TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

Crossing into New Delhi

Updated on: Apr 07, 2011
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A hundred years ago, the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Fifty years ago, aged seven, I, too, moved to Delhi.

In the first 50 years after 1911, what happened to and in Delhi were inversely proportional. As more and more happened in it less and less happened to it.

Now, thanks to the land prices and the scams they generate, they are directly so. The frog has turned into a prince, never mind the looks. You can't have everything.

A Punjabi Town

Until the 1950s, Delhi was largely a Hindi-speaking town. But in 1947 came the refugees from West Punjab (now Pakistan) and my memories of Delhi in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s are of a predominantly Punjabi town.

What stands out particularly is the amazingly insensitive term of reproach or derision — yateem (orphan) referring to a Partition orphan. A badly dressed or poorly-off person would be described as such.

And then there was the pronunciation. So Connaught Place was Knaatplace; Karol Bagh was Krol Bagh, Rajendra became Rajinder and Ashok, Shokki — or, more usually, OySokki.

I, as a seven-year-old Tamil, was a curiosity. The children of the migrants in school with me had never seen one before. So, in the African style of names I was, for a brief while between the ages 7 and 8, known as M'drassi or OyM'drasssi. Perhaps it was hard for them to turn Raghavan into OyRghvn.

Many colonial myths were being broken in those days and I did my bit by shattering the one that categorised M'drassis as a timid, non-martial lot. It happened like this.

I had found a golf ball in the Delhi Golf Course and, having discovered its hardness and very bouncy properties, I invited a chap called M'lhotra — Malhotra, if you want to be fussy — who believed that all M'drassis were cowards, to bang the ball hard on the floor and watch it bounce. If it didn't do so in a monstrous way, he could keep the ball.

He did. It did…and before he could move out of the way, it bounced right back from the ceiling on to his head. From then on he called me plain Oy..., where the three dots signified deep Punjabi respect in the usual expletive-d way.

Today, Delhi is full of second and third-generation M'drasssis like my sons who say ‘ chpatti ' instead of chappati or my niece who thinks sambhar is an ‘exotic lentil soup with a tamarind base'.

Their best friends, like mine, are Punjabis. We feel more at home with them than with anyone else. Tamil sophistication, Jat (or Gujjar) manners and Punjabi doggedness — that's what becomes of Tamils who make Delhi their home.

Ask any Bengali.

A Gujarati School

On a hot May afternoon in 1958, I along with my brother and sisters, were admitted by Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. It was barely a year old and admission was easy because the best schools still had names with a St. in front. As the years went by, Sardar Patel was modernised by some wannabes to Surdie Pat, but that is another story.

Although our school was full of young Punjabi kids, the ethos was Gujju or even, when observed closely, Gandhian. Many teachers wore khadi and I still do. When Gujarati is spoken, it still strikes a chord. At one point I almost married one but providence saved me from lifelong servitude to abstinence and vegetarianism.

On one side of the school was Khan Market. It was a shabby place then, not the upmarket shopping area it is now. The shops were owned by, yes, the refugees.

I was once told that a former RBI Governor's father owned a bookshop there. It is still there. There used to be an Empire Stores also at the corner.

On another side were the Lodhi Gardens and the under-construction India International Centre. I saw it from foundation upwards. Beyond that was Safdarjung's Tomb, followed by a dreary brown landscape of scrubland until you reached Qutab Minar.

Verbal class distinctions

Delhi remained a small town until the 1980s, when the Asian Games (1982) transformed it. It started to grow rapidly after that, and amongst the things that changed was its accent. Through the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to a huge influx of people from Haryana, the old Punjabi accent gave way to the more guttural Haryanvi accent.

But towards the end of the 1980s the influx of Biharis started and the accents again slowly started to change. The rough tones of the Jat gave way to the sing-song Bihari way of speech, where even statements ended in an upward inflexion that sounded like a question.

The main casualty was English. It virtually ceased to exist until the late 1990s, which brought liberalisation and globalisation. Now everyone wants to speak in English but it is not based on Wren and Martin . Those pesky articles (‘a' and ‘the') have disappeared forever.

Delhi has become truly polyglot and English is just one of the local dialects. As my friend said, if the Prime Minister can say ‘sport' for ‘support' and the Finance Minister can say ‘Indian Ocean as a zone of peace' with short ‘e' ( actually ‘i'), why not lesser beings?

The coup de grace , of course, is that the New Delhi-walla has changed even the syntax. Queen's English, RIP.

The frog also turns

The most remarkable change, however, is the re-emergence of Delhi as a centre of intellect and culture. After 1857 and until well after Independence in 1947, that distinction had belonged to the old Presidency towns of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, while Delhi was known predominantly as a city of traders.

But, imperceptibly, Delhi has usurped them all. The best minds in the country may reside elsewhere, but if they are looking for something to graze on, Delhi offers the best facilities in the form of think-tanks and universities.

Culturally, the city has gained from the influx of regional diversity pouring into the Capital, to work, to live and make it their permanent home. Today, the old South Indian joke about the only culture North of Vindhyas being agriculture no longer holds true for Delhi.

The small town of the 1950s has become India's only modern metropolis. Unlike the balladeer's lament “She's got everything and she ain't givin' it toooooooo... me” Delhi has given me everything she's got.

And, I, folks, have given her everything I have got. It's quits.

Published on June 21, 2011

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