To mark the anniversary of Delhi’s 100th year as India’s capital, we sat down with two distinguished Dilliwallas for a wide-ranging discussion about the twists and turns of
the city’s long history.
WILLIAM DALRYMPLE first came to live in Delhi in 1984, then returned in 1989 to write one of the classic books about the capital, City of Djinns; he has lived here on and off for the past two decades, and written a series of best-selling histories and travelogues, from White Mughals to Nine Lives.
MAHMOOD FAROOQUI, a writer, historian and performer, arrived at about the same time, and has since co-directed the acclaimed film Peepli (Live), penned a history of the Mutiny of 1857, and spearheaded a revival of Dastangoi, the lost art of Urdu storytelling. Our conversation took place over lunch on a sunny December afternoon at Dalrymple’s farmhouse in Mehrauli—a fine spot, it turns out, from which to contemplate the seismic changes that have defined the city’s history, whether over the past ten centuries or the past 20 years.
Delhi became the capital of British India in 1911, but it had previously served that role for a succession of dynasties. Has the city always depended, throughout its history, on the patronage of a government or a ruler, whether the Mughals, the British, or the Indian Republic?
William Dalrymple: I think what you see, looking at a much wider picture, is that Delhi has this concertinaing history: growing suddenly, and then shrinking again, and then growing again—it’s kind of like one of those jellyfish that you might see in a nature film, expanding and contracting.
You can go all the way back to Indraprastha: it’s a big Pandava centre, and then it’s destroyed; then it’s a big Rajput centre, which is then conquered and again destroyed. It grows again as a centre for refugees from the Mongols—a role that it has played over and over again at times in its history—it continues to grow, as the one place that defied the Mongols: Tughlaqabad is not taken, unlike Baghdad or Balk or Ghazni. But in the end Timur does take the city, around 1400, and it is burnt to the ground and contracts again: all of the craftsmen from Delhi are taken off to Samarkand over the Hindu Kush—the ‘tears of the Hindu,’ so named at that time. It then remains a provincial city for another 100 years or so.
Under the early Mughals, there is no formal capital: wherever the emperor is serves as the capital; it moves between Lahore, Fatehpur Sikri, Delhi and Allahabad. But Delhi grows again when a huge amount of money is poured into it by Shah Jahan and all his daughters and family—commissions, caravanserais, and so on. Again, however, within about 30 years of the founding of Shahjahanabad, the city has contracted again. One of these European travellers shows up not long after Shah Jahan dies and writes that the city is already deserted again: Aurangzeb has gone off to the Deccan, and this brand new swanky city has suddenly been left deserted—there’s no one there. You’ve got all these fancy buildings half-finished, still under construction, and there’s nobody living in the city.
Then comes a period called the Twilight, roughly from the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 to the capture of Delhi by the British in 1803, when it’s a centre of poets and all sorts of interesting things are going on, but there’s very little money, no trade, very little stability; it’s captured successively by the Marathas, by the Afghans.
The city grows very fast again between 1803 and 1857. It becomes a very prosperous city under the British, with the Mughal court as its centre. But then it’s completely destroyed after 1857, and remains a provincial city until 1911. Each of these times it grows and contracts, grows and contracts. No other city I know of, in fact, has this kind of succession of deaths and revivals.
Mahmood Farooqui: You could even extend this beyond 1911—until 1947 it’s actually Lahore that is the principal town in north India: that’s where the fashionable places are, that’s where the film industry is, the best colleges, the landed elites. Delhi becomes the capital in 1911, but the two big cities in north India are still Calcutta and Lahore, at least until 1947. Becoming the capital in 1911 didn’t immediately make Delhi into a big city or a cultural centre or a happening place.
What was the city like between 1857 and 1911?
Farooqui: It is still a small town, but it is expanding, because the railroads are here, because the British educational institutions are opening up. It’s a great time for trading, and a lot of the traders of the old regime become middlemen and servicemen for the expanding the British Empire.
Dalrymple: But we’re talking about growth out of a wasteland: after 1857, the city is empty for four years. The inhabitants are expelled and not allowed to return, out of pure punishment. There was almost no one here. Two cities are punished for their role in the Mutiny: Delhi and Lucknow; the centre of UP moves to Allahabad and the centre of this part of India moves to Lahore—even today, if you want to look at the colonial records for Delhi from that era you have to go to archives in Lahore.
What happened in 1857 is that—very surprisingly, to our modern sensibilities—the overwhelmingly Hindu sepoys opt to come and rally under the flag of the Mughal emperor—who’s not particularly ready to take that role. So all these guys shoot their officers, beginning in Meerut, then in Rajasthan and UP, and then come straight to Delhi—100,000 sepoys pour into the city; the very night that they throw off their allegiance to the British East India Company, they ride through the night to Delhi, because this is where the Mughal emperor resides, and he remains a source of legitimacy.
Farooqui: The Mughal emperor continues to have a certain cachetx`, continues to enjoy some authority, even though he has been stripped of his real powers by the British. There is a kind of aura, and a prestige, that accrues to him. The sepoys are fighting to rid India of the British, and yet they’re not clear about what they are fighting for. But in order to rid India of the British, they need an alternate authority, and the emperor plays that role.
Dalrymple: When you think about the city after the Mutiny, you must not underestimate the catastrophe in 1857. The city was growing—but it was growing from nothing. Not only was the city almost erased, the culture of the city—which is what had distinguished it—and the elite of the city, are deliberately targeted and reduced. You have all the Mughal names removed: Roshanara Bagh becomes the Queen Victoria Gardens, all the places with Mughal names get British appellations; the language of government, the language of power, is strictly English.
After the events of 1857, and the subsequent devastation of the city, what led the British to move the capital here 50 years later?
Dalrymple: There’s two answers for that. One is a straightforward British political calculation, because the Bengalis are causing a lot of trouble for the Brits. The centre of political terrorism is Calcutta; you get people putting bombs in the Writers’ Building, and you don’t have that in Delhi. Particularly after the reign of Lord Curzon [from 1899 to 1905], the Bengalis are seen by the British to be troublemakers, political activists, too-clever-by-half babus, and Calcutta itself also becomes unmanageably large and chaotic as an urban space.
Farooqui: The decision to move the capital in 1911 is also linked, in a way, to a perceived need to pacify the Muslims, to play the Muslims versus the Bengalis, or the Muslims versus the Hindus. When Bengal is divided in 1905, the British see that the Muslims seem to be happy about that, while the Congress, the nationalists, and the Bengalis are very unhappy about it.
Dalrymple: In one sense you have a desire to get away from the Bengalis, the troublesome Bengalis. But also the British, by the turn of the century, have ceased to regard the Mughals as a threat—as something to be frightened of or erased from memory—and come to think of themselves as the successors to the Mughals.
Farooqui: And they are helped by the fact that all the Delhi elites of 1857, the few that survived, are very much collaborating with the British regime. They are all teaching their people to be loyal to the British, trying to get into modern education and reform their community, so to say. It’s a kind of a reward for their loyalty as well. Delhi, the capital, is the reward for the loyalty of Muslims who were supporting the regime.
Delhi had served as a capital for hundreds of years; Muslims were attached to the city of Delhi; and the Bengalis were creating a big ruckus. The British are threatened by the Bengalis—these Indians with English educa-tions, politically active, quoting Mill and Montesquieu at them.
Dalrymple: Do you think it was consciously a kind of philo-Muslim decision?
Farooqui: To a certain extent, yes. It is done to sort of please the Muslims as well. The thought, perhaps, is that we cannot afford sedition from both the Muslims and the Hindus at the same time.
Dalrymple: At the same time, for the British, it is very much a re-imagining of the dynastic capital. There is a passage in Robert Grant Irving’s book, Indian Summer, where Lord Hardinge, who was the viceroy at the time, says something to the effect that “As the successors of the Mughal emperors we must plant our new city in the ancestral centre of power.”
You can see this even from the 1870s, with the Delhi Durbars. For 25 years after 1857, the British are going about actively uprooting all Mughal references from the landscape of Delhi—renaming all the gardens and parks and places. And then in 1877, you get the first Delhi Durbar when suddenly the British, for the first time, appropriate the Mughal pageantry. Queen Victoria is declared the Empress of India not in Calcutta, but in Delhi. Delhi is a small provincial town at this point, but they don’t do it on the Maidan in Calcutta, they come to Delhi to do it, and they erect this kind of Mughal-style canopy, with a sort of mock-Taj shape to it. And then there are successive durbars in 1903 and 1911. Even in 1877, when there was no thought of moving the capital here, the British are very consciously connecting themselves to the story of the Mughals—the story as they imagine it, at least.
What do you think the city would look like today if the British had not moved the capital here in 1911?
Dalrymple: The city did not change dramatically, at least not immediately after 1911. In the early days of New Delhi, you have a bunch of British servants, living out in a kind of wilderness without a town attached to it. All those bungalows on Akbar Road are there, but there’s no south Delhi.
When Robert Byron turns up in the 1930s to write about Delhi and photograph it for the magazine Country Life, he is bowled over by the brilliance of the buildings, but struck by the complete indifference of everyone living here. All these buildings are coming up, south of this small provincial town, these huge unwieldy buildings, into the scrub, surrounded by ruins and herds of black buck and hyenas. People are still going out hunting in Delhi: Umar Hayat Khan comes down from the Punjab with his cheetahs and goes hunting in what’s now South Extension or Greater Kailash. Iris Butler [the daughter of Montagu Butler, the governor of the Central Provinces] who was a friend of my grandmother, was shown around the foundations of Viceroy’s House—now Rashtrapathi Bhavan—at that time by Lutyens, and she recalls going hunting with cheetahs in south Delhi.
Farooqui: Had it not become the capital, Delhi certainly wouldn’t be the same city today: being the capital makes a big difference to the way Delhi has developed after 1947, during the period of state-sponsored industrial development in the 1950s and 1960s. The Punjabis who came to Delhi after Partition—to take one example—were from commercial classes; they were shopkeepers. But they turned that commercial capital into industrial capital, in Delhi, and now it has turned into professional capital in the third generation.
So was the development of Delhi driven by the fact that the government was here? Can we see it as a city like Washington—which was created from scratch to be the seat of government?
Dalrymple: This is something that has changed dramatically in front of our eyes. The great leap that has taken place in the last 20 years—since 1991, thanks to Manmohan Singh—is the transformation of Delhi from a sort of Canberra kind of place, where nothing much happens, but there’s lots of government. In the 1980s people come here to make deals, or get permissions or licences, but it’s a pretty dead city. It hasn’t got its old cultural identity anymore—it’s no longer the Mughal city. And then an extraordinary thing happens between 1991 and about 2000, when suddenly Delhi becomes a real capital, in the sense of attracting people who want to come and live here from all over India; it’s not just a Punjabi city anymore. To use your American analogy, what’s amazing about Delhi is that it’s moved, in 20 years, from being ‘Washington’ to being almost—and it will be—‘New York.’ That transformation is happening right now.
Farooqui: To a degree some of this may start even earlier, with the Asiad and the construction boom after 1982. At around the same time, commercial television comes to India, and Delhi is also the capital of that television industry, the place where the mandarins are deciding television programmes and such.
Dalrymple: You have a life now in Delhi that simply was not there in 1989. The city as it existed only 20 years ago would be unrecognisable today: City of Djinns, which was written at that time, describes a city that no longer exists—the book is now a historical document. We have a friend, a woman from Bombay, who came here in 1989, and she thought Delhi was out and out boorish, provincial, uncivilised, full of rude Punjabis... This was a woman who had grown up in sophisticated Bombay, and she regarded Delhi as if she had come to Heart of Darkness—as if she had been sent off to the Third World, as she saw it.
What has disappeared in the last 20 years?
Dalrymple: It’s not that things have disappeared, but that so many new things have emerged. It seems to me, actually, in the nature of Indian development in general, that things don’t disappear at all—everything continues forever. So the sadhus of the Mahabharata are still sitting there in Nigambodh Ghat, still chanting the same Sanskrit slokas; the Sufis of Nizamuddin are still singing the same Amir Khusro songs, every Thursday night, 800 years on. You still find these old men, with 1930s Ealing Comedy accents, wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, in the Lodhi Gardens or the Gymkhana Club, these colonels still out for an evening walk with their sticks. All that is still there. What has changed, though, is that it is now attached to a capital city that represents the whole of India, that is full of Mallus and Bengalis and Tamils and Biharis. Everyone is coming here now.
Farooqui: From the mid-1990s onward, the amount of money that is being made by and through connections to the government grows exponentially. We’re talking about contracts to media people, contracts to telephone companies, giving land away. And then land becomes the motor and the engine of Delhi’s growth as a commercial city, as a city of wealth. We have a situation in the last 10 or 15 years where the richest people in India now live in Delhi. Delhi is a city where people now own jets! I had no idea. Our friend Rana Dasgupta wrote an essay recently on Delhi [published in Granta] and he went to a showroom where they sell these expensive cars, Lamborghinis, and he asks the girls in the showroom, “Who buys these cars?” And they explain that they ask customers who come into the showroom, “Do you own a jet? Do you own an island somewhere?”
This is a city where there is now that kind of wealth. And here, you have these overnight billionaires, people who have become rich because of a land contract, or some scam, or some government fixing. In Bombay, that wealth would have likely come from a certain profession, from a trade that your family has done for generations. In Delhi, the two great engines of wealth creation are land and government fixing. Even if you’re a police inspector, there’s a lot of money to be made. That’s the difference between the kind of wealth we see in Delhi and the wealth we see in other cities. Remember that Delhi, also, is not the highest taxpaying city in the country—that is still Bombay—so there is wealth here that is not being taxed, what they used to call ‘black money.’ Delhi is the heart of black money in India.
It is a city for people like Niira Radia. And this is not just true of the political realm: you see it in the cultural realm, in publishing, in journalism. There are people who know people, who can get things done, who can fix things. Delhi is very much about knowing people—who do you know? If a policewala stops even a guy on a bike on the road, the guy is likely to say, “You know, I have an uncle in the police.”
So is power the defining element in Delhi today?
Dalrymple: Perhaps less so than it was 20 years ago. It was a different place then, when it was a city without industry, which had only politics to keep it going; now it’s a city that has a number of very profitable industries. Now there is money as well as power.
Farooqui: Yes, there has always been that kind of power, but it takes a different form today. In the past, one drew power from status, from lineage and from education. That kind of power is no longer unique in Delhi today—going to St Stephen’s College does not have the same cachet that it did 20 years ago. But hierarchy still matters a lot more visibly in Delhi today than in other places—in Bombay, you could be riding a bus next to a guy who’s a millionaire, but he doesn’t have to show it. In Delhi it is very important to show it off.
Dalrymple: Again, that’s a new thing. When I first came here, what I found very striking was that you would meet people who had a lot of money, but they would live in a house without any pictures—they’d have a telly, and a four-piece-sofa suite, and that was it. This whole world of art galleries and conspicuous interiors—and the magazines in which to display what you’ve bought—this is something of the last ten years. My very, very rich landlady in the late 1980s didn’t have a single picture in her house other than one of Guru Nanak. That same house today is probably full of awful modern art...
Farooqui: But I think the sense of power is still very integral to the people who are important in Delhi: the sense that they can make things happen, they can do things—that is a particularly Delhi kind of mentality. It’s the thing that you saw with Niira Radia: we will talk to that person, we will fix it, we will change it, I can get things done. There is an entrepreneurial spirit to the city, which can bend rules—break rules—and get things moving, and which defines the type of unprincipled, government-dependent capitalist that you see now in Delhi. It’s the city of dalals—the city of brokers—the city of brokers and fixers and middlemen, and it has been so for some time. Power comes from land and contracts, and land and contracts come from the government.
Dalrymple: You can even take that back a few generations: it was the contractors, the people who built Lutyens’ Delhi, who then became the city’s modern aristocrats—but they were contractors at the start.
Farooqui: Delhi is also, remember, the city of culture today, and culture is following money. The accoutrements of culture are now being acquired by a lot more people than was the case earlier: now culture is a democratic thing that you can buy; 20 years ago you couldn’t buy it, you had it in your family.
Look at the film stars, who never came to Delhi in the 1980s: today if you have a film premiere, you have to do it in Delhi as well, you have to show it in Delhi. This is why now we think we can stay in Delhi and make a film and show it here—just ten years ago, this wasn’t even possible. But now it’s the media capital of the country, the new media capital.
Dalrymple: Another transformation that has taken place—one that is not solely confined to Delhi, but centred here—is the growth of the Indian publishing industry. I’m lucky to say that all of my books in this country have been bestsellers. But in 1993, with City of Djinns, a number one bestseller was about 6,000 hardbacks. Today that number is more like 50,000—I sell twice as many books today in India as I do in England, where the numbers have not increased at all. Go to any mall in this country, there are huge bookshops everywhere now. And you didn’t have this culture of publishing in Delhi in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; you had it in Calcutta and Bombay, but not in Delhi. In fact, with the exceptions of Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, it’s very hard to think of a single major Delhi-based writer in English from that era.
Farooqui: And this continues to grow in Delhi today—it’s where the writers are coming from, where the foreigners are coming to. And for the first time, only recently, I’ve heard of people who have chosen to relocate themselves from New York or London to Delhi. This was unheard of before, writers opting to come and live here.
Dalrymple: In my generation, the bright young people—the Harvard Indians, the Oxbridge Indians—didn’t come back to India. They are still sitting today in New York and London and Boston. But there’s no question today that young Indians finishing university in the West are coming straight back here—this is where the jobs are.
What will determine the future course of Delhi’s development? Can we look at something like the Commonwealth Games, to take one recent example, and see that just as in 1911, the fate of Delhi is being shaped by external forces that write their agendas on the city?
Dalrymple: Yes, that’s true. If we’re looking over the long term, there is a sense in which Delhi is a city that has things happen to it, whether by the British, or the Marathas, or the Afghans. But what was both interesting and embarrassing about the Commonwealth Games, for Delhi, is that this is a city that has done great public displays—and massive construction projects—for century after century, and produced all of these amazing buildings, whether we are talking about Tughlaqabad or India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan or the Red Fort. These things were built flawlessly, generation after generation, by the same old Rajasthani workmen, the same women carrying bricks on their heads that you could see building the CWG bridges. The difference is that it was a fiasco this time; it was pathetic: the ugliness of these buildings that were erected, the clumsiness of the display. Delhi has provided bad government for this country for 1,000 years, but it has always done good display; now it does bad government and ugly architecture.
Can the city continue to grow? Will we see 30 or 40 million people in Delhi?
Dalrymple: There are all sorts of limits to growth. The water level out here has gone way down—my neighbours had to drill down about 200 or 300 feet just to get any water. So the city is coming up against the limits of its infrastructure—there may be a finite limit to growth.
Farooqui: I’m not sure about that—people living in Indian villages, and in Indian cities, have a capacity to live with miserable conditions. Look at the state of the roads as we drove down here! But you continue to drive on the roads, of course, because what else can you do.
Delhi has been the fastest-growing city in India for some time now; it is the number one destination for poor migrant workers, and I don’t think it’s going to slow down, because the government is not making policies to keep the poor in the villages; they are making policies to get the villagers out of the villages and into the cities. As one of our leading ministers recently said—this is Mr Chidambaram—his vision for India in 2020 is that 80 percent of India should be living in cities.
I think the government is very conscious about these policies, and they know what they are doing: they’re doing it deliberately. They don’t want to force people out of the villages, but they are determined to make policies that bring them out of the villages and into the cities. They are virtually coercing them out: if you are not going to put any power or any medical centres in the village, where are they going to go?