Book Review: Delhi Rambles
With an unerring eye for the strange and the unusual, Smith unearths some interesting stories and characters who stay with you long after you close the book
Vijay Narain Shankar Delhi
In the old City of Delhi, there are stories in the stones and the walls. History echoes in its narrow lanes, and faces, and voices from the past flit like shadows. As Ronald Vivian Smith spins a web of legends, myths and anecdotes of this world in Delhi Rambles, the highrises and swanky cars of the newer parts of town fade in a trice.
The book is a treasure-house of such stories about a city sometimes called the Rome of Asia and remembered as the city of Mirza Ghalib.
It is well known that Delhi has existed since the time of the Pandavas and has been the capital city of Hindu, Muslim and British rulers through the centuries. But though each age and each generation left something of itself behind, it takes an incurable romantic like Smith—a lifelong journalist and author—to recreate these ages through their stories.
Smith has spent a lifetime spanning 76 summers (and winters too, as he points out) in a ceaseless affair with the magic of old Delhi and the passion is yet unabated. Originally from Agra, Smith came to Delhi as a young journalist to work on the editorial desk of The Statesman in the 1970s. He parked himself, almost permanently, at a hotel plus chandelier and antique glass shop opposite the Jama Masjid in the heart of old Delhi. His modest room at the hotel became the refuge of journalists and writers, as well as interesting local denizens. Even after nearly 50 years, I can recall sitting with him at his mehfil—which was like partaking of a moveable feast of stories about old Delhi and its people.
With an unerring eye for the strange and the unusual, Smith unearths some interesting stories and characters who stay with you long after you close the book. We find here the story of the wedding of toys, a practice based upon a mythological story, we have the Israeli Holi played by the Jews, the mad sahib of Red Fort who converted to Islam and begat children with a woman living in the jhuggis inside the Red Fort in British times. The mad sahib reminds us of Kipling’s Jelaluddin (Joseph) Macintosh in the Simla of the 1880s. In fact, there is much in Smith’s worldview and writing that reminds one of Kipling’s preoccupation with the oddballs and the mavericks who peopled British India.
There is also a simplicity and lucidity of writing which is enjoyable. Smith’s people interest us because they are fiercely individualistic, like the maths teacher, Mr Pereira, whose cap, stick and watch make an interesting story just like the tale of the ‘kala aam’ in the chapter “Of A Battle Long Ago”. An evil giant and a dragon appear in the story in which the people of Delhi, in 1761, shut the gates of the walled city and waited anxiously for the result of a battle that would change their lives.
History walks like one’s own shadow as one travels the lanes of old Delhi along with Smith. And though in today’s world, people usually take the fast Metro to wherever they want to go, it is a good idea to get into Smith’s tonga of memories to celebrate the romance of old Delhi.