In the City of Djinns, The Past Is Slowly Lost

Reflections on a trip to New Delhi, February 2009.

Cities wearing boots of time have a certain way of marching over memories, leaving them in millions of pieces. Instead what you are left with sharp edged broken fragments. My recent trip to Delhi, a city where I spent my childhood and youth, was one of those bittersweet journeys.

Wherever I turned, I saw strange buildings — ugly in their newness, intruding by their presence. The roads, once wide and open, now clogged with humanity, cars of all sizes and dust… the ever pervasive dust of a city that was been reinventing itself from the dawn of time. The city, which is desperately trying (and failing) to prepare itself for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, is in a state of perpetual motion, never stopping as it runs away from its past, that earned the city its nickname the city of Djinns.

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The aristocratic ruins, the undulating lawns of Lyutens’ Delhi, lush gardens have given way to garish billboards, soaring freeways, and a beautiful metro transit system that is going to unite this LA-sized sprawl like never before. That is called progress – some of it unwelcome, much of it necessary, but some of it painful.

The neighborhood where I grew up has lost its solid middle class feel, giving way to tall cigarette box style concrete boxes that pack dozens of people into them. The streets where I once played street-cricket are now a messy parking lot where cars vie for space with vendors, unclaimed stuff, and loosely piled construction materials. The movie theater where I first met James Bond is a giant hole, waiting for construction to start on yet another hotel or maybe an office block.

My college, St. Stephen’s, was once the most beautiful sight beholden by young eyes. Now it seems like a dusty building trying to hold on to values of a time that has passed by. It will not produce a future prime minister, the next brave police officer, or even a decent squash player.

It is part of the change that is city. The change that includes big buildings that pock-mark the outskirts of Delhi (Gurgaon), the Flyways, ominous (and omnipresent) cellular towers, an unseasonably hot February (70F), and half-empty malls. At Emporio Mall I could have been anywhere — Rodeo Drive, Dubai, Hong Kong.

Gucci, Dior, Dunhill, Zegna, Fendi… all jostling for the attention of scant buyers. The only visitors were some families trying to arrange meetings between someone’s disinterested daughters and pampered over eager sons. I loved that I was able to buy a steaming hot decaffeinated espresso for less than $3 a cup, almost grateful for the progress.

The city has its own soundscape — Nokia ringtones, din of the drill hammer, sensual thunder of the metro running overhead… and horns… millions of Delhites blowing horns as they drive their colorfully named, matchbox sized cars in a manner that defies all laws of physics and logic.

A week after trying to walk down memory lanes (mostly riding in the back of a chauffeur driven car) I feel a little lost, but mostly amazed at Delhi’s ability to reinvent itself. Instead of old fading memories I leave with new photos caught in my synapses.

The delightful squeals of my nephew, the warmth of attendees of WordCamp, generosity of absolute strangers, delightfully restored Imperial Hotel, incandescent smile and shy laugh of the youth. The surprise of just finding Sushi in Delhi. An unquestioned warm embrace from old friends — only a few of them left in the city I once called home — these are images for the present and memories of the future.

Those sharp fragments may make you bleed, but in them you can still find a little bit of home.

– Om Malik, February 25, 2009. Photos by Matt Mullenweg.


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