Madhu Jain Ruminates On New Delhi’s Hierarchy By Design
A dear friend who lives in New York returned to New Delhi after a gap of a few years and was amazed by the changes in the city. “I can’t recognise Delhi. It is no longer the place I grew up in….” However, the litany about what is missing is also endless. “Where have all the old haunts gone?” Our old compass to navigate the city is now an anachronism.
We both got our master’s in English literature from Miranda House before going our separate ways: she to Mount Holyoke College in the United States and I to the Sorbonne in Paris. In our salad days, we would rarely go directly to our respective homes after classes at Delhi University. We hopped off the university special bus near Connaught Place and vagabonded the hours away, walking up and down Janpath, the animated avenue that led up to Connaught Place.
CP, as it was called then (and perhaps now as well), was the centre of the universe for us. And, the centre did hold. Everything fanned out from the radial roads originating in the inner and outer rings of Connaught Place. It was ideal for flâneurs. Here, the beautiful people sauntered. The Oxbridge types, who were home for a bit before returning to England. Or the other blue-chip ‘suitable’ young men and women going ‘across the pond’ to the United States: both got the once-over from us, and others like us.
We are talking elite — the golden people of the nation’s capital. Or at least those who thought they were. One afternoon, we chanced upon Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi strolling down Janpath — she, with her swaying, lustrous tresses and he, with his devastating smile and full crop of hair. It was 1968, the year that they were married. There was a spring in their step. Those were days of innocence, before assassinations and ubiquitous security had darkened the road ahead.
If memory serves me right, the Gandhis were headed towards the Cottage Emporium. And we, to our habitual hang-out, Bankura. The cafe, adjacent to the emporium, was then run by the ever-enterprising Usha Khanna, who passed away in 2016. I still long for the delicious potato mutton rolls and endless cups of coffee.
Years later, Khanna set up Cafe Samovar — arguably even more iconic — at the Jehangir Art Gallery, where bohemia and academia rubbed shoulders. The cosmopolitan city by the sea grew organically as millions poured in to make their fortunes and names, a phenomenon that has been wonderfully depicted in cinema (particularly by Raj Kapoor in Shri 420, 1955). The influx increased considerably after Partition.
New Delhi, on the other hand, was built by the British when they moved from Calcutta to Delhi during the early 20th century. British architects Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker designed the Viceroy’s House, as it was called before being rechristened Rashtrapati Bhavan after Independence. The exercise was to design a structure that made a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled.
Viceroy’s House was the nucleus of power, as was the viceroy. His residence was built on Raisina Hill, a hillock overlooking the city and its inhabitants. It extended downwards, in diminishing power. Ironically, the British had planned to rule forever, and had designed it accordingly. However, impoverished by World War II and Gandhiji’s persistent and imaginative demand for Independence, they had to pack their bags just a few decades later.
Ever since, successive Presidents of India have lived in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Moreover, crucial ministerial structures like Home, External Affairs, Defence and Finance were, and partially still are, housed in red sandstone on the hill.
Hierarchy by design endured. It turned out to be a sustainable principle. You have only to look at government housing in Delhi as well as in the state capitals to realise the extent of babudom’s quest and determination to maintain the pecking order. Like caste marks or the stripes on military uniforms, the houses you were assigned to ensured that both you, and everyone else, knew your place in the scheme of things.
I have lived large chunks of my life in both, New Delhi and Washington DC. These capitals of two enormous countries embody power; they were devised to do so. Thus, it is always with a sense of relief that one escapes to Mumbai or New York City. The soaring buildings inspire aspiration and ambition. Both offer anonymity and a sense of freedom — they are cities on the move. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it succinctly: ‘You don’t go for a walk in New York, you move through it; it is a city in motion. If I walk quickly, I feel at ease there. If I stop, I get flustered and wonder, ‘Why am I on this street rather than on one of the hundreds of others like it?’’
I, too, quicken my step, when I go to Mumbai. My gaze turns upwards, to the mushrooming high-rises and skywalks. Delhi, slowly but surely, is following in its wake. We will probably never catch up, but we are getting to be more ‘up in the air’.