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The City and the Writer: In Delhi with Sudeep Sen

By Nathalie Handal


If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Delhi as you feel/see it?

A city as ancient as Delhi is always going through a churning, a slow-motion flux that records subtle changes on its terrain with the precision of barometric instruments. This is a city that was conquered seven times, and seven different kingdoms were established and demolished. But with each erasure, there is a patina that is left imprinted on its larger history.

Therefore, the mood of the city in my own lifetime has gone through several avatars. When I was a young boy, it was a city with few cars, broad tree-lined streets, single-story homes, vast open spaces, clean air, and many green parks. I would cycle from one end of the city to the center and back with ease. Things were simpler at some level.

But I do not mean to sound nostalgic or even romantic. I love my city of birth (where I continue to live). I have spent decades in other sprawling metropolises like New York, London, and Dhakabut Delhi is the best city in the world as far as I am concerned.

The Delhi of today is hugely cosmopolitan, it is frenetic, the traffic is chaotic, the air not at its healthiest with the not-so-friendly mosquitoes playing havoc during the monsoonyet there is a buzz, a buzz that only longtime residents can feel and enjoy, in spite of the postindustrial, twentieth-century intrusions. It is a city that lives simultaneously in the medieval and in postmodern times. Old Mughal monuments stand at ease with glass-and-steel office towers, the paan-vallah in his kiosk does his daily trade next to flashy upmarket coffee shops and bars. It is a city where you can catch the best of classical Indian dance and music for free (yes, only in Delhi it is free), and tap your feet to jazz and rhythm and blues at the Piano Man or Depot 29/48 restaurants.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The Sikh riots of 1984 (Shonali Bose’s film Amu deals with it with great sensitivity). There were also the terrorist attacks of 2005 (see “Elegy for Delhi: 29/10” below). There is something about that kind of violence that is deeply inhumane and makes you feel very vulnerable. Your own city of birth is like the womb where you were born—so to have it punctured by external forces leaves you hurt and angry, but also makes you more resilient. As I mentioned, Delhiites are very resilient; after all, the city has been conquered seven times over.


Elegy for Delhi: 29/10

1.

Dead bodies lay, ripe-pink, charred,
a place I usually find ripe fruits on another day—

pairs of plastic sandals, molten, overturned—
tattered linen smell wet ash—carts, goods, strewn about.

Another day here amid the jostle,
it’s hard to steer or park my own shuffle—

but today, there is an awkward flurry of feet—
Diwali and Eid, only a few days away.

Tonight, only smell of burn, blood and despair—
Govindpuri market, bustling, bustling with agony.

A small boy screaming, searching his father’s name—
a little girl quietly weeping on the curbside—

others, running around helplessly—
there is din, dust, death—and no light.


2.

Two other blasts in my city—Sarojini Nagar, Paharganj—
places I know well, places I could have been.

There is too much anger, misplaced anger, in people—
these flames that burn do not contain their own anger,

their wild tongues merely sign of others’ anger.
No equality in this world, there can ever be—

no amount of praying would solve this heat—
there is din, dust, death—and no light.
 

3.

I go to the small boy to pretend I am his lost father,
but he does not recognize me—

I sit next to the little girl and cry—
but our tears do not replace the blood or hatred.

There is only chaos, darkness, dust, and death here—
I pray for light, I pray for life—

pray in futility—hoping for compassion, for sanity. But
there is only din, dust, death—and no light.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed, by most of the city?

The baolis, or medieval stepwells, especially Agrasen ka baoli near the bustling city center of Connaught Place.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Goshthere are so many. The poets first and foremost, like Rahim, Khusro, Firaq Gorakhpuri. Some of the finest classical Urdu poets: Sauda, Dard, Mir, Ghalib, Momin, Zafar, Zauq, and Daagh were from Delhi. Then there are contemporary fiction and nonfiction writers and their books. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August opens with a memorable sodium streetlamp lit in Delhi, wrapped in mist; there is Khushwant Singh’s novel Delhi; and books by William Dalrymple, especially City of Djinn; also Rana Dasgupta’s Capital; and others.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

There are several placeslate summer evenings at the ruins of the Tughlaqabad Fort, early morning at the Jahanpannah Forest, the temporary, open-air street bookstalls in Old Delhi, Bengali Market for chaat and gol-guppa, Chittaranjan Park for Bengali gourmet fish and more (the last one I am biased about as it is also my own neighborhood), and so much more.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Again, so many. Ghalib Ghar in Old Delhi comes to my mind immediately.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The subterranean city within the Tughlaqabad Fort, the splendorous alleyways of Chandi Chowk, the mouthwatering slow-cooked mutton dishes at Karim’s near Jama Masjid—the list is endless.

 

Where does passion live here?

Everywhere, all the timeit is frothing and bubbling over, it is a city of over 26 million people.

 

What is the title of one of your works about Delhi and what inspired it exactly?

There are several, but the two poems I’d like to quote are “Kintsugi | Kintsukoroi” (inspired by a late potter friend’s beautiful work and her dusty rooftop studio in Delhi) and “Disembodied” (which addresses the anarchic traffic and severe pollution in Delhi):


Kintsugi | Kintsukoroi

   The cracked bowl that I mean to repair every day
keeps getting neglected by my secret awe for bone china
            and its story of unbreaking.

   There were happier times when it stood perfect
in its shape, its porcelain clay-fluted nape
            elegant as a swan’s neck.

   I found it in a heap of beautiful pottery,
one among many, that its maker carefully crafted
            in her tropical rooftop studio.

   To me it was new even after it accidentally
slipped from my hands as I tried to wipe
            the Delhi dust

   that clung to us like camel-brown film,
like innocuous powder—transparent and deceptive
            like make-up.

   There are scenes I painted on its milk-white skin,
words I wrote, lines etched in, fragments of poems
            left unfinished, hieroglyphic

   encoded secrets
that only I knew and understood,
            impervious to gossip’s glare and jealous chatter.

   Today, I shall bring out Super Glue
and try to make repairs.
            Maybe I will splurge

   on a rare metal—
silver or even gold, to seal the cracks and fill them
            with molten healing.

   Anointing it with gold,
memory, love and desire,
            is better than the perfection

   of its prior shape. Unbroken, poised as it was,
unhurt love is not necessarily purer
            than love that is flawed.

   Kintsukuroi is a prayer I have been granted.
My bowl deserves the lacquer touch of a silver-wish
            and the purest of rare gold.

 

Disembodied

1.

My body carved from abandoned bricks of a ruined temple,
            from minaret-shards of an old mosque,
            from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
            from soil tilled by my ancestors.

My bones don’t fit together correctly                                     as they should—
the searing ultraviolet light from Aurora Borealis
patches and etch-corrects my orientation—
magnetic pulses prove potent.

My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
            blood from coconut water,
skin colored by brown bark of Indian teak.

My lungs fueled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
            echo asthmatic sounds, a new vinyl dub-remix.
Our universe—where radiation germinates from human follies,
            where contamination persists from mistrust,
            where pleasures of sex are merely a sport—
where everything is ambition,
everything is desire,                            everything is nothing.
Nothing and everything.


2.

White light everywhere,
            but no one can recognize its hue,
no one knows that there is color in it—                     all possible colors.

Body worshipped, not for its blessing,
            but its contour—
            artificial shape shaped by Nautilus.
Skin moistened by L’Oreal
and not by season’s first rains—
skeleton’s strength not shaped by earthquakes
or slow-molded by fearless forest fires.

Ice caps are rapidly melting—too fast to arrest glacial slide.
            In the near future—there will be no water left
or too much water that is undrinkable,
            excess water that will drown us all.
Disembodied floats,                afloat like Noah’s Ark—

no GPS, no pole-star navigation,                                 no fossil fuel to burn away—
            just maps with empty grids and names of places that might exist.

Already, there is too much traffic on the road—
            unpeopled hollow metal-shells                                   without brakes,
swerve about               directionless—                        looking for an elusive compass.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Delhi, does an outside exist?”

Largely no! Delhi is unique and cannot be replicated anywhere. But as a frequent traveler, I carry a bit of Delhi wherever I go.


Sudeep Sen’s prize-winning books include Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins); Rain, Ladakh, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award); The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor); Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980–2015 (London Magazine Editions); EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House); and Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazmz (Bloomsbury). The Whispering Anklets and Blue Nude: New Poems | Ekphrasis | Anthropocene (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) are forthcoming. He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and editor of Atlas. Sen is the first Asian to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read his poetry at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The Government of India awarded him a senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.” Visit his website to learn more.


Published Jun 1, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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