The Delhi We Don’t Want to Know: From 1984 to 2020
It’s time we stopped inventing mythic pasts about Delhi in order to forge new identities for ourselves.
I am a Delhi-ite. I was born here in 1973 in a nouveau-riche neighbourhood in the south – Greater Kailash 1. ‘GK’ for short. And for style. My mother and I walked down from our house to the market to eat bhel-puri and buy sausages from United Stores. I played L-O-N-D-O-N London with my friends and the board game – Snakes and Ladders. You rolled the dice and if you were lucky, your token landed on a ladder that made you jump lines from number 2 to 22, the aim being to get to 100 first. If you weren’t that lucky, you’d get to 99 and then land on a snake that would make you slide all the way back to 6.
Until a month ago, I was telling myself and everyone around how I had recovered my lost pride in the city because of the women of Shaheen Bagh. They were my ladder – taking a city of Hindutva-wadis and conformists to a space of defiance, tolerance and sassiness. Then, we landed on the snakes.
As northeast Delhi burnt and the BJP’s Kapil Mishra took out a second ‘peace rally’ using calming slogans such as ‘goli maaro’, I asked myself which of these was the real Delhi that I grew up in.
And if I am perfectly honest, I will not do what many have tended to – talk of the lost glory and an idyllic childhood suddenly blown away. I didn’t grow up in a politically correct family, if there is such a thing. It was all a bit snakes and ladders-like. We hated Indira Gandhi but we also admired her. I also remember drawing-room conversations with grown-ups saying, “India needs a Zia-ul Haq (the former president of Pakistan and an autocrat) to set us straight. We need a strong general, not all this corruption and nonsense.”
But we also frequented The Claridges hotel for our fill of beef steaks. And when the genocide against Sikhs took place in 1984, we hid the taxis owned by Sikhs in our driveway.
As I began to punch holes in what I had thought was a somewhat syncretic upbringing, I had to also ask myself: Where were the Muslims in my midst? There was one friend in our class, just one girl in my thirteen years of school. We raided her tiffin on Eid because her father made the best biryani ever. Did we ever go to or even know of places in northeast Delhi like Shahdara or Seelampur or Khajuri Khas?
Much of what we tossed around in our drawing rooms as idle banter over rum-punch and baked beans was ground to the dirt and sludge in these ever-expanding shanties. These are the people we still make invisible when we talk of ‘our Delhi’ as secular, liberal, romantic. Not acknowledging the festering wounds, the wretchedness of the people growing up cheek-by-jowl with no drains, no sanitation and slowly hardening in their respective identities of caste, religion, gender and neighbourhood.
But as I looked back, what hit me much harder was the realisation that by looking at the shanties as breeding grounds of hate, I was still not being truthful. Even from the shiny, aspirational streets of Greater Kailash, I could easily have grown up to be an acolyte in a Kapil Mishra-designed mob.
Muslims were fanatics, halal-meat eaters or people who were cruel to animals and kept their women in burqas. Because we were upper-caste Hindus, this would never translate into sloganeering against ‘jehadis’ and ‘gaddars,’ but at the same time, we were proud that we bought our meat from non-halal shops. Dating a Muslim would have been frowned upon by many in my family.
There was nothing in my basic school education to puncture these myths either. That only happened when I started reading non-fiction in college. Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, volumes of the Subaltern Studies. Names of historians that the Hindu right has now converted into the Indian equivalent of McCarthyism as it tries to ‘crackdown on those commies!’ ‘Those people who fill our heads with such divisive ideas as secular and socialist.’ It was reading that turned my head away from the ‘Let’s pray for an Indian Zia,’ and look at the hate we were breeding at home.
As I became a socialist, I started to invent a much more idyllic version of my childhood to hide away what I wasn’t proud of. My parents were products of the 1960s hippie wave. They played records of Rolling Stones and Credence Clearwater Revival. Reading was insisted on. As was questioning all assumptions, everything. When I took that literally, I was told my proper place by my chauvinistic father who wanted me to be liberal as long as I didn’t talk back to him. So many contradictions, so many conundrums. I struck out against my dad and didn’t speak to him for two years.
I fashioned him as my home-grown Stalin that I had defeated as I read Russian history in college. I had a crush on a Muslim colleague later, when I started my career as a journalist. But it felt self-conscious. I was righting a wrong, I was proving something to myself. The default therefore, was still one of discomfort at owning up to my middle-class-ness. My shiny-ness. My not belonging to Lutyens’ Delhi, to the ‘Khan market gang’.
It rankled even recently when someone senior and well-known, a Congress-walla, a journalist and someone who was part of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s inner circle told me that I didn’t have the ‘stature’ to apply for the Nehru Fellowship. And where on Earth did I live? Not a smart part of the city. I should’ve let it slide off of me with cool indifference. But it hurt like a stab wound. And then I began to look closer at my own dissonance. And how it could so easily be harvested as hate. Hatred for the liberals and socialists, for feeling like it was not possible to belong to ‘the smart set’.
One tiny tweak and that could be turned into the anti-secular, anti-Muslim rhetoric that has ripped through northeast Delhi. It could have been me. This rather recent realisation gave me a way of seeing Delhi differently. This is a city with a history of blood. From the 1857 revolt to the massacre during the Partition.
Fantasies of violence are fused into its fabric in different ways at different times and are harvested and called into action like scabs on a street dog that need to be scratched because they’re there. From here, the present can no longer look like a rupture, where we stand back with incomprehension and horror. It’s not useful. Besides, it causes us to look away from our own uncomfortable truths.
I am using my background and my new, non-mythic gaze to remind myself that Delhi was always secular and bigoted at the same time and not in hermetically sealed ways. Both are present in a single individual at once. From 1984 to 2020, it’s been a long and schizophrenic journey. It’s time we look at these episodes as part of the fabric. And stop inventing mythic pasts about Delhi, in order to do what we ought to. Forge new identities for ourselves. Especially for ourselves before we stand on pulpits, preaching to those we know as intolerant.
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul)
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