“Delhi is the symbol of old India and new—even the stones here whisper
to our ears of the ages of long ago and the air we breathe is full of
the dust and fragrances of the past, as also of the fresh and piercing
winds of the present.”
On our approach to Delhi, I get my first sight of the slums along the
railway lines; people living in this country of one billion people, peddling
against the odds in rough dwelling places without access to electricity
water or sewage.
My heart lurches.
Typically, in this land of extremes, after slowly weaving through the din
of a frenetic market and hotel district, we speed past tree-lined colonial
homes and clubs with large gardens, where uniformed staff serve afternoon
tea on a silver service and fashionable wives of businessmen and army and
air force officers play cards, discuss their winter roses and the hazards of
cleaning marble with Dettol.
The solid colonial architecture at Rajpath, the central seat of
government, which stretches from the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan to the arch
of India Gate, is reminiscent in its symmetric beauty of Washington.
Mentally, I had to update my childhood memory of Rashtrapati Bhavan,
which is now heavily-guarded and barred with gilded gates.
One summer, several decades back when I was a girl of ten, my father took
me to meet Indira Gandhi. Then the Bhavan thronged with adoring crowds
chanting in Hindi: “Indra Gandhi is good. She keeps her promises.”
Mrs Gandhi was imposing with that trademark strip of grey in her severe
and strangely compelling face. I remember Rahul Gandhi her grandson by her
side, fidgeting. A photograph was taken.
Several assassinations later (Indira, Rajiv), such access to any leader
is virtually impossible today.
Part of Delhi’s disorienting appeal is that despite its modernisation,
high-rise hotels, new underground metro, which transports over 300,000
people around the city daily, hefty malls, trendy bars and nightclubs, it
heaves with the weight of centuries of conquerors (Rajputs, Afghans, Turks,
Moguls, Persians, British), who have marked it with monuments and gardens
and carved out no fewer than seven cities here.
If you want to step back 50, 100 or maybe 5,000 years, though, you can,
The 16th century Red Fort—a ghostly reminder of the splendour of Mogul
rule—looms over the old city, with its sandstone turrets, moat, palaces with
ceilings (once overlaid with gold and silver reflected in a central pool in
the marble floor).
There is a hall of public audience where a marble throne is surrounded by
panels inlaid with precious stones, and the fort’s vast lawns; once a scene
where elephants fought to entertain royalty.
India’s recent history of the Gandhi dynasty, partition and independence
is to be found in Central Delhi in a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, and the
homes, now beautifully-maintained museums of the lives of Jawaharlal Nehru
and Indira Gandhi.
Nehru’s bedroom, where he died, his study, the sari Indira Gandhi was
wearing riddled with bullet holes, her final walk, now inlaid with stone to
evoke a river, the spot in which she was shot, is all preserved, strangely
India’s past remains its security blanket.
In the wintry haze amidst throngs of people, we attend the wedding of the
daughter of Trinidad and Tobago’s former high commissioner to India on the
vast Air Force grounds, Birla temple, where my parents married, visit
There is so much left to see, but the assault that India is to the senses
can bring on a sudden exhaustion. It’s time to head for the Himalayas.
Next week — Simla.