Sunday, August 06, 2006

Each to each ... [1]

“Why did you not tell me you are beautiful?” [2]

A hotel room high above the golf course. The picture window looks out over miles of treetops to a semi-circle of horizon. West by north-west, the eye travels from the bulk of the Meridien to the concrete outcrops around Connaught Place. In between, the domes of Rashtrapati Bhavan and the North Block muse serenely into the sky. Nearer me, a huge squared block of masonry, unrecognisable at first, suddenly comes into focus as India Gate in profile. On every side shades of green flow towards the horizon with barely a house-top breaking the surface. Far away to my right, the Purana Qila hunches its battered shoulders against the skyline. Two dazzling white domes break free of the concrete swarm somewhere beyond the railway station. Right in front of my window, a willow flirts with the breeze, swaying, changing colour in rippling sheets. And overarching all, a sky-full of monsoon greys and washed blue, highlighted by the occasional shaft of cloud-fallen light.

This is Delhi?!

The vista changed with the light, from the flat sharp lines of morning through the shadowed contrasts of high noon to the long soft gold of a summer evening. I hated having to leave that room. And driving from one meeting to another, I really looked at the wide leafy avenues of Lutyens’ city. Over the walls and the bamboo fences, through the screens of foliage, up above the flat roofs and the dish antennae to the cloud-washed blue of August. Dammit, this city is beautiful in parts.

Of course, only in parts. If one overlooks the eczema of rubbish heaps along the Yamuna, the rubble, the peeling houses, the hungry dogs, the scattered pipes when one leaves the Avenues of the Little Tin Gods.

But I didn’t mean to bitch about Delhi, I meant to pay it fulsome compliments.

Perhaps I’m a little jealous on behalf of my beloved Calcutta. I’ve never really thought about whether she’s beautiful, she’s just been more fun than any other place I know. Like a favourite aunt, or that friend who’s so vivacious that you never stop to think whether she’s actually hot. Now when I consider it dispassionately, I know that my city won’t make it on looks alone, not even if one considers only the prettier neighbourhoods. Not even the narrow sunlit lanes on a winter morning, or the lights across the Maidan as I drive home across the new Hooghly Bridge.. Delhi can take each of these and trump it with another vista far more stunning. And Bombay can afford to flash its Necklace and look away in quiet triumph.

Well, so what? I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Or would I? The Better Half loved London. Said it’s like Calcutta all spruced and polished (this was one September, after the litter of the tourist season had been cleared up and the corners de-pissed). I loved Paris – like Catherine Deneuve, utterly irresistible, very gracious, but always a hint of coolness that says “After all, I am the world’s most desirable!” We both loved New York … a feisty broth of a city that’s somewhere between Bangaal fishwife, Irish colleen, Polish tramp and cold-eyed Dutch burgher, but somehow greater than the sum of all these parts. But would we live there? London, just maybe. None of the others, and certainly not in the arms of that archetypal whore-with-a-heart-of-gold who husks her seduction by the Arabian Sea.

But we were in Delhi … I came back to my room late in the evening and I …. well, sat by the window and watched the cars roll by (I do quote that song far too often. Whattodo, universally applicable line). Soft darkness lay in layers beyond the circle of the hotel lights, beyond the dazzling blue of the swimming pool and the muted lamps in the driveway. Far away the office blocks glimmered a little forbiddingly, like a space-port of the Sith Lords. A streak of light lay across the southern horizon - perhaps the airport, perhaps just another urban village. Lights winked through the trees below as traffic crowded the roads well after midnight. This city sleeps late.

There’s a special loneliness about a hotel room, part empty bed and silent phone, part impersonal luxury that you know will belong to someone else once you step out of the door. Especially when you wake from fitful sleep in the middle of the night and debate whether it’s too late to call a friend. The room is a surreal film-set in the half-light of the night-lamp, an alien environment that has suddenly invaded your space. I gave up on sleep and sat by my picture-window with a large mug of coffee and a packet of cigarettes. Musing. Upon the stories in that dark half-circle spread out on view below, that surprising face of beauty on a city that I have long disliked.

Who would have thought Delhi could be so beautiful?!

[1] - Far from felicitous, not only because it's from one of Kipling's stiffer efforts but also because it's titled "To the City of Bombay"

- An Academic Friend dismissed “A Florentine Tragedy” as an “awful Jacobean pastiche”. I was most awf'ly impressed, but I still like those last two lines.

**** ****


thalassa_mikra said...

Did we finally get to you JAPda?

I honestly think every metropolis, which is grand, festering, ugly, imperious and vibrant enough can afford moments when you can sort of recline your head back and reflect.

And there is incredible beauty in those moments, when the frenzy of acquisition and the languid seconds in between can meld into something elegant and fluid. Yes, my city can be quite beautiful.

But I think you are not kind enough to Calcutta. I think it takes a different kind of aesthetics to see the beauty of Calcutta, to ponder over the iconic value of Howrah Bridge, the decrepit little lanes around the broad avenues, the stark contrast of a ride along the banks of the Ganga.

More than any other city, it is Calcutta deja vu that I got in many European cities I went to. Yes London reminded me of Calcutta, so did Rome, Bucharest, Athens, even Madrid in parts.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Swati, Calcutta is still the most alluring city for me, but that (as you point out yourself) is a personal equation. You can't see it until you've succumbed to the charm of this smiling slattern.

I haven't been to Athens, Bucharest or Madrid (alas!). Rome is wonderful, but to me it did not raise echos of Calcutta.


Aravind said...

An open mind to look at the beauty of a city will show you the better parts of the city. I have been to Delhi and yes, was amazed both by its beauties and the filth across Yamuna.

Calcutta, as described by volunteer friends of mine is not to be missed. Will visit surely. Me is from Melbourne, born in Hyderabad. Love both of them.

Aravind said...

Reg your comment on my blog. I will be honored to. My email address: gyanster[at] you can delete this comment after you read it.

Tabula Rasa said...

tm: we got to him. wait till he returns to the same view on a foggy winter morning :-)

i think calcutta is beautiful, too, but for me the beauty lies in its faces. and in the interactions that one experiences and observes.

loved your characterizations of paris and new york. i'd never do london, though (and that's the one big source of marital disagreement for me!)

Prerona said...


Anonymous said...

Dammit we're all nostalgic now.

You know, you've made it sound so much lovelier that it really is, we almost got all teary-eyed and sentimental there!


Anonymous said...

aah.. finally you succumb eh? :)
I have stayed in various cities.. (in and outside india) but found nothing like Delhi so far.

BTW the credit of Amar Akbar Anthony dialogue, goes to google devta. I just searched for the string and posted it there verbatim (thinking that bombasity was some distortion esp used to make it funny). . Thanks for the pointe, have changed it now.

Anonymous said...

err that's "pointer"..

Unknown said...

Having visited the city quite a few times , I love the juxtaposition of the medieval with the modern ,I love the food,CP, Atta Market,I love the view from the flyover as you drive in to Noida, I love the bargains on Janpath,I love Old Delhi but no I wouldnt live there because of the ugly sabre teeth that show behind its carefully painted lips ..I'd only visit and fall in love like a traveller again and again.

Deep said...

Oh yes, the view from the Delhi Meridien is breath-taking - you can't get a better picture post-card of the city. And Delhi has always been a very charming city, as long as you don't have to stay there for a long time anyway.

As for the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold (where did you get that from?) by the Arabian Sea, the Necklace looks awesome from the Oberoi, heard the sea - and South Mumbai - look great from the Taj as well.

As for Calcutta, ever looked at Victoria and a rain-soaked Maidan from the Everest or Tata Steel buildings (anywhere above the 10th floors would do fine) - nothing beats that. Ya call me biased now.

Priya said...

A breathtaking post. Still not enough to take me back there, though:P
Loved this bit about Cal;) that friend who’s so vivacious that you never stop to think whether she’s actually hot.

The Marauder's Map said...

Major Delhi nostalgia happening (I did live there for 8 years after all). Have you ever been to the road that cuts through the Delhi ridge and reaches DU north campus near Stephen's? It doesn't look like it could be part of that swarming city at all.

Ah, north campus. It used to be my playground and all that.

Falstaff said...

JAP: "Though Every prospect pleases / And only man is vile".

Exquisite post, but one never disliked the city for it's architecture, you know. It's the people one chiefly objects to. And since when has the beauty of a city been a reason to live there?

On a separate note, I personally find hotel rooms extremely comforting. It's a good feeling to know that wherever one goes one can instantly check into a room that looks pretty much the same as the last hotel room you were staying in, thousands of miles away. It's great to come back every night to something so familiar, so predictable. Plus, there's the joy of knowing that someone else will vacuum.

km said...

Outstanding, JAP.

Any "mai ka lal" who wants to step forward in defense of the much-maligned peepul of New Delhi?

Progga said...

The last time I went to Delhi, I was flying in from Bombay (and btw, whore indeed!)... and what struck me as we were circling to land was the vast tracts of green everywhere... and later, the little monuments and ruins and red-brick-history that you keep stumbling over from time to time. But... umm... would I want to LIVE there? No way, Jose.

thalassa_mikra said...

TR: Yes the fog, and the blurred outline of the doodhwala on his cycle, on his morning rounds. So surreal.

Falstaff: What to do? We're barbaric like that only. We are the Persians to your Greeks. Take your pick.

jhantu said...

I guess the point that Calcuttians like me really find charming and enthralling about the city is the constant buzz that is visible everywhere, whether on the crowded 45 bus or in its recent multiplexes, the city has the buzz that creates its OOMPH factor and makes it the delicious hot and sexy companion if not the demire bitchy breathtakingly beautiful tart

Anonymous said...

WTF. Is there any f***ing reason you churning out travelogues these day ?

Anonymous said...

WTF. Is there any f***ing reason you are churning out travelogues these day ?

Poorna Banerjee said...

London looks like kolkata!!

Damn, you just shattered my view of the Eliotian Streets!

"I have heard mermaids singing..."

ichatteralot said...

The beauty is apparent, flashy and skin deep - if you look within and deeper you will find ugliness that will bleed your heart

Rimi said...

Uncle J waxes lyrical (and how!) about Delhi. Come one, come all. Once in a lifetime op. only.

Strangely, though, it is New York I've heard several people identify Cal with. Well, to each his own, of course.

One particular sentence, however, struck mystifyingly close home. Is pyschic your new superpower? :-)

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Aravind – hope I can confirm your opinion of Melbourne some year soon

TR – Never do London? Mins wot? And I agree with you and Swati that Delhi is beautiful in winter (the smell of elaichi on the tree-lined avenues after dark), but I wouldn’t want to live there. Sundry bloggers and other friends notwithstanding.

Tom P. – (offers handkerchief)

T Fairy – succumb to what? Delhi’s charms? I can appreciate Penelope Cruz’s new cleavage, that doesn’t mean I want to know her! (Biblically or otherwise)

Eve’s Lungs – a ramble through the ruins and the bazaars in January? Would be wonderful – as long as I could come back to my Calcutta and bhnaarer chaa by the Lakes.

Deep – the Sea Lounge at the Taj, check it out some time

Priya – thank you

Marauder – I was, sadly enough, in South Campus. But I do know the Ridge. And Khyber. And late night rambles from D. School.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Falstaff – thankee kindly. Yes, I like hotel rooms at times, but not in quick succession. And ahem – “it’s architecture”? Tsk!

KM – if somebody stepped forward, they would be outstanding, innit?

Progga – green only in the monsoons. Otherwise mostly brown and tree-tops. Check out the greenery when you fly over Bengal.

Swati – Persian, eh? The pomegranate connection?

Jhantu – well put. Perhaps “sessky in slibhless blaaus”?

Panu – parts of it do. After all, the same people built them. But Cal has nothing to compare to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Alas.

I-Chatter – you agree with Falstaff, I see

Rimi – usually, it’s NYC = Bombay. Which sentence? What psychic?


P said...

Yes, who knew????!!!

Deep said...

JAP, yes Sea Lounge is awesome, been there only once - now only if the place was less expensive, and Bandra was closer to town :(

Tabula Rasa said...

mins, dada, in *any* sense of the word!

ps. ridge / khyber / late night rambles from d-school ... senti kore dilen!

Jane Sunshine said...

This is such a lovely, lovely post. It flooded back all memories of my Delhi holiday. Though you pay homage to the city in words that I wouldn't be able to conjure.

thalassa_mikra said...

No JAPda, not the pomegranate connection, though that exists as well. It's more to do with how definition of the Self needs the Other. Hence the Persians as the Other of the Greeks, Delhi as the Other of Bombay, and so on.

I have a friend who says that a person who hates NY and New Yorkers must really resent multiculturalism. Given that Delhi is the most immigrant dominated city in India (the Census says so, I'm not making this up), I wonder what distaste for it says about the idea of India.

udayan said...

Delhi is a city I will always feel ambiguous about. As of now, I like the city minus its denizens, if that's possible.

Its a city which has changed its character the most over the last 15 years (post-liberalisation, and all that). The slow, languid grace has given way to an burning impatience, which you see daily on the roads. Everyone wants to get rich quick and easy there, as they have seen all the people around them do. And it makes them do crazy things. Maybe that's progress.

30in2005 said...

I simply love Delhi - for all those reasons and more. That was a beautiful post JAP!

I shall be visiting Kolkata in Oct and hope I can write something as beautiful and touching about a city that is not mine except by occasional default.

Cyberswami said...

ah, delhi. like a shiny ripe fruit, beautiful to the eye and watering to the tastebuds. but like said fruit, with similar consequences too, swarming with maggots. ne'er to consider one without the other.

i too would not live in paris, beautiful as it was. london i might consider. new york too, but only if london fails.

calcutta i have not seen, sadly. perhaps this year.

March Hare said...

Beautiful lines. And a beautiful post. :)

Szerelem said...

lovely post.
Delhi IS beautiful. Even if its just in parts, but isn't that true of all cities? (As much as I love Paris it has its ugly buildings as well). Lutyens Delhi is amazingly well planned and such a contrast to other areas of Delhi that seem like a complete urban unplanned mess.
I loved Calcutta when i visited. It has a charm of its own, despite the chaos, the traffic and the afternoon naps. But, then again, thats true of any great city isn't it?

Bonatellis said...

hutum: simply fabulous ... eto bochhor pore eto kotheen bangla shune khub bhalo laaglo ...
aar "ghetomi" kothata praay bhulei giyechhilaam ...

Anonymous said...

Well, in that case, you can take it as 'succumb to the only physical charm you could spot - enough for you to give one compliment' :)

eM said...

Welcome to our camp! But, no, what I like MOST about converting people to Lovers of my city is the reluctance with which they admit to all its many delights. We don't have enough posts praising this city--and I'm glad you did. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

I echo the words..'yes, my city can be quite be quite beautiful'...its extremes are eloquent, both mellifluous and discordant, it makes you stop and reflects the entirety of India within its boundaries - Have to say Old Prune face, that was one the most soulful and beautifully written piece of work...

Next time you're in Delhi we will meet up and drink to the survival of this city...

Aunt D

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

P Inc – knew what? Why is EVERYbody so damn cryptic?

Deep – has PotPourri re-opened in Bandra?

T Rasa – maybe we can do that ramble in December?

Jane S – dil pe mat le yaar

Swati – oh, all RIGHT, I’m an insular xenophobic troglodyte. Gah!

Udayan – go explain that to the lady right above.

30in2005 – you should do a Calcutta ramble in December, there’s some great stuff here too.

Cyberswami – offer holds good for you as well. December, then?

Sen – thank you


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Szerelem – that contrast gets to me

Hutum – aapni aamaar doley thhaka-tey aami dhonnyo

B’tellis – yeah right

T Fairy – eh? I did say a lot can be beautiful about Delhi

eM – I used to live in your city. Hated it because it wasn’t Calcutta. Not quite fair, I know.

Aunt D – could we drink hot milk with jalebis broken up in it, on a winter morning?

And comments for this post are now CLOSED. (wipes sweat from brow) Blurry stoopid resolution, to respond to all comments!