Being There: Delhi

DelhileadSimon Cox in More Intelligent Life:

I first visited Delhi ten years ago, drawn not by the city but by one of its citizens. I had fallen in love with a Dilliwalli I met at university in America two years before. It was past time I saw her in her “native place”, as Indians put it.

We visited the usual tombs, markets, shrines and gardens, including the domed presidential palace on Raisina Hill that once housed the viceroy. Our trip coincided with a visit by the wives (they were all wives) of the British High Commission. They cooed and fussed, like previous owners checking up on the new landlords. One even looked for dust under the carpet. It was a relief to escape into the palace’s Mughal Gardens, where a tiny Dilliwalla peed on the lawn while his parents smiled helplessly.

Delhi can be grand, but it is rarely solemn. The people can be rude, but never cold. Earlier this year I returned to Raisina Hill to watch India’s military bands beat the retreat, overseen by members of the camel cavalry. After the last bugle was sounded and the last bagpipe squeezed, a switch was flicked, and Delhi’s imposing imperial buildings, strung with bulbs, lit up like a Christmas decoration.

Visitors to Delhi often see a faded glory, like a grand carpet collecting dust. The city is casually littered with history, much of it neglected or buried under the paraphernalia of the present. But Delhi’s past will surely be overshadowed by its future. There are three times as many Indians alive today as there were at Independence in 1947, and Delhi is home to over 16m of them. Over the next three decades India should begin to regain the economic clout it lost over three centuries. To visit Delhi in a mood of nostalgia, then, is to close your eyes to history in the making.