I read Calvino’s Invisible Cities last year. In the book, Marco Polo describes 55 cities to the emperor Kublai Khan using objects from the cities as the Emperor and Marco Polo speak different languages. Their understanding and the interpretation of the cities are different and still they perfectly understand each other. It is a fascinating, imaginative and an engrossing book even though the narrative consists of two men talking about various places.
Cities have always fascinated me. Take Delhi for example. In a span of 100 years, the metamorphosis she has undergone is staggering. Its just a piece of land, if you come down to the basics of it but is it really? Like a human being, a city is born when a few people decide to build a home where no one lived earlier. As the houses grow in number, so does the city and before you know, she is not a baby anymore but a teenager bustling with energy. Schools, hospitals, roads, railway stations, parks, post-offices are introduced and cement the adulthood of the city. Then there is a sudden onslaught of people from surrounding areas as education and job opportunities multiply. The city embraces everyone in its middle-aged arms. As years pass, the resources are strained; there is scarcity and the city who once used to jump and run as a baby, experiences the first pain in her joints. She sits down to normalize her breathing and wonders if the humans whom she embraced with all her love will stop and think about her degeneration? Will they suck her dry or will they pay heed to her slow death?
Delhi has been an important city since centuries. It was once a city where kings ruled and now witnesses parliamentarians shouting at each other. There was a time when the British ruled from here and retreated to Shimla and Dalhousie during summers, there was a time when protests happened in the city as the country demanded full independence from British Raj; then came the time when the city was brimming with refugees after the partition. There used to be hundreds of cycles instead of cars, there was a time when traffic signals were installed for the first time, a time when the first Republic Day parade happened and the President stood on a small podium instead of a huge bullet-proof stage. When the first elections happened, people beamed with pride showing the ink-stain on their fingers for the first time. There were horse carts on the roads, trams in Chandni Chowk and a huge iron bridge to connect Delhi to the jungles of East Delhi. The history of a city can help you imagine how much she has seen and experienced. It is more than what any of us can understand in our lifetime. From the hippie culture in the 1970s to the introduction of Doordarshan to the Cable television explosion in the 1990s; I can imagine Delhi smiling with exhilaration on seeing her tribe grow. We can imagine her as an old lady, sitting in her rocking chair, remembering the good old days but looking forward to check Facebook after breakfast. Of course, it wasn’t just always happiness that defined the city. In the decades that followed independence, the city saw her share of blood flowing on her streets, like blood in human veins. She must have wept for days trying to find logic in human atrocities, just like all sane humans.
In the haste of living our fast paced lives, we don’t bother about this invisible, breathing city. We don’t realize that she is a breathing entity whose fate is entwined to our actions. And what should alarm us all is that she might die soon. We have put needles in her veins and we are draining out all that she can give us to survive, without giving her enough in return to live forever. We have shamelessly unleashed the monster of urbanization on her.
In my novel False Ceilings, I have tried to capture the various aspects of Delhi, from the Post Independence era when Delhi had the charm of possibilities to the modern urban Delhi where the prospects are getting more and more limited. I have always believed that the settings and location of a story is as important as the story. Delhi is like a character in the book. You will view her history, her pride in her growth, her mood swings, her frustrations and her degradation as she grows old with the human characters in the book. You will experience her change over the decades and wonder how things could have been different. I have tried to make the city as interesting as the rest of the characters in the book.
In the end I will leave you with this video that I found on YouTube while researching for the novel. I have seen it many times just to gawk at the parking space available in Connaught place in the 1950s! 🙂 There are many such amazing videos available on YouTube.