arriving in the ancient city of Delhi, where I was born. After two long years, I was finally home.

There’s really no city quite like Delhi. Well, Delhi itself is not really city. It’s more like… eight cities. Some are underground, some are protected heritage sites, and some still buzz with the clanking and ringing din of urban living. Villages exist at the foot of skyscrapers, malls have thousand year old mosques in their backyard and even among the decay of some of these older places one can find overwhelming beauty of past golden ages. Delhi is a city of contradictions, beautiful and sometimes tragic though they might be.

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The ancient city of Dehlavi has known many rulers, from the semi-mythical Pandava brothers, to the Tomars of Rajputana with their miracle rust-free iron, to the Turkic-peoples such as the Mamelukes and Mughals from whom Delhi derives its distinct architecture and language (Urdu was once known as Zuban-e-Dehlavi: the language of Delhi). Once the British left, author Sarah McDonald famously joked, Delhi found new rulers in the Punjabis, who arrived as an exodus of refugees following the partition of India in 1947. My family too was one of the many who settled down here, and over the next few decades made the rich culture of this city their own.

Delhi has certainly become a center of Punjabi culture; the music, street food, fashion and even the language have been very much influenced by Punjab, Delhi’s northern neighbor. Luckily for me, I was able to experience the best of these at my cousin’s wedding, the reason for my homecoming. It may seem a bit much to fly a few thousand miles to attend a wedding; though Indian weddings are a bit different, they are usually 3-4 days long (with breaks in-between of course!) and draw family members and friends from all corners of the world. In short, they’re kind of a big deal, and missing out on one entails missing out on a tonne of happy memories and bonding experiences.

The ceremonies were extensive and elaborate and were sandwiched between inter-generational dance battles – at one point even my 92 year old grandmother put everyone in their place with a few moves. I was very fortunate also to meet a family friend at the wedding who proved to be an excellent source for my keystone project. The wedding was so hectic that once it was over we had to plan a separate family reunion so that we could catch up in a more quiet and less crowded location.

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new delhi 3As one might imagine, Delhi is also a treasure trove for any history nerd such as myself. Another favorite thing of mine to do is to go on heritage walks around many of the city’s 8 historical cities. The walks are lead by a family friend, Mr. Hashmi, who is an expert on the history of the city and whose family has been living in Old Delhi for multiple generations. The walks are a delight because not only does one get a fascinating story of a particular location, but also a hilarious (though sometimes scathing) commentary on failed public heritage preservation policies. Sometimes, the walks would end with a meal in one of Old Delhi’s famous Dhaba street-food cafes.

One such walk which I was especially keen on began on a cold winter morning in a particularly old part of Delhi. This walk was visiting the grave shrine of the 12th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya and his favorite disciple, the musical prodigy Amir Khusrao – Perhaps one of my favorite poets and musicians. We snaked through the winding alleys of Nizamuddin Village, as chickens beat their wings in our faces, the smell of frying dough filled the air and the occasional ancient structure caught everybody’s attention. Mr. Hashmi explained the complicated and exciting history of Sufi music in India as he pointed out its relationship to the architecture we saw around us. Slowly as we approached the dargah– the grave-shrine, we heard music rise above the old walls. But before our entry, Mr. Hashmi insisted we stop at a small Dhaba by the entrance and treated us to some warming ginger chai.

The marble floor in the open air shrine was cold, but the entire complex smelled of roses and incense. Qawwali musicians sat on the floor, singing captivating songs with shrill voices as they clapped their hands in unison; patrons distributed sweetmeats among those listening. Slowly, the mist of the morning gave way to a cold afternoon sun and we ventured down into the step-well from where the village once derived its water. Around us, hawkers weaved about the pilgrims from all over South Asia, trying to sell them rosaries, prayer books and flowers (perhaps this was where the rose scent came from?).

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Sitting on the steps of the step-well, I realized I would really miss this city I had once called home: I was headed out to Mumbai in a few days to meet my sister. The wonderful thing about Delhi is that it tends to stick with you; the culture and people here are so unique and penetrating, they manage to sneak up on you during your travels. I for one found myself replying to non-Indian friends with typical Delhi-lingo such as “Jugaad karlenge” (We’ll improvise) or “Scene set hai” (Our future social interaction has been planned and confirmed). Of course, it took me a few seconds to realize what I had done, following which I promptly corrected myself.

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Stay tuned for future adventure stories of Mumbai and Indonesia!

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