Anand Vivek Taneja remembers a dead river in a Delhi that has turned its back on it, just as it has on a language that was its own
Is there a causal connection between the absence of language and the presence of sewage? Does one start flowing where the other runs dry?
Having moved back to Delhi after a two-year absence, we sublet an apartment in Defence Colony. Walking from our new address to the market required, in my memory, crossing the smelly nala via a small metal bridge. I was surprised to discover, as I made my way to the market, that the bridge was gone, as was the nala. That body of water, so long an open sewer running the length of Defence Colony, had been paved over to build a raised concrete promenade with paved sandstone paths and grassy medians. In the mornings and evenings, many of that colony’s denizens now walked vigorously atop the nala which they had once avoided, because of its stench.
Near the northern edge of Defence Colony, the promenade stops abruptly in a jagged edge of protruding rebar and unfinished concrete. From under this ragged lip, the nala flows north, dark and fetid, past Jangpura and Nizamuddin, past a qabristan and Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khanan’s tomb, under the 12-arches of the Mughal-era Barapula bridge, before it joins the Yamuna. A few hundred metres from Defence Colony, the nala’s path through the city is obscured again, this time by the Barapula Elevated Road. That road’s tall concrete pillars are embedded in the nala, high over which the rushing traffic of the city passes, oblivious to the flow of sewage below. It is an old metaphor, that of time flowing like a river from the past to the future; but not an entirely ineffective one. Yesterday’s snowmelt is today’s Gangajal, at least in an ideal world. To imagine time as a flowing stream is to imagine a connection between glaciers and wheat, a continuity between past and present. It is to imagine the past as a source of benediction, of blessing and wisdom, a source that we can dip into. Returning that metaphor to local geography, what does it mean for the nalas of Delhi to be covered over, for their flow to be rendered invisible to Delhi’s citizens?
“These Americans who lived in our house in the 1960s asked me about the river that used to flow in the back.”
A friend whose family has lived in Defence Colony for three generations told me this, as we discussed the ways in which the landscape of Delhi had changed. The nala was a river in the Americans’ memories, flowing clean and blue through the landscape of their youthful adventures in a foreign city. It seemed strange to hear this in today’s Delhi where ganda nala is a tautology, for what else can a nala be but dirty? But the nala that passes through Defence Colony is an old and venerable stream, once renowned for its sacrality. It was known as the Naulakha nala. The name indicates how much it was valued by the people of Delhi in times when nine lakh rupees actually had value.
That stream flowed from the Hauz-e-Shamsi in Mehrauli, down a tall vertical chute known as the jharna—around which a beautiful Mughal garden-pavilion was built—and then raced downhill collecting all the streams emanating from the higher ground of Mehrauli and Tughlaqabad with- in it. It entered the city of Jahanpanah as a powerful stream—indeed, it would have been considered a river in most other parts of the world—its flow controlled by the sluice gates of the Satpula in Khirki. On the other side of the Satpula, the stream had a reputation for healing, connected to the memory of the Sufi saint Hazrat Roshan Chiragh-e-Dehli, whose khanqah is situated on its right bank. An 18th century account of Delhi by the Hyderabadi noble Dargah Quli Khan gives a short but vivid description of the festivities at the Satpula.
“In truth you (Chiragh-e- Dehli) are the lamp of Delhi, rather you are the lamp and the eyes of all Hindustan. The pilgrimage to your tomb is on Sundays. In the month of Diwali the crowds are especially impressive. In this month the people of Delhi come on every Sunday to gain the bliss of pilgrimage (ziyarat). There is a spring (chashmeh) near the dargah. Here they pitch tents and enclosures and bathe in the spring and often people find complete cures to their old diseases. Muslims and Hindus both make the pilgrimage in the same fashion. From morning to evening the caravans of pilgrims keep coming regularly… Everywhere there is colour and music and in every nook and corner there is the sound of the pakhawaj and morchang (drum and Jew’s harp).” (My translation from the Urdu, with reference to the Persian.)
But the Satpula is no longer a sacred site. The stream that once passed through it has now been diverted and flows about 50 metres to the west. It runs black with sewage as it heads back into its old bed and heads north towards Defence Colony, where it is now sub- terranean. The only people to visit Satpula regularly are young men looking for a place to play cards. The secluded, shady arches of the Satpula are ideal for this purpose. When asked if they know about the history or sanctity of the place, they shrug their shoulders. Across from the Satpula lie the massive shopping malls of the Saket District Centre.
I went to the dargah of Chiragh Dehli, a few minutes walk from the Satpula, and spoke to the hereditary caretaker of the dargah. The pirzada said that yes, there used to be a mela at the saint’s Urs, and on that oc- casion people would go from the dargah to the Satpula. This stopped about 30 years ago when the “unauthorised” settlements of Khanpur and Madangir came up and their sew- age came into the water there. Before that, he said, you could drink this water straight from the stream, it was that clear. When people went to the Sat- pula, they would bathe with their clothes on, then leave the clothes there. Having bathed at the Satpula and done haziri at the dargah, they were sure to have a child. “I have sent people there myself,” he said. “But not anymore, because of the dirtiness.”
The pirzada has been in charge of the dargah since 1983. He seemed unperturbed as he spoke of the fouling of the stream that flowed past the dargah, a destruction that had occurred in his lifetime and mine.
The Satpula and the Naulakha nala are not the first things lost to Delhi. It is a city which has faced overwhelming destruction time and time again. But those calamities did not go unmourned. Through the nostal- gic evocation of those cities lost to them, Delhi’s lovers recreated the city anew, every time; a city of words and images as much as it was one of brick and stone. The words of longing spoken by its lovers made Delhi a hallowed space even for those who had never set foot in its streets. “Dilli jo ek sheher tha, alam mein intakhab,” wrote Mir Taqi Mir, while in exile.
Delhi, that was the chosen city in the universe.
Over 200 years later, Intizar Husain, born in Bulandshahr and living in Lahore, wrote one of the most beautiful literary evocations of Delhi, using a fragment of Mir’s line as the title of his book—Dilli Jo Ek Sheher Tha. In between Mir and Intizar Husain stretched a whole tradition of Urdu literature—poems and songs, novels and ethnographies and antiquarian works—all lovingly documenting Delhi’s speech, the particular turns of phrase used by its women, the taste of the water from its different wells, the eccentricities of its artisans and faqirs, the flavours of its food and festivals. In the words of Urdu literature, I found the Naulakha nala flowing again, washing away the ills of Hindus and Muslims alike.
But who reads Urdu now?
In the violence of Partition, Delhi lost its literature. Urdu, rather than remaining the literary language of the sheher as it was, became the ghettoised language of Muslims alone, unavailable to others to read and learn. Without its literature, Delhi lost the ability to remember what it once was. Perhaps it lost the desire to do so. It is hard to say. But without a literary tradition, without the ways in which literature allows us to imagine and inhabit times past, our experience of the cities we live in is always the endless present. We can only see things as they are, not as they once were. We cannot glimpse what could have been, and could be again. There is no possibility of nostalgia, because we don’t even know what we have lost. Without Urdu, Delhi is a city eloquent only in its violence. Without Urdu, the monuments of the city are just dead congregations of stone, without ever having been a part of the city’s life. Without Urdu, the city ofn Delhi loses its sacred geography.
“Duniya ne teri yaad se begana kar diya, tujh se bhi dil fareb hain gham rozgar ke,” wrote Faiz Ahmed Faiz. (The world has made me a stranger to your memory/the sorrows of the age are more seductive than you.) Faced with the overwhelming destructions and transformations of our cities and our ways of life, what can those who live among these changes do but numbly shrug their shoulders? Why should they remember water when it has been fouled, when they now have powerful pumps siphoning up groundwater for their own use? Why should they continue to re- member the Diwali mela of Satpula, linked to a Sufi saint dead these past 700 years, when they have new gods and new politics?
It is the burden of literature to remember, with intensity and immediacy, a time and a place that would be otherwise lost to us. But Delhi has lost the ability to read the majority of its literary production from before 1947.
Time flows from the past to the future, but Delhi is a city without time. The only flow that matters is the traffic endlessly circling the Ring Road. All time in Delhi is the endless present, a sea of honking horns. And so the city buries its streams under concrete, and turns its back on a river that’s been killed. “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” Leonard Shelby asked in Memento. The same could be asked of this city, which, like Shelby, is stuck in an endless present, unable to remember, unable to mourn.
If we cannot remember the ways in which the past was different from the present, we cannot imagine any other present than the one we live in, or any other futures than the grim, inexorable one we seem to be heading towards. The river will flow blue only in the memories of foreigners and exiles, nostalgic for the days of their youth, and the city’s.
Anand Vivek Taneja is an anthropologist who works on history, religion and popular culture in India. He completed his PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University, and is currently an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is writing a book on time, Islam and enchantment in the medieval ruins of Delhi.