Unlike the colonial creations of Calcutta and Bombay, Delhi is an urban center that has been populated since the sixth century BC. Traces of eight older cities have been discovered there and now it is the capital of India, with an estimated population of twenty-two million, making it one of the most populous cities in the world and India’s largest urban spread.
When I was growing up, however, Delhi was not a place we thought of except when thinking about national politics, the parliament, and the prime minister, and other such boring topics. Decisions that affected us as a nation were made in Delhi, sure, but it was not really a place, it seemed to have no character of its own, nothing fun about it, no culture to speak of. That wasn’t the reality, of course, that was just how we in Calcutta thought about it, obsessed as we were about our rivalry with Bombay. I remember visiting Delhi with my parents around 1970. That memory is of South Delhi as a dry, hot wasteland dotted with bungalows, lots of space with nothing in it, and the most interesting thing being a real, actual television in the living room of the friends’ house where we were staying. To someone older and smarter than me, that box with the flickering black and white images might have provided an interesting indication as to what lay in the future.
Delhi was the first Indian city to get television, followed shortly by Bombay and only much later by Calcutta. That cusp of the 1960s and 1970s was also when the first major expansion of New Delhi began, post-Independence. Flyovers were built, initially leading from nowhere to nowhere, arching over nothing very much. Farmlands and villages around the city began to be swallowed up, to be replaced by grids for the new colonies, plots of land that soon began to sprout little plants of concrete and brick.
Like Calcutta, Delhi too had taken a huge hit of refugees at the partition of India in 1947. Calcutta’s refugees came from the East Bengal that had become East Pakistan, Delhi’s new residents arrived—many of them with just the clothes on their backs—from the western part of bifurcated Punjab that had become the torso of West Pakistan. Over twenty-three years, the swollen population of Delhi produced new generations of people; over the same period, several national institutions were established in the capital of the newly configured country and these places needed to be staffed by people from all over India. This further increased the population, but also added to the cosmopolitan mix of what was no longer a small, North Indian town with a long history.
As India’s first woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi began to centralize political power in the late 1960s, and more and more resources were sunk into the area of the national capital. In 1975, after a court found her guilty of having misused government resources toward winning an election and asked her to step down, Indira declared a national emergency to protect herself from being ejected, and Delhi actually became, once again, a kind of imperial capital. Servile politicians from all over India now trekked here to pay obeisance to Indira and her son Sanjay Gandhi, her un-elected second-in-command. In the meantime, the government-run television (named Doordarshan or DD) ran endless propaganda footage of the Mother-Leader and Son-Leader.
In what was now effectively a dictatorship, Sanjay, who was both brash and evil, began to drop edicts about the prettification of Delhi. Bulldozers moved in to destroy Old Delhi’s working-class slums, flinging the poor residents out into the barren areas at the edge of the city where there was scarce transport to bring them into work. Even as they were brutally uprooted and turned into homeless refugees in their own city, the country-wide campaign of forced sterilization (another Sanjay Gandhi brainchild) kicked in all over the country. After eighteen months, Indira lifted the emergency and called for national elections, convinced she would win them easily. She lost badly and it looked as though her political career was over.
The Indira regime vacated the seats of power in early 1977, but the scars of the Emergency (as it was and has always been called, with a capital ‘E’) and the official violence it had inflicted on people were to be long lasting. Indira’s political opponents self-destructed within a couple of years and by 1980 she was back in power. Sanjay Gandhi died soon after, killed when a plane he was flying lost control while he was trying a stunt. But, before this, Indira and Sanjay had made some nasty, cynical political choices that would lead to Indira’s own death at the hands of her security guards in 1984. At the same time that the CIA and the Pakistani dictator General Zia ul-Haq were sowing the future whirlwind of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Indira and Sanjay pulled out a reactionary Sikh religious leader from obscurity in Western India and brought him back to Punjab to counter opposition parties there. The Sikh leader, Bhindrawale, had his own ambitions. He wasn’t bothered about Indira and Sanjay’s agenda—what he really wanted was an independent, religion-based Sikh state. Within a short time Bhindrawale became the charismatic figurehead of a violent Sikh separatist movement that rent apart North India.
Even as Delhi went through its next big expansion in 1982, when the city hosted the Asiad Games, the Punjab countryside, just outside the metropolis, was in a state of war. New buildings, stadiums, ring roads, and flyovers were being constructed as Sikh youths and the security forces were engaged in a brutal conflict of atrocity and murder. Increasingly, the violence began to bleed into New Delhi, which lies at the southern end of India’s Punjab state. This was also the moment when the national DD network was further expanded and there was a lifting of import duties so that millions of color television sets could be brought into the country. Ostensibly this was done so that people could better watch the Asiad Games, but the skeptics immediately pointed out that this expanded network would be used as a propaganda vehicle by Indira to strengthen her power (DD was the only channel available in India at the time; there were no foreign or private channels). As it was, post the Asiad Games, we watched on our new color TVs as the army attacked the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which Bhindrawale and his followers had turned into a military fortress. Shortly afterward we also watched Indira Gandhi’s funeral after two of her Sikh bodyguards shot her dead in revenge for the Golden Temple attack.
Indira’s death was followed by a revenge pogrom against Sikhs organized by members of Indira’s Congress party. Around 8,000 Sikhs were butchered, 3,000 of them in New Delhi itself. This gave a further fillip to the Sikh separatists. For the next eight years or so, New Delhi’s broad roads, roundabouts, and flyovers stayed laced with barbed wire and paramilitary checkpoints as the government wore down the separatists in an ugly war of attrition.
In the early 1980s, people in Bombay and Calcutta would shudder when speaking of New Delhi. “You know it’s dangerous for a woman to wear a sleeveless dress in New Delhi? If they see bare arms those North Indian men like to burn you with their cigarettes!” Calcutta had its fair share of public violence but it was regarded as largely political, with some criminal element thrown in; not much of it was directed at women. Like in Bombay, women in Calcutta could move about freely and come home late at night without looking over their shoulders. Delhi, on the other hand, was clearly some outpost of barbaric Pakistan and Afghanistan, where men became psychotic at the sight of women’s bare arms.
While this may have been true, there were some interesting things happening in Delhi to which we, in our Bombay-Cal arrogance, should perhaps have paid more attention. While there’s no doubt she was ruthless and Machiavellian, Indira Gandhi also came from a milieu that was highly sophisticated in its understanding of culture. While she might have spent most of her time manipulating crude politicians, Indira’s downtime would have been spent in the company of intellectual upper-class ladies of the kind who wore sleeveless blouses with their superbly woven sarees. One such close associate of Indira Gandhi was someone called Pupul Jayakar, a woman of refined taste, a legendary collection of sarees, and someone in possession of an iron will that matched her friend Indira’s. In 1982, under Madame Jayakar’s command, the governments of India and Britain put together something called The Festival of India. The festival, held in Britain, showcased India’s arts and crafts, both traditional and contemporary, Indian performance traditions, classical and folk, and non-commercial/non-Bollywood Indian cinema. The FOI was a huge official jamboree designed to raise India’s profile in Britain. One of the important things about it was that the whole festival was organized by Jayakar and her team from the imperial capital of New Delhi and not Bombay or Calcutta; whether you were a folk singer from Bengal, a martial artist from Kerala, or a traditional wall-painter from Maharashtra, it was to Delhi you came to display your skills for possible selection. This was, one could argue, the beginning of the centralization of ‘culture’, which mirrored the centralization of political power that Indira Gandhi had embarked upon earlier. Despite Indira’s assassination, other FOIs were held in France, the USA, and (the still-Soviet) Russia.
In return, whenever a foreign government or arts council sent anything to India, the one city where the art exhibition, dance performance, play, or collection of films would definitely have to pass through was New Delhi. Throughout the 1980s, New Delhi became like a customs checkpoint for all things cultural coming from outside India.
At the same time (helped somewhat, but not solely, by being close to the seat of power), North India’s industrialists began to match their Bombay counterparts in amassing huge wealth. During the 1980s, Delhi, never previously known for its wealth, became home to some of the richest people in the subcontinent. Unlike most of Calcutta’s Partition refugees, some of these billionaires were from the Punjabi refugee families who’d also arrived with nothing in 1947.
As Calcutta sank deeper and deeper into multiple dysfunctionalities, Delhi began to match Bombay in its ‘can-do’ spirit, whether the ‘do’ was setting up huge plants with multinational car manufacturers or honoring a bribe to okay a TV soap opera. A joke making the rounds in the 1980s went: “As a TV producer, if you try and bribe a Calcutta Doordarshan official to okay your drama series it may happen in a few months or it may not happen at all. In Delhi they have a system and they deliver. If you pay the fixed-price bribe, the official will send a man to your place the next day to hand-deliver the letter okaying your project.”
Parallel to the toxic twisting of politics and to the burgeoning of the nouveau riche, another Delhi was also coming into its own. Various institutions had been set up in the city during the first three decades of Independence and many of these became centers of excellence. To name just a couple: The Delhi School of Economics (D-School), The National School of Drama (NSD), and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). If Delhi was a town with a violent, male-dominated culture, it was also the place where the strongest feminist groups were formed, from the late 1970s onward. If Delhi was the headquarters of government propaganda, it also became the city with the strongest independent documentary film movement that challenged that propaganda. If Delhi was one of the most polluted cities in the world, one where a hefty bribe would allow an industrialist to flout environment laws with impunity, it was also the place with the most effective environment-protecting NGOs. If Delhi was an important power-base for right-wing Hindu nationalists it was also the city that had JNU, a major ‘hotbed’ of leftist politics.
By the early 1990s, Calcutta had long lost all pretensions to being the one Indian city unique for its culture. By that time, the Shiv Sena were closing their grip on Bombay, starting to squeeze the diverse cultural spaces of the western Indian megapolis. If you happened to be a young person just out of art or design school, if you happened to be a talented 30-year-old with a stalled career in, say, photography or non-fiction film-making, then Delhi suddenly became much more attractive than other Indian cities. With its vastness, chaos, and energy, Delhi could house the contradiction you represented as easily as its opposite. In 1991, when the national government embarked upon a program of ‘liberalization’, where state controls were lifted from everything from industry and finance to the import of olive oil and Scotch whisky, Delhi was perfectly positioned to grab for itself the slippery title of Cultural Capital of India. The city to which no one in the old centers had paid serious attention had suddenly transformed from an ugly duckling to a still ugly, but very aggressively effective swan.