*Imagine the following narrative as a replica of an exploratory walk. Allow the sounds and silences of the surroundings to embrace you, with pictures being painted in front of your eyes like visual slides in the earliest of cinematic experiences. Let the vintage blend with the modern, each blink of your eye taking you across eras.*
दिल्ली के न थे कूचे औराक़-ए-मुसव्वर थे
जो शक्ल नज़र आई तस्वीर नज़र आई |
-मीर तक़ी मीर
Urdu Poet Mir Taqi Mir, remembered fondly, and rightfully so, as Khuda-e-Sukhan or the God of Poetry, is tethered to the cityscape of Delhi and its aesthetics in ways quite like and unlike mine.
Mir’s Dilli of the 18th century is a Delhi that speaks for itself, transcending its own boundaries, finding new meanings and perspectives to welcome home. It is a Delhi of by-lanes and alleyways that lead to memories and emotional antiquities rather than destinations. After all, Delhi is the land of destinies and dynasties – the throne of the Mughal Empire at the time. Mir’s Delhi is a masterpiece; a once empty canvas is now a parchment of piled up paintings, each new face is a fresh brushstroke. Walking through Mir’s Delhi is akin to stepping into Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass, subverted and altogether inverted, if only momentarily. It is a reflection of all that has passed and a faint shadow of all that is waiting to be brought to light.
My Delhi, on the other hand, in the wake of the 21st century, is a city that loses itself in its chaos. It is made of shadows in corners where the streetlamp cannot reach. It is made of roads that lead to traffic jams, where car horns and police sirens intertwine in each other’s clamour, all in vain attempts to reach places hurriedly. My Delhi is an overflowing compartment in the metro – breaths held and stomachs tucked in. It is a cacophony of rash driving, pushing, and shoving, a place where the next calamity waits around the corner. To walk in my Delhi is to tiptoe and still have your feet trampled on, because there just isn’t enough room to stop and stare.
The gravel that leads to the Hauz Khas Complex in South Delhi embodies only one of the many alleyways of Mir’s imagination – this city of cities built and rebuilt out of itself. This commute, to the Hauz Khas Complex, however, runs parallel to my scorn of this city’s chaos. As we walk through the lanes of Hauz Khas Village – an urban paradise with a far too often neglected historical background – we retrace Mir’s artistic paradise envisioned within the city, in the ways we have learnt to both love it and love within it.
The alleys of Hauz Khas Village buzz with excitement - hushed conversation, a sudden burst of laughter, a shout of exclamation from a corner, street vendors and restaurant employees competing to be heard, all countered by unsynchronized footsteps. Hauz Khas Village is sheltered by a canopy of café buildings, with a thin strand of sunlight escaping from the gaps. The streets are laced with everything from restaurants, fashion boutiques, vintage stores, and art galleries. There’s a little something for everybody walking by. All of Hauz Khas Village’s alleys lead to the centre, wherein stands the Hauz Khas Complex – a monument that transports you back to the Khalji Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th Century. It was named after a water tank or reservoir, now revived as a lake that sits calmly on a level lower than the majority of the complex, surrounded by a mélange of modern and ancient architecture. Around the lake are remnants of a Mosque, a Madrasa, and Feroz Shah’s tomb, all dating back to the 14th century. The Complex, when placed in its historical backdrop - and viewed through a social, political, or theological lens - is highly significant.
The Hauz Khas Complex is the inverted side of Carroll’s Looking Glass world, if the Hauz Khas Village is presumed to represent one side. With common walls and narrow streets separating the two, the modern aesthetic of the Village blends seamlessly with the historicity of the Complex. Cafés find themselves in prime locations overlooking the lake, architectural domes become signboards for a slice of New York Pizza lurking in the backdrop, and just like that, all the lines of distinctions between the two eras slowly disappear. What makes this seamlessness thrive, however, is its reception by the people who walk through it, casually crossing over from one side to the other with careless footsteps that are ignored mid-conversation. From picnics to photoshoots, the aesthetics of Hauz Khas are embodied wholeheartedly by the public. What binds these two seemingly opposite halves is the equally unique evolution and flourishing of young love.
Young love, in Delhi as in the rest of the world, finds joy in its power to wield a private bubble within the public. The lanes and streets of Hauz Khas Village provide the perfect playground for it to prosper. In contrast, the aesthetic of the old world charm of the Complex provides the illusion of displacement, creating a getaway from the regime of the public – a displacement not in place, but in time. The shadows and corners of the Hauz Khas Complex ruins enable the intimate bubble of privacy, despite being a tourist destination. The darker corners of the monument hold out the temporality of passing time for young love to freely evolve without the burden of the ways of the world. The darker aesthetics of the cafés replicate and commercialize the notions of the hidden and distanced private that can be found within the walls of the Hauz Khas Complex, thereby making the difference between the two sides of the common wall as little as the freshly pasted wallpaper of modernity that exists on one side. Cafés place the private on a pedestal by creating visibly secluded cubicles - a rather tangible form of the bubble. Modern love, preferring illusory displacement, prosper in the cafés that work closely with the aesthetics of the ruins they are surrounded and inspired by, to recreate a similar yet somewhat modernized experience. This amalgamation of the old and the new, of the ways that once were and are now, make Hauz Khas an experience that stands out from the commotion of Delhi.
The blurring of the contemporary and the historical in Hauz Khas is one of many such crossroads in Delhi that create a possibility for a moment of silence in Delhi’s chaos. For a fraction of a second, Mir’s Dilli meets my Delhi, bringing together centuries of imagination and ideals that will outlive both and embody more. Experiencing the embrace of the historic through the lanes of the modern produce intertwined historicity that can exist and evolve hand-in-hand with cultural appropriation, and without being undermined by its own lineage. Even though the journey towards the Hauz Khas Complex through the 21st century café-cultured street is a purely modern one, the return is marked with historic symbolism. Heightened by the privilege it gives to young lovers, the journey back to the commotion carries a sense of calm.
"Both the heart and Delhi have been worn out,
but some little pleasures still remain in this ruined house."
-Mir Taqi Mir
Kanika Ahuja is a poet, performer and educator of poetry based in New Delhi, India. She holds a Master’s Degree in English Literature from Ambedkar University, Delhi and has been a Jijivisha Fellow for Poetry at Slam Out Loud. Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee, her work appears, or is forthcoming, at Quarterly West, The Medley, Emerge Literary Journal, Funicular Magazine and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @kanika0326.