There were mongooses in Palam Air Force base in the late 80s. Besides, there were huge trees, cricket grounds, open air cinemas – all of them filled with that astounding calmness only a service kid knows. It is a calmness of order, of rules, of discipline, and of duty. It is a calmness I recognized in all the Armed Forces installations I grew up on – the Shillong radar station that monitors China, the humungous Jamnagar Indian Air Force base that guards our country’s western borders against Pakistan, the dignified air of the single airstrip in Thanjavur, which was built by the British for the South Asian theatre of World War II and is still maintained by the Indian Air Force for hypothetical future ops against an increasingly hostile Sri Lanka.
I grew up more Punjabi than Tamil in Palam, which was to be expected. My ponytails and fluent Hindi helped too, and though we still spoke Tamil at home, my first language through those early years remained Hindi.
I don’t remember much of Palam; I was too young, though images of quaint service quarters, large playgrounds, long walks, guard rooms, Gold Spot & of course mongooses, remain in my head. This was the Delhi of the late 80s, and my memories are embellished by my parents’ fond recollections of the first city they started living together in, passed on to me by way of the stories that are an intimate part of a service kid’s life.
My father had a big BSA in 1985, one of those bigger, masculine models they don’t make anymore. And with my mother sitting on the carrier, he would pedal to the Russian Embassy, where they would both watch the Indo-Russian film festival all day. This was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when our country was trying to emulate the Russian economic model, the ‘central planning’ of the Nehruvian era, and relationships between the two countries were at an all time high. Clothes were bought at Chandni Chowk, Lassi was had at Sadar Bazaar, and the Lal Qila was always visited, as was the Qutub Minar. The Republic Day parade was always seen in person, and cries of ‘Jai Hind’ on the base were common.
There is a black & white photograph of my parents at Qutub, a personal favorite, in which my father, stands with an arm around my Kanchivaram saree clad mother with the gardens of the Qutub complex in the background, and a baby with a hat cavorts on the ground before them – me. My sister wasn’t born yet.
Their memories weren’t all beautiful though. My father, then posted in the Air Force Police, was on duty at the Delhi Airport once, when a live bomb was found under the seat of the very bench my father had been asleep on for 4 hours.
I was one year old.
My parents always loved Delhi; they still do. I know it in the way they talk about the city, its gardens, its people, the things they did, the places they saw. I’ve always envied them for it, for the fact that they lived in Delhi when history was being written in its corridors of power, when events were being put in motion from its old buildings, events that would change the face of my country.
When Minister of Finance Manmohan Singh liberalized the economy in 1990, my parents were here, watching proceedings on Doordarshan.
They’ve seen an India I’ll never see, a simpler, definitely poorer, somehow more romantic India. They’ve straddled two eras, two epochs – an age of simple contentedness and a sometimes vulgar age of opulence. I’ll envy them forever.
In William Dalrymple’s celebrated memoir of his time in Delhi, published in the early 90s, he writes about “..a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic, a city of djinns..”
When I returned to Delhi three months ago, I found that sentence I read still very much true. And I think that will always be true of this city.
When I chose to come back, I was leaving behind things that were important to me in Madras, the job at a startup I had loved and lived, friends and mentors who wanted me to stay, family who were wary of me going so far away.
But I knew I had to do this; I had to come back to where it all began.
The week I arrived, I took the metro to Chandni Chowk, walked in the old city and sat on the steps of the Jama Masjid, watching the sky fill with colorful kites and grey pigeons. With a friend I went to Nizamuddin the next week, sat on a bench on the road outside the Dargah and ate the most heavenly kababs I’ve ever had in my life. I went to the Red Fort and felt my eyes brim with tears of pride as I stood beneath the fluttering tricolor, the symbol of the Republic, where the Prime Minister, India’s commander in chief, raises it on days of national celebration. I saw the ivory throne of Shah Jahan, locked up in a corner of the Red Fort, and was moved by the sight of it, the seat of the once-mighty emperor of Hindustan. I saw abandoned and in-use British buildings, Mughal monuments, decades old coffee houses, and I saw a people who had endured the loss of possibly the most important idea of human life – the concept of who they are, where they come from; their identity.
It is a broken city, as my father always reminded me. Delhi’s culture was torn apart by partition; a city of poets, artists, craftsmen and intellectuals was turned into something else. And it shows. There’s something sad in Delhi’s air, a tinge of gloom in its winds. And there’s something beautiful in that sadness, like lost love.
It’s easy to become a poet in this city. You just have to listen to the wind.
On the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road, a chaotic, dusty melee of whizzing cars and vrooming bikes, there is a point when, on taking a sudden turn, you’ll raise your head to see the Qutub Minar looming a few miles ahead of you. It is a humbling little moment, one of many this city will give you if you travel on its roads. The Qutub Minar, built by Qutbuddin Aibak of the slave dynasty, is situated in a place the locals call ‘Lal Kot’, and not many understand its significance.
Lal Kot was the first Delhi, built in the 13th century by Raja Anang Pal of the Tomar dynasty, one of the last of the Hindu rulers of Delhi. Even before this, historians believe that this was the site of the mythical Pandava capital of Indraprastha. The word ‘Indraprastha’ is Sanskrit, and means ‘the place where Indra ruled from’.
This was the capital of the kingdom of the Gods.
And this is what you can see when you raise your head on a dusty road in Delhi. History walks through the city with the nonchalant, omnipresent faith of one of the faqirs you can see on Thursdays at Nizamuddin.
If you don’t pay attention to where you are in Delhi, you’ll miss an entire century. Just like that.
My friends still ask me why I chose to travel so far from home & come here. They reason I could have done whatever I wanted to back in Tamil land.
I don’t know how to answer that question.
I can only say that I knew. I knew I had to come back to the imperial city, and try to understand why – why the city and its stories beckoned to me in the way that they did, and why I feel what I feel when I walk through a city alien to me, and yet my own. How do I put into words the tiny streets of Chandni Chowk, the smell of Mughal cooking, traditions passed on across generations, the taste of Lassi in earthen pots, the sickly sweet Masala Chai? How do I make you feel what my heart feels when I climb the steps into Jama Masjid and am struck dumb at the immense beauty of its domes, what I feel when night falls on Hauz Khas lake with a unnerving suddenness, an instant of twilight dissolving into nothing?
I don’t know how to explain that.
I hope they understand that this was my parents’ Delhi. This city is part of who I’m. Its stories are mine too.
And I was worried about losing them.