William Dalrymple Reflects on Delhi

Martin Roemers/Panos Pictures

Delhi has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. The horrific gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman on her way back from seeing Life of Pi has lifted the lid on the casual violence of the Indian capital. For the rape is very much a Delhi story: while violence against women is a problem everywhere in India, it is generally agreed that women are most in danger in this vast, rough, messy megacity that I call home.

No one really knows how big Delhi is. Delhi the federal district has about 11 million inhabitants, but that figure disguises the fact that over the political boundaries in neighboring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh there sprawl suburbs that together contain millions more. By some estimates this greater urban Delhi contains more than 21 million people and is one of the most populous urban areas on Earth.

As the city has expanded it has swallowed up hundreds of ancient villages, where people’s lives and attitudes have changed little since the Mughal Middle Ages. It is the cheek-by-jowl coexistence of a deeply conservative patriarchal rural society alongside the very different world and moral norms of a modern urban city that has helped create the tensions that resulted in the recent tragedy.

These enveloped villages can be sad places. There are two near my house: Shahpur Jat and Khirki, both of which have been swallowed alive. Shorn of their fields and exploited by corrupt bureaucrats and unscrupulous real-estate agents, the villagers now find themselves besieged. Shahpur Jat has undergone a “boutiquification,” and its ponds full of leathery water buffaloes are now bizarrely edged with designer shops—which are visited by women in short skirts, high heels, and Dior sunglasses—while the villagers remain deprived of even the most basic facilities.

Yet these villages, with their old courtyard houses and ancient ­ruins, are one of the reasons I love this city as much as I do. Of the great cities of the world, only Rome and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of his­toric remains. For miles in every direction, half collapsed and overgrown, robbed and re-­occupied, ne­glected by all, are the remains of 600 years of trans-­Indian ­imperium—all that is left of the vanity projects of ­centuries of Delhi’s emperors. Walled gardens and crumbling palaces, thousand-pillared halls and mighty tomb towers, empty mosques and semideserted Sufi shrines: there seemed to be no end to the litter of ages.

“It has a feeling about it of ‘Is this not the great Babylon?’ all ruins and desolation,” thought Emily Eden in the 1820s. As late as the early 1960s, you could take a horsedrawn tonga from Connaught Place and pass in a matter of minutes out of the city into this ruin-strewn countryside. If the mood so struck you in late January, you could sit in the fields outside Safdarjung’s Tomb and paint a watercolor of the tomb against a background of bright yellow mustard. Today if you tried to do the same you would likely end up under a bus. In a century, as the population of Delhi has grown from around 200,000 to its current enormity, the ruins and the villages now stand not in open countryside, but atop roundabouts, and tucked in beside the high rises and overpasses of South Delhi. They obscure the fairways of the golf course and provide a destination for the joggers in the Lodi Gardens.

The great Indian intellectual U.R. Ananthamurthy once remarked that the Indian writer is luckier than his Western counterpart, for he lives simultaneously in the 12th and 21st centuries, and in every century in between. This is certainly true of Delhi, and it provides the city both with its biggest problems and its greatest boons. The close juxtaposition of different worlds, disjointed in time, may make the city dangerous and violent, but it also gives it its beauty, its energy, its fascination, and it makes it what it is.