Delhi. Dilli. Dilwalon ki Dilli. The city of, and for, the large-hearted.
This fabled city, eulogised over the centuries, coveted by successive empires, celebrated habitually in verse and prose, continues to draw in the faithful. One senses it always will. The latest entrants to this legacy are two young wanderers who gaze at their Dilli/ Delhi as both insiders and foreigners.
For Prerna Kalbag & Nishant Singh, this specific ode represents many things—remembrance, homage, love letter, protest song, human manifesto, visual prayer, and ultimately, an act of archiving. For them, Dilli exists as the ultimate refuge of the refugee, as a breathtakingly beautiful city that constructs its edifice on the existence of contradiction—ancient and glitteringly cosmopolitan; vicious, yet sanctuary-like; wide open boulevards and tiny, unnamed gullies; the unapologetic luxury of some of the finest restaurants to be found anywhere, coexisting with the enduring appeal and aromas of Gali Paranthe Wali. What to make of such a city? How to come close to bottling its enigma?
The duo chooses words, and as tellingly, photographs. These are moody vignettes of a Dilli constantly lived out in flux. Celebrated Mughal testaments peer into the sky. The street unfurls with its rare bouquet. Markets stir to life. Humans find themselves lost for words, or simply, lost. Lovers steal away in immaculately manicured gardens. The air worsens. The romance deepens. And somewhere, within all this, Spoken Word City: Dilli is born.
— Siddharth Dasgupta
The Bombay Literary Magazine
We’ve lived in Delhi for several years, but each time we walk through any neighbourhood, sit at a café, take a trip through the countless bazaars, we still feel like tourists, or flaneurs in a place we’re trying to discern. As students who became writers and working professionals in a city that still feels unfamiliarly familiar, our photography is a way for us to unravel spaces that seem to be in a constant state of flux. Our relationship with Dilli, like our photography, is uncertain, amateur, but capable of stumbling on to flashes of epiphany.
Look, here is where we hung out as broke students, surviving on cups of chai and roadside momos. These are the lower-income neighbourhoods where we lived and frequented, and where naive, idealistic collegegoers often clash with their conservative landlords. For the city is a hub of migrants and migrations. Its streets, lanes, houses, monuments, and traffic signals are sites of human intermingling despite the deeply hierarchical nature of its social structure. We don’t truly belong to Dilli, but who does? It’s our home, but it isn’t. It houses our dreams, but it doesn’t.
Can Dilli be called a city of dreams? Perhaps, but it is mostly a city of ghosts, a city of regrets. It reeks of loneliness – a loneliness so bright it glimmers within the most dazzling marketplaces, so pungent it suffuses the nooks and crannies of the bustling localities of Khirki or Paharganj. History haunts the modern tenements that do not consume it. Walking through the hipster village of Shahpur Jat, you are suddenly confronted by the ruins of the lost city of Siri. The posh boutiques of Hauz Khas exist uneasily next to the medieval Madrassa built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq and the bustles of the urban village.
I was a different person when I came here, but Dilli consumed me, wrung me inside out. To live here is to constantly stumble upon its – and your own – past, in everyday life. Each place I revisit, I also revisit my own self and am confronted by my own pride and shame.
All Delhiites are by nature time-travellers. They cross a gazillion timelines as nonchalantly as gulping down a cup of chai. Uneasiness dwells in their veins, but they hold it in, a touch of cosmopolitan coexistence, perhaps, or of rural bravado? It is hard to tell. Aggression and tenderness merge into and tinge the landscape of this timeless city, where story after story is visible, forgotten, or left to colour the sides of its roads or the ends of its cul-de-sacs. The cliche of “Seven Cities” – starting from Indraprastha, established millennia ago, revived from time to time for political reasons; culminating in the Imperial Capital of the British Raj, with its triumphant red sandstone monuments and grand hybrid architecture, blending Ancient Indian, Mughal, and European styles – blossoms across everyday chronicles.
These layers make themselves seen and felt to this day, although in muted forms. Old names, such as Badarpur, Nizamuddin, Chandni Chowk, and Indraprast survive as testaments to Dilli’s complex and multi-layered history. In this chaos and intermingling, there are moments of silence and peace. Moving through masses of buildings, one is surprised by the sight of a man lost in his own daydreams, not yet ready to be woken up. In the markets, people stand still and look around, if only to hunt for the perfect spot for a selfie. It is this powerful though momentary contrast between movement and stillness that gives life in Delhi its true, unique, aesthetic sensibility.
In this photo-essay, we attempt to explore bylanes where urbanisation and rurality cut and burst through each other like shards of glass. Food carts, flower shops, temples, and monuments exist as remnants of a different era alongside offices, apartments, and billboards. Human closeness takes on a different form, and its flavours are rich with the headiness of a bygone time zone. There is restlessness that pushes forward while at the same time giving way to glimpses of intimacy between the unlikeliest of strangers. Urbanity of the most sophisticated kind sits cheek-by-jowl with urban villages. One does not have to travel far to run into farmlands and cattle sheds. This has been the case since the eighteenth century. Accounts of the city from the Early Modern period tell us of how outside Shahjahanabad, the decrepit remains of the Sultanate era structures housed a largely rural population. Delhi has straddled the line between urbanisation and rurality for generations, and will perhaps continue to do so even as the borders of the city expand like an ever unfolding amoeba.
This Dilli, which was once home to the Armenians, the Persians, the Mughals, has continued to accept and make room for innumerable refugees and migrants, incorporating them into its ever-expanding embrace. The story of Delhi is the story of the Punjabis, of the Tibetans, of the Migrant laborers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, of the Afghans, the Somalis and the Syrians. The story of Delhi is the story of the Refugee and the Asylum-seeker, the Drifter and the Outsider. The story of Delhi is the story of You and Me. Perhaps like the uncertain, nostalgic Babur, we’re all trying to conquest our own fears and turn them into a home. Perhaps Dilli makes us realize that there is no such thing as a home, and that’s okay.
— Prerna Kalbag & Nishant Singh
Main Banner Image: Anurag Chandra/ Design: Siddharth Dasgupta
Author | PRERNA KALBAG
Prerna Kalbag has completed a Master’s Degree in Literary Arts from Ambedkar University, Delhi and a Postgraduate Diploma in International Human Rights Law. Her writing (essays, poetry, and short stories) has been published in Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi’s bimonthly journal), Muse India, Cafe Dissensus, Setu Bilingual, Hindustan Times, Mekong Review, Kavya Bharati, Raiot Webzine, Kitaab.org, Ricepaper Literary Magazine, and The Punch Magazine. Power relations, the politics of social exclusion, urban loneliness, and the postmodern self are some concepts that she explores in her creative work. All her published writing can be found here: https://linktr.ee/PrernaKalbag
Author | NISHANT SINGH
Nishant Singh has completed an M.Phil. in Ancient History from the University of Delhi, where he also teaches. His writing has been published in journals like Café Dissensus and Kitaab.org. His academic and creative work focusses on gesture politics and the performativity of power. He enjoys photography and exploring food cultures in his free time.