I am Bankim Biswas and what I write is a lot of bunkum and wishwash. I specialise in “then” and “now” scenarios. But I get confused whenever I visit Delhi. It’s always then, then-er, and then-est there. There’s not “now” there. Not even a “know”. Just kowtow caught in a time warp that started from an ancient Indraprastha and ended in an almost medieval Lutyens. You can Cafe-coffee-day outside a Qutab Minar or Reebok outside the Red Fort. It’s all sarkar, darbar and all-out-war in Delhi’s belly and its multiple underbellies.
Some say that the Delhi weather is much like its people. Jekylls by the day and Hydes by the night. In mid February, it’s bearably hot before sundown and unbearably chilly after. Delhi is nice actually. Broad tree lined roads that intersect at right angles, quiet laid back bungalows that open into vast gardens. We are talking about Lutyen’s Delhi and not the Dilli you don’t get to see while driving from the airport to India International Centre.
IIC designed by an American architect Joseph Stein still retains its old world charm. Liberal use of firebricks in the elevation and broken china mosaic on dome shaped structures in the roof. Profile is curvilinear. Reminds you of Waheeda Rehman who was unparalleled in her heydays, but wrinkled now. So is this edifice. Crumbling and falling apart here and there with tell-tale signs of attempted restoration and maintenance manifesting themselves in the guest rooms. The open spaces, gardens, walkways, fountains and the overall ambience continue to remain spectacular though.
Despite this, a stay at IIC is value for money. Central heating system works well. While you smoke in the morning in the balcony in the morning chill, you can watch squirrels scurrying up and down the trees outside. Breakfast in the dining hall offers you a lavish spread of multiple options. American, Continental, North Indian, and South Indian ways of having breakfast while you read the Hindustan Times and look out into lush green surroundings.
My room was booked through the good offices of a friend who was an environmentalist, cycling enthusiast, perennial blood donor, and explorer of stem cell technology. He asked his historian friend cum IIC member Beeba Sobti to book my room. Beeba can lead you into the Lodi garden and explain every nook and corner even when she’s blindfolded.
We are talking about Lutyen’s Delhi and not the Dilli you don’t get to see while driving from the airport to India International Centre.
My friend was not exaggerating when he told me that average age of members of IIC was 78. A foundation stone plaque informs us that Vice President Radhakrishnan inaugurated this place on 2 Magh, 1883 in what sounds like a Vikram Samvat era dating protocol. Transliterates into 22nd Jan, 1962. Emperor Akihito, then a simple crown prince, had visited this site in 1960. IIC was born out of a brainstorming session between Radhakrishnan and John Rockfeller III. Executors were eminent Indians like CD Deshmukh, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Pt. H. N. Kunzru, Professor Humayun Kabir, Dr. V. K. R. V. Rao, Raja Ram, Dr. Malcolm S. Adiseshiah, and Prem Kirpal.
Not surprising then to see most visitors in white French beards and white ponytails and some, with white skin too and more often than not, ambling in with the help of walking sticks. If you want to relive moments from the 70s and reconnect with past history, IIC is where you can see it all. People wearing waistcoats and double breasted jackets abound here. When did you last see a waistcoat other than in Shammi Kapoor movies? And yes, one can even espy members smoking a pipe. No less than MP Pawan Varma who was seen smoking a pipe some 6 feet away from a “No Smoking” sign.
Missed catching a glimpse of Maharaja Karan Singh, supposedly a notorious regular at IIC. (Post script to this line: Caught the Maharaja walking out of the luncheon room during my next visit. Walked limply, but without a walking stick. Carried a paperback in his hand. Kashmiri topi still intact.) Watched the others in the verandah abutting the fountains, sipping Darjeeling tea and munching at cookies; looking listlessly into the garden, perhaps mulling over days gone by when they must have argued about policies and initiatives energetically when IIC was a happening place and not a brooders’ roost that it had now become. The seminar room was bubbling with activity though. A signboard announced that a discussion on “Urban Poverty” was in progress. Participants were pouring out from Mercedez Benzs and BMWs, wearing Gucci loafers and Tommy Hilfiger shirts, brandishing ipads. But there were some participants who wore waistcoats and carried files and folders tucked under their arm. This was a classic example of fusion. Of the young and the old. The trendy and the vintage. Wannabee and has-been. All trying to unite to fight something called urban poverty. But the great uniter was the TV screen in the reception area which was showing the India Pakistan World Cup clash. The argumentative Indians decided to suspend their spats and join in a spontaneous applause for Team India’s 6th-out-of-6 straight victory against Pakistan in the World Cup.
If you want to relive moments from the 70s and reconnect with past history, IIC is where you can see it all.
IIC has a cute library with “silence please” and “no smoking” signs. There’s a cuter nook which serves some 195 dailies and periodicals from all over the world. Have you ever read Assam Tribune, Daily Excelsior, Deccan Herald, Gomantak Times, India Daily, Kashmir Herald, Kashmir Times, Navhind Times, Pragativadi, Telegraph India, Assam Chronicle, Dinakaran, Greater Kashmir, Malayalam Times, Oherald, Samaya, The Bihar Times, The Northeast Tribune, The Sentinel and the like? You must. You’ll hear voices from all over India reaching out and telling Delhi to please listen. I missed my own Hyderabad’s Deccan Chronicle when I was boarding the flight to Dilli. But I caught it in this library where it was couriered before it was delivered to my home.
My friend, of the environmental fame, is also a founder member of India Habitat Centre and that’s where we walked to for beer and lunch. IHC, also designed by Stein – albeit in the 90s – is clearly the happening place of the moment. Structure is far more imposing and in the design. You can see Stein’s evolution as an architect: changed from curves and arches to straight no-nonsense lines; clay brick facade coupled with a futuristic truss design for the roof. Just 5 mins walk away from IIC, IHC is clearly the successful NRI son of the ageing, retiring desi dad called IIC.
In IHC, in its plush rooms and surroundings, between loud Punjabis stabbing into paneer and Patialas, you can find some rare photos of Nehru, Shastri and Moraji Desai. The photo outside the loo of the 6th floor’s Deli-o-deli restaurant proves that Nehru was into Swachh Bharat and toilet inspections long before Modi was. There are also original replicas of the Parliament elevation, both front and back, pasted behind privileged tables at IHC. Somehow, they look better than the original Parliament and their current motor mouth residents.
This was a classic example of fusion. Of the young and the old. The trendy and the vintage. Wannabee and has-been. All trying to unite to fight something called urban poverty.
The jury is out. If you want to meet vintage journos and retired attorney generals, scrap with them in the quaint bar at IIC and play hockey with walking sticks and a 50p coin. You cannot get a 50p coin anywhere else, not even in Kejriwal’s WagonR that never was. If you want to hug and kiss the air around the cheeks of buxom Dilli women, you can do that at IHC after they’ve downed their Vodka with a Dahi Puri starter.
IHC also has a library. Better, because it has a green marbled sit out where you can smoke at eye level with vultures (of the bird kind). But its periodical offering is an edition of post Tarun Tejpal’s Tehelka. Crying out for attention to say “I exist”. Cogito ergo sum from apologists who are trying to ignore an infamous lift and an equally infamous episode in Goa during a think festival. One can think through pants in Goa and fight back in Dilli via IHC. But the Gomantak Times edition in IIC can fell you to the ground. Your libido, your narcissism, your carnal lust can cost you your fortune. Come on, you’re not Emperor Jehangir.
In IHC, in its plush rooms and surroundings, between loud Punjabis stabbing into paneer and Patialas, you can find some rare photos of Nehru, Shastri and Moraji Desai.
I called the Honourable Raksha Mantri next day early morning before other early callers got a stake on his precious time. I was not early enough, because the Honourable Raksha Mantri asked me to drop in at 1PM. There is a reason he’s called Raksha Mantri and not Defense Minister. Apparently, Mulayam Singh Yadav – a past occupant of this powerful post – did not like being called DM. Reminded him of District Magistrates in his native UP. So DM became RM while the ministry continues to be called Ministry of Defence and not Raksha Mantralaya.
Salute to Lutyens! What a brilliant architect. South Block, North Block, and Viceregal Palace turned Rashtrapati Bhavan. Each is a classic masterpiece. Imposing colonnades and facade lined with buff and red sandstone from Dholpur. Clearly, this Lutyens was someone who knew his geometry, symmetry, proportion and balance coupled with a vision to create something imposing and inspiring. My cab crossed Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs and finally stopped at PMO Gate No 4, only to be told by the impatient sentry that Gate 11 could be accessed from the backside. A typical Indian trait, move roundabout and do things from the back. Behind the scenes, eh?
Chaos in the parking area at the back reminded me that Lutyens was dead and gone and someone else had taken to designing a backside parking lot. The number of people wanting to visit South Block in cars is definitely more than Lutyens would have imagined. Clearly, Indians have not yet learnt how to create a path broad enough for 2 cars to cross each other without respectfully brushing each other’s sides. Parking is half parallel and half perpendicular to show that there are 2 types of Indians. The compliant and the rebellious. We reached Gate No 11 with a lot of struggle. Mercifully, Gates were numbered in proper ascending order. 5 to 11 via 6,7,8,9, and 10.
There were 3 ferocious looking men guarding Gate 11. I got out of the car and announced my name. The 3 tigers suddenly turned into meek lambs and clicked their heels into attention-much like the “Saavdhan” we learnt during NCC. They saluted and said “Jai Hind!” in unision. One of them added a “Sat Sri Akal!”. I looked at him. Yes, he was a Sikh. I was not sure about the protocol of reciprocating greetings. So I replied with a loud “Jai Hind!” sans the salute and the Saavdhan drill. The Sardar pointed in a northerly direction and mumbled just one word. “Reception.”
Bolstered by the patriotic salutations, I walked confidently to the reception with my laptop bag. The reception was clearly a later day contamination. Aluminium frame with a sliding scratched glass door looked as out of place in a Lutyen’s masterpiece as some past RMs must have looked in this edifice.
Guys at the reception did an encore. Saluted me with Jai Hinds. One tall guy asked another tall guy to take “Sirjee” i.e. me to the “Lambu Jat” who had my “advance pass” with him. This was a glimpse into Dilli’s sarkari and darbari politics. Guys measured by their heights and caste and not by name. Lambu Jat wore a badge that proclaimed him to be Veerender Singh and was a few inches shorter than the guys who called him Lambu. Not so Lambu, but quite Jat going by his coarse and rugged features. My first lesson learnt in South Block – “Don’t try to look for logic in corridors of power.” Sorry, make it the second lesson. First lesson came back to me fast enough. This Lutyens was a genius who created forecourts, courtyards, wide stairwells, and neat spaces that delighted the eye and the mind.
Jat took me through a narrow corridor that was painted white with beautiful oil paintings of slain soldiers adorning the walls. Most were Lance Naiks and Subedars. I tried guessing the castes and figured that most must have been Gurkhas. Suddenly, the lilting melodies from a Lata Mangeshkar classic started playing in my head. “Koi Jat, Koi Sikh, Koi Maratha. Koi Gurkha, koi Madrasi.” I looked left and right and looked each painting in the eye and started saluting each one in my mind while whispering “Jai Hind!”. Like Lutyens, this painter too was a genius. He awoke the patriot in me and made me realise that I was walking on my feet because the Sipahi laid his life to rest in cold bloody wars. Felt a tad filmy. A bit like Manoj Kumar and his Jai Jawan and Jai Kisan ideology.
The narrow corridor ended in a lift and Jat handed me to another guy with a salute in his hand and a Jai Hind on his lips and he took me to the first floor. He was to be my last escort and had instructions to take me to a stately room with wooden floor, a sandstone fireplace, beige drapes, 2 massive and classic oil paintings. There were opulent and cushiony sofas in one corner and a huge oak table with an LCD screen on the other. The room was straight out of Tudor/Windsor and guaranteed to let your jaw fall in awe. I was escorted to the sofa with another man dropping in with a Jai Hind salute who asked me if I wanted tea or coffee and who also turned on the AC.
This Lutyens was a genius who created forecourts, courtyards, wide stairwells, and neat spaces that delighted the eye and the mind.
In this room reeking of pomp and opulence, I espied something. That’s when it hit me. The painting on the left was of valiant soldiers who had reclaimed Tiger Hill during the Kargil war. The painting on the right was of the memorable surrender signed by Major General Niazi before Lt. Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora in Dhaka on 16-Dec-71. I could not hold it any longer. I walked up to both paintings, clicked my heels in attention, saluted and proclaimed a loud and an unequivocal “Jai Hind!”. Did not care if secret cams recorded my embarrassing emotional drama.
Saluting and Jai Hind-ing had invaded my DNA and I did not refuse the offer of a tea when it was asked again by someone who was obviously not a Jat. Did not care who he was. He said Jai Hind and I replied back with a louder Jai Hind. Tea was as black and as sugarless as the RM drinks it, but I didn’t care anymore. Was drunk on Jai Hind.
While walking out of RM’s office, but still within its precincts, I was accosted by monkeys. Grey, brown and orange langurs who were convinced that they ruled these lands before Lutyens drafted and plotted acres and edifices. The monkeys were bold enough to sit on cannons and scrapped with olive green uniform wearing jawans who have faced hard artillery at borders but were fighting these devils with empty Bisleri bottles. My escort told me that these monkeys were a legacy of the Brits who still did not want to leave the glorious Raj. But the security guard who escorted us to the safety of our car was convinced that the monkeys were Congressmen who did not want to leave the South Block.
Fortunately, Delhi is opening up to seculars. If you’re not into Islam or Hinduism or cricket, you may be able to fight monkeys via video games peddled in Chandni Chowk.