Obliterated Skylines: a testimony for forgotten cities

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I have inferred, we as people are immensely capable of loving cities; way more than we are accustomed to love people. For when we love a city, we love the conglomerations of moments speckled over a span of time, we love multiple people passing by in a dimension of theirs or two, we love ourselves evolving with that city. We love all of it at once, in a breath. You amend a memory or two and retrospect allows you to augment and fabricate. You carry some till your last breath and let go some in July rain as it runs along scrapped distemper of the wall into nothingness. But most importantly you never try to possess the city, for you know it remains. It remains, timeless, tremendous, conjoint and only in a part of its enormity; yours. And you don’t ask for all its parts and all its time, you just love. Love infested with blistering sensation of loss of obsolete time that once bloomed in all its entirety. So you go back to narrow lanes and endless football fields, some façade, a clock tower, a shady café, a house, a cool road flanked with tall trees on both sides; the railway tracks. You look in vain, for that moment in thin air, in a faceless crowd, and almost see a ghost of voices, laughter, and people through it. But your love doesn’t fade. It becomes timeless.

So yes, I’ll return to you every time, searching for a tangible token of my love, something to touch and feel. Because what if the moment in time dies out if it does not have a testimony. It should have me and a thing or a person to reinstate it. What if even I let go of moments that the city keeps losing so effortlessly and they get lost somewhere in outer space. I know that I’ll break my heart every time I see my etchings on the wall of the staircase, the school hall, the hibiscus tree against burning August sun, the bus route and the way back home. But a broken heart at least induces stimulus. It stirs something within that I fear to lose along the way. So I’ll come to you unsolicited. I’ll see my love bestowing its love on hundreds, as I watch from afar, through a lens this time and fall in love with you all over again.

You never cease to inhabit me as I spend my days in the arms of another. I seek you ardently when I sit in red brick colonial classrooms across, the quadrangle with tall old palms. While walking aimlessly through the erratic lanes of Old Delhi, Shahjahan’s love, I think of you. When the claustrophobic market lanes across the Townhall run bizarre, with age-old shops and one or two new complexes, the smell of spice, the sounds of honking and hustle, my heart almost believes I’m near you. I keep walking, hoping in vain that the next turn will lead me home. But what is home if not the familiar. So probably for me home will always come to me as an illusion passing by, through the layers of time in here. And when I meet the times in Delhi’s history same as your age, I’ll find you. And I’ll pass by because only the next lane leads to a full-blown view of the fort and I know that’s not you. One can travel ages in a few kilometers here. The elegant rituals of tawaifs from decades ago and the woman late for her nine to five corporate job, in the metro are literally few meters away. They don’t know each other, separated by times and dynasties. So I spend my time unveiling the tales of this city written in red sandstone and marble, in Urdu poetry, in false arches, in the metro, block print cotton kurtis, in shahi tukda, promenades, brunch meetings, jaalis and chajjas , ministries, bookstores, oxidized jewelry, harems, in ardaaas and azaan and in its people. Delhi is extremely layered you know. I hope one day it opens up to me so I can write love poems for it too. But what will be those poems in a canon where Ghalib, Zauq and Dalrymple themselves dwell.

I know that you are deeply layered too. You just don’t have someone to account your tales. No archaeological survey ever found you consequential enough. I know that every heart who has come to the congregation of Shahjahan’s and Lutyens’ Delhi claims to love it but has left his nameless love years behind him. In one of my colonial classrooms, I learnt that in Elizabethan poetry, the courtiers would claim to love the fair queen and pedestalize her virtues but that they actually never did love her. It was just a convention of their times. Love is perhaps political. I wish I account for you someday. Perhaps it will be an elegy but it is more likely to be a romantic tragedy. There is no name or story assigned to the skeleton of the colonial abbey that stands in the spice market unnoticed, or to the ruins of the haveli with bay windows which have grown mold now. Any year now, the annual Dusshera episodes on wagons would cease to pass from the main road and no one would ever know the exhilaration of watching the blue, white, pink dyed Krishna and Ravana mounting plywood thrones or the horror of Kaali with her blood-red tongue. There is no date punched in of the establishment of the grand old movie theatre or of its demolishment. It exists now in the memories of the entire city, spread over the course of their lives, first dates, Bollywood crush, watching the poster everyday on the way to school, its name in neon lights, forming someone’s everyday dusk skyline. With each passing day, its picture abates in the collective memory of the city till one day that no one to testify for it will exist. And maybe all of this will become some non-molecular entity in outer space because I firmly believe that the essence of this love can’t perish even in the absence of a testimony. In some deep abysmal oblivion, all of this is registered in one breath.

Shubhangi Chaudhary is a literature student of Miranda House, Delhi University. She is an aspiring writer and history enthusiast.

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