One life to celebrate!
There are some books that should be judged by their cover and ‘Perpetual City’ is one of them. A beautiful pristine white cover, with a colourful artist’s impression of Delhi, with its monuments (some familiar, some yet to be discovered), greenery, peacocks and the ubiquitous symbol of power – the white ambassador with lal batti (red light).
I looked at the cover and just picked it up, ready to take a deep dive into the author Malvika Singh’s “short biography” of Delhi or Dilli as we call it. As I went from page to page, I felt a deep sense of affinity with the author. Like her, I also came to the city as a young girl and just fell in love with it. Like her, I grew up in beautiful, posh Central Delhi, in the leafy avenues of Chanakyapuri and Moti Bagh. And surprisingly, like her, even I missed my early morning classes and could never get to college (I went to Hindu) on time!
But unlike me, the author has penned down her love for the city in a beautifully worded ode which shows us a glimpse of the city, before it became the overcrowded metropolis that we see today. She starts from the time the foundation stone was laid, in the 8th century, and chronicles its development, from the Mughal era to present day power capital. She writes in an engaging manner without getting into very complicated historical details.
I loved the first half of the book, which weaves together the growth of Dilli, interspersed with the author’s own personal experiences and anecdotes. She belongs to the First Family of Delhi and has a vast reservoir of information that makes for rich and engrossing reading. She says that there are three things about Delhi that she loves – the monuments, the music and of course, the food. All of these together give the city its unique culture and identity, and Ms. Singh distils this essence with great finesse.
The second half is more about the decay that is plaguing the city, both structural and cultural. She highlights, how, post the Indira Gandhi regime, Delhi’s top circles imbibed a culture of secrecy and opacity, from the transparent way of previous leaders. That culture of entitlement and sycophancy has survived over decades and has become the norm in the government and bureaucracy. Also, unlike the city planned by Lutyens and his team, Delhi now is a confused mix of high rises, buildings and slums, with no reference to the glorious architecture it had in the past. The author’s writings indicate a yearning for the good old times, but alas, as we all know, they never come back.
William Dalrymple has written that the book is a “heartfelt love letter to Delhi that is part history, part family memoir and part indignant call to arms”. I completely agree. This book should be recommended reading for all those who love Delhi, and are interested in learning about its glorious past. There are very few people who can be called true Dilliwallahs now, but there are many, who have adopted this city as their hometown and their love for it is perpetual. This book is for them.
Some interesting trivia. Did you know?
• Emperor Humayun had his library in the Purana Qila, overlooking the Jamuna, and it was from here that he fell to his death, missing a step on the winding stairway
• Khushwant Singh’s father, Sardar Bahadur Sobha Singh, along with his dear friend Lala Raghubir Singh, started the first co-educational school in the city – Modern School
• In official dinners at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, apple juice is served for the official toast, instead of champagne, as the Indian State abjures alcohol
About the author:
Daughter of the late Romesh Thapar, Malvika Singh is the publisher of Seminar, a prestigious monthly magazine of ideas, founded in 1959. She has authored several books: Bhutan: Through the Lens of the King, New Delhi: Making of a Capital, Delhi: India in One City and Snowdons India. She has edited Delhi: The First City, Chennai: A City of Change, Hyderabad: A City of Hope, Kolkata: A Soul City, Lucknow: A City between Cultures, Mumbai: A City of Dreams and Freeing the Spirit: Iconic Women of India. She has also worked extensively in theatre and film and was decorated as a Dame in the civil merit honours list of the King of Spain in 2009.
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Price: Rs. 295