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  • Chitra Gopalakrishnan

Delhi, One-Half Known, The Other Not

Call it Dilli or Delhi, my city will allure you with a romance that will bloom before your eyes

One dazzling tableau will shift to another to show you desires beyond the present hour

As its history breathes, it will set off fireworks both against its ample horizon and within your mind.

The vision in ancient stone, Purana Qila, the fort of the ancient Indian city of Indraprastha, one that bears no signs of fatigue but enormous stage-presence, will speak to you through its crevices that nurture baby pipals, of the power of the past.

In the late spring sunshine, it will tell you of truths dating back to the third century before Christ, of its actualities, of its still spaces that cannot be trampled under the shoes of passers-by. The tallest red sandstone victory tower of all, Qutub Minar, which climbs untethered and with easy mastery to the outpost above will tell you the sky is the limit

Its spiral staircase will lead you to the blueness above and to a colour-of-a-ripe-peach sunlight, to their unpretending beauty. Near to it, a wildly improbable, centuries-old, dark, non-rusting, un-mottled iron pillar will whisper alchemy to you.

It will show you its cool, dispassionate self-determination, as it did me, and tell us both that even in the swollen, sweltering August heat of 2021, it will not succumb to the weight of exhaustion.

The squawks of a million parrots, dazzlingly and inimitably alive, who find their homes within the hollows of latticed eaves at the Humayun’s Tomb, will speak to you of continuance.

The structure’s double domes, its pietradura floors, will speak to you of the Emperor Humayun as if he still exists in flesh and blood, almost four hundred years later.

Bearing large floral fans, phool walon ki sair, the annual procession of joyous florists, will speak to you of peace, freedom and diversity.

Of being on the outside of social class, caste, gender and creed rigidities, of the freedom of every person’s consciousness.

Of the idea of imagining, of never fully knowing yet never limiting the spaces of another’s mind.


In summer, my city’s aandhis, rasping, mercurial, yellow-brown dust storms, will sand-leap at you in fury from every direction, blow your hairpins away.

Its tiny pieces of silt and stone will breathe fire into you, inflame you during the day, during the night.

From over its baked earth, dust-laden trees and thorny keekar shrubs, a sluggish, ephemeral, brown Yamuna River and snatches of sky.

From over its little worlds, where its thirty million crowd into arcades and apartments, bastis and jhuggis as insiders and outliers.

From over its burning, melting, coal-black tar roads, their zillion potholes and broken-down signals and flyovers.

From over its tens of thousands of demonic, swerving, screeching city cars, their complex code of horns and their welter of traffic jams.

From over its overflowing garbage dumps and unsanitary landfill sites fizzing with flies

And these dusk flecks will slip through your wooden slatted blinds, into your nasal passages and then into your lungs.

My city will break your spell, empty you of the belief that sandstorms are the acts of gods

It will make sure you will know for sure that these fiery, dirt dervishes are nothing more than a mix of loose gravel, road dust, fly ash, microscopic organisms, pollen, dander and airborne gases and chemicals from vehicles, industries, solid waste and biomass burning.

And it will make sure you know that they have come to settle within you, your black depths, forever, full of gritty anger and violence.


My city is this and it is that, it is in what you may call a double bind.

My Dilli wallas and wallis have a menu of options to choose from.

It is a place of beauty, a place of harshness, a place of joy, a place of disillusionment, a place of culture, a place of counterculture, a place of turbulence, a place of healing and a place if yesterday, a place of today.

It is a place of kings, kingmakers, as that of tea sellers, sweepers, day labourers, poets, explorers, archaeologists, missionaries, spies, mapmakers and new unheard of occupational groups.

It is a place where mythology ends and reality begins, a city where reality ends and mythology begins.

It is a place of lived experience, with worn grooves of routines, mapped and labelled, yet it is a place where the city’s essence evades a single narrative.

It is a place where things happen one way and also the other way around.

This is my Delhi, one half-known, the other not.

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