A City Without Time

Anand Vivek Taneja 29

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

The jharna in Mehrauli Photographs: Karoki Lewis

The jharna in Mehrauli
Photographs: Karoki Lewis

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.

Beside the Hauz-e-Shamsi

Beside the Hauz-e-Shamsi

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.

Across the Barapula nala

Across the Barapula nala

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?


Inside the dargah of Chiragh-e-Dehli

Inside the dargah of Chiragh-e-Dehli

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.


  1. Swaraaj Chauhan March 17, 2015 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    One of the most beautiful and moving pieces that I have read on Delhi… Congratulations, Anand Vivek Taneja

  2. Primila Lewis March 17, 2015 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    Heartbreakingly true.

  3. Pankaj Jha March 17, 2015 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    Excellent piece of ‘live’ history, one that is neither innocent of present nor ignorant of past, yet manages to entice.

  4. diana sharma-winter March 17, 2015 at 10:59 pm - Reply

    Superb and evocative writing

  5. M.Akhtar,Indian Railways March 17, 2015 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    Only last Sunday I with my son visited, Khirki mosque, Satpulla, Naulakha nullah and Chirag Delhi all by foot. The construction of Tughlaq era were standing like mute spectator witnessing the down and fall of Delhi. Ever increasing encroachment on the heritage structures, lack of maintenance leading to crumbling walls saddened me. Taneja’s writings compelled my tears to roll down which I was holding back so long.

  6. Saeed Raja March 18, 2015 at 1:46 am - Reply

    Beautifully captured soul of the city. And our link to it.

  7. Ajay Mahajan March 18, 2015 at 6:03 am - Reply

    Credibly Incredible ! Thanks for the Chirag e Dilli :)

  8. Kalpana bandiwdekar March 18, 2015 at 8:29 am - Reply

    Very true and heart rendering passage. Wondering what are we doing with our rivers and monuments. Who is to blame. Great writing and information

  9. Lalita Shankar March 18, 2015 at 9:57 am - Reply

    Very beautiful article. Yes, in this mad rush that we call progress, we have somewhere lost the ability to understand, respect, and live in harmony with our surroundings. The natural landscape of most metropolitan cities is almost completely lost. Local customs, festivals, cuisines and languages will soon follow. If we do not wake up soon, all that will be left are character less clones of settlements. Indistinguishable from each other. Concrete jungles that just do not blend in with nature.

  10. runa March 18, 2015 at 11:00 am - Reply

    Anand Vivek, I just saw you making love to Delhi with your words. This love of yours is pristine as your lover’s age failed to diminish her attraction for you.

  11. Manav Sachdeva Maasoom March 18, 2015 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Absolutely brilliant. Especially the last sentence. Although I must say Delhi did come alive at the India International Centre this past weekend for the Jashn-e-Rekhta. And it was really special. Incredibly special with the likes of great poets and dastangoi and SAR Faruqi sahib and scholars.

  12. Kanika Arora March 18, 2015 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    Zabaan-e Dehli is Zabaan-e-Urdu.I have lived like a nomad for years yet consider Delhi home for that is where my heart is. Thank you for this truly thought provoking and evocative journey through a city that was and I hope and believe still can be. Bravo!

  13. Itrat Harrold March 18, 2015 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    This is so beautifully written. Congratulations Anand!

  14. Jassal March 18, 2015 at 6:09 pm - Reply


  15. Vishal March 19, 2015 at 11:02 pm - Reply

    It is the nature of predators to forage. Time teaches us that at certain phase some humans were able to turn others human into prey. Time also teaches us other humans were able to subdue some humans and become predators.

    Unlike the animal kingdom human societies have always played the game hunting and foraging amongst themselves. Some humans play the role of predators, some prey. Predators make a habitat their own by challenging competitors and defeating them.

    Urdu was a language of predators. It arose from army camps of Delhi and was refined by pleasure seeking feudal lords and their minions. Minions like Ghalib, Mir often wrote fine lines lamenting about existential problems when predators went around foraging for prey.

    Erstwhile predators became prey by the turn of century. For last 150 years the intellectual class is catering to a new market: the market of lament. A new political economy had sprung up to keep the ‘flame’ alive. Urdu is dead. Long live urdu.

    Just as when bourgeoise emerged as the new predator in Europe during 17’th century, one of the first things they did was to throw the language erstwhile predators ie latin and greek, so it is not surprising to see how urdu is treated in India.

    The literature of lament on urdu forgets that maybe urdu is the language of prey in India but in Pakistan it is the language of predators. Imagine the un-imagenable horror urdu has done to sindhi, balochi, pushto and other languages of Pakistan.

  16. Sakshi Mehley March 20, 2015 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Brilliantly written.

  17. Suguna Dewan March 20, 2015 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    Even though I have never stayed in Delhi, my family’s roots are there. On a recent trip, I wandered (mostly intentionally) and saw the numerous, still standing structures which look like crumbling grand fathers, asking for attention and help. Your piece moved me, I choked up a little. Thanks for reminding me of my recent love affair with Delhi.

  18. Ashok March 21, 2015 at 2:55 am - Reply

    All time in Delhi is the endless present is what Anand writes. He characterises Delhi as a city without time. But is it not that all capital cities of the world bear a responsibility to dream about the future of a nation?

    Think-tanks, policy institutes, pronouncements, the office of executive all produce an endless discourse on future. Capital cities by nature are future obsessed, future driven, where past is insignificant, a ruin really.

    Past caters to a vibrant economy of heartbreak. Present is useful but it is future which moulds the present experience, isn’t it?

    Capital cities make tangible the anticipation of things to come. In that sense Delhi is very much a city of anticipation, or redemption of present and past through future, a city of eager expectation, hope, change, continuous change and relentless contestation.

    It is these qualities which make Delhi such an awesome city to live in. Anand had written a brilliant piece for our tourism industry. This is a deeply sensitive evocation of nallah and urdu, both of which can be readily monitised and repackaged as cultural history tours for citizens with appropriate disposable income.

  19. Surabhi March 22, 2015 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    True that we do not know about the history so we do not know what has got destroyed over time. It is sad because neither we care nor we want to make that effort.

  20. kiran tandon March 25, 2015 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the writing. Very evocative and even poetic. One remembers so many music festivals in Delhi while growing up. These events one was forced to go to even though one fell asleep in the middle of exhilarating jugalbandis of Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar. However one does remember clearly the nullah which flowed down from Defense Colony through Nizammudin. It was dirty and mucky in the early sixties (and I should know because I fell into it!) crossing it which one did almost daily as a shortcut in the evenings was a hazardous exercise!

  21. Nalini Thakur March 28, 2015 at 8:18 am - Reply

    A wonderful piece of poetry on Delhi. At SPA we conducted an interdisciplinary studio on this waterway. It was an introduction to historic Delhi to our students from other parts of India. The story of historic Delhi emerged out of this. It is clear that this is an important tributary of the larger Delhi stream, that originates from the Sainik farm area. Did a st on the historic river of Delhi. Help us recover this stream….. Needs you all.

  22. Bhavna March 29, 2015 at 5:25 pm - Reply

    Dilli jo ek sheher tha, alam mein intakhab. Urdu ran in Delhi’s veins since the Mughals called it their home. Without Urdu, Delhi has lost its soul. This is such a heart-wrenchingly beautiful article. Loved it. Wish I could be transported back to the age of Mir and Ghalib where poetry was the currency of love and beauty in prose was valued more than gold.

  23. Prof. S M Akhtar March 29, 2015 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Great Work

  24. Roshni March 30, 2015 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    That was really touching… everywhere water bodies and old cities are meeting with the same fate.

  25. Parinay Diwan April 14, 2015 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    Great stuff. Informative and brilliantly written.
    Never knew this about Delhi. Thanks Anand.

  26. Teji Puri September 28, 2015 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    A very evocative and beautifully written article…the pain of the lost past, the indifference of the present, the feeling of helpness that will anything be done or is there even a will to realise what we have given up so thoughtlessly, all comes through so brilliantly.

  27. priya November 16, 2015 at 2:43 pm - Reply

    The sacredness din’t come across. I did not think this was evocative or poetic. The tone is regret and nostalgia. The piece was informative, but was it reliving the past to enable the reader to imagine a different future? I doubt. It also confused me about the route the stream took. IQ can never be The New Yorker, can it be the best at its own though?

  28. savyasaachi August 20, 2016 at 10:51 am - Reply

    Anand should say something on his question “Is there a causal connection between the absence of language and the presence of sewage? Does one start flowing where the other runs dry?”

    I would like pose a different question-

    “is the accumulation of sewage a reflection of suffocation of language? “

  29. Pukhtun March 13, 2017 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    Two years later I still keep returning to this piece. What moving, vivid descriptions coupled with nostalgia that can bring you to tears each time. One of the most beautiful things I have read. Thank you, Anand Vivek Taneja.

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