Saturday, October 28, 2006

A day in the life: the Delhi of Zafar and Dalrymple

Above all it is the city's relationship with its past which continues to intrigue me: of the great cities of the world, only Rome, Istanbul and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains. Crumbling tomb towers, old mosques or ancient colleges intrude in the most unlikely places, appearing suddenly on roundabouts or in municipal gardens, diverting the road network and obscuring the fairways of the golf course. New Delhi is not new at all: it is a groaning necropolis, with enough ruins to keep any historian busy through several incarnations.
To call William Dalrymple's love for Delhi infectious would be a serious understatement. I’ve stayed here all my life but watching the city through his eyes is always such a fresh experience; it gets me all excited about Delhi again, and regretful that I never got around to nurturing (if only on an amateur basis) my adolescent interest in history and archaeology. Am halfway through The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, Dalrymple's account of the last years of Bahadur Shah Zafar's reign, and there's already been much to cherish. But special mention for Chapter 3, "An Uneasy Equilibrium", in which he fascinatingly contrasts the lifestyles of the British and the Mughals residing in Delhi in the 1850s. (Incidentally, at the Jaipur Heritage fest early this year, Nikhil, Chandrahas and I attended a presentation/reading by Dalrymple, where he read from portions of this chapter.)

"An Uneasy Equilibrium" is a masterful pen-portrait of a day in the life of a city and its many peoples. "During the early 1850s," Dalrymple writes, "it sometimes seemed as if the British and the Mughals lived not only in different mental worlds, but almost in different time zones." He then illustrates this difference by examining the events of a typical day on an almost hour-by-hour basis: starting at 3.30 AM, when the day is beginning for the British as they wake up in the cantonments, while it is only just winding to a close for the Mughals:
…the poetic mushairas of the Mughals were still in full flow in the Red Fort, while in the kothis of the courtesans in Chauri Bazaar the dancing and ghazal singing were drawing to a close, and the girls were progressing to the more intimate stage of their duties. As the Mughal poets and the courtesans raised their different tempos, sleepy, yawning Englishmen [...] would be sitting up in bed as their servants attempted to shave them and pull on their stockings. A long session of drill in the cantonment parade ground lay ahead.

Two hours later, by the time the sun was beginning to rise over the Yamuna and the poets, the courtesans and their patrons were all heading back to bed to sleep off their long nights, not only the soldiers but also the British civilians would be up and about..."
Hours later, Dalrymple tells us, as Chandni Chowk was waking up, the working day was already drawing to a close two miles to the north, in the cantonment: "Soon after 1 PM, as Sir Thomas [Metcalfe] was heading back to Metcalfe House in his carriage, his day's work completed, things were just beginning to stir in the Red Fort." And so it goes. The aged emperor Zafar begins to eat his dinner no earlier than 10.30 PM, a time when most of the Britishers are long asleep. And we come full circle when, late at night, “the versifying began, to continue until dawn, when it would be the turn of Zauq and Ghalib to bring the night to its climax. But long before that, from the north, would come the distant sound of the morning bugle. Two miles away, in the British cantonments, a very different day was beginning".

[Download of an extract from the book available at Dalrymple's website.]


  1. So odd that the Spectator review also picked out this chapter to quote from! Time zones etc.

    WD reading on Saturday. Looking forward to it; he brought Hyderabad alive in the same way for me.

  2. The DElhi launch is on Tuesday evening, with performances by Dalrymple, Mahmood Farooqui and Radhika Chopra. Sounds interesting.

    Is there a link to the Spectator piece?

  3. can't find a link. the spectator site has only some articles up for non-subscribers. i read it in the deccan chronicle. imagine it would be duplicated in the asian age as well. thsi sunday's.