After reading ‘City Improbable’, no one can confidently say, “I know Delhi”. Khushwant Singh has put together writings by people from different eras, age groups, countries, cultures, and backgrounds to give an insight into Delhi like never before. From a king’s perspective to a rag picker’s, the book has it all. Through the writings of diverse people ranging from emperors, travelers, historians, authors, and many more, the reader gets to know a little bit about Delhi. Each piece of writing is like a piece of a jigsaw. But will these little pieces ever fit to make a complete picture? I doubt it. Maybe you need thousands or lakhs more pieces before that can happen. 

Book in Focus : City Improbable by Khushwant Singh - Sheet1
Map of New Delhi

Delhi is a city of paradoxes, where historical monuments rub shoulders with swanky malls, dhabas with fine dining restaurants, apartment buildings with slums, the list goes on. The book is a treat to read such diverse views as that of Amir Khusrao, Sam Miller, Ruskin Bond, Babur (to name just a few) within a span of a few hours. But my thoughts seemed to be caught in a whirlwind. If we were to compare Vyasa’s Delhi to Khushwant Singh’s Delhi to say my perspective of Delhi, can there even be an iota of commonality? After much cogitation, I said to myself, “No, and yes.” Paradoxical indeed!

In the chapter of City Improbable, ‘The Building of the Hall’, Vyasa (the great Veda Vyasa himself who penned Mahabharata) has described the fabled Indraprastha. The imagery created is fairy-tale-like in nature –golden pillars, gem-encrusted walls, pearl-drop flowers. What I found interesting was that a lot of importance was given to the construction of a building. It was almost considered sacred as huge amounts were donated before and after it was constructed. After reading ‘the Building of the Hall’, I thought to myself, “Had Indraprastha not been so magically beautiful, maybe there would have been no Mahabharata War?”

‘In a Paradise of Justice’, Amir Khusrau’s love for Delhi is very much evident, so much so that he prays for its well-being.

“Long may it endure!

Since it is a heavenly paradise

In every essential quality,

May God keep it from calamity.

Hasan Nizami’s extract about Qutbuddin Aibak from ‘Taj-ul-Maasir’ written in the early thirteenth century describes the conquests of Qutbuddin Aibak, and how he plundered and destroyed Hindu temples in and around Delhi. The language is archaic but one does understand what Nizamiis trying to say. From the account, one realizes that Aibak, the first Sultan of Delhi, and also Nizami were enamoured by Delhi. 

“The conqueror entered the city of Delhi, which is the source of wealth and the foundation of blessedness.”

I had heard a lot about Ibn Battuta but this was the first time I was reading what he actually wrote. The opening paragraph is; 

“We arrived at the city of Delhi, the metropolis of India, a vast and magnificent city, uniting beauty with strength. It is surrounded by a wall that has no equal in the world, and is the largest city in India, nay rather the largest city in the entire Muslim Orient.”  

He describes Delhi in his book City Improbable in the times of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. Everyday life and the courts of the king have been described in great detail. But it was bone-chilling to know how the inhabitants of Delhi had been forced to leave it and move to Dawlat Abad (much against their wishes).

Book in Focus : City Improbable by Khushwant Singh - Sheet2
City Improbable ©

The book City Improbable also describes the hostility of the rulers. For example, Mohammed Bin Tughlaq ruled the city based on his own whims and fancies. When the emperor found out that there was a parchment written against him in the audience hall, he compelled all the inhabitants of Delhi to leave the town. And when the whole city was emptied, he said

“Now my mind is in tranquil and my wrath appeased”

Similarly, we have Aurangzeb who issued rules regarding the selling of spirit, the length of people’s beards, and even the number of musicians in the city. Timur-I-Lang who captured Delhi writes “It was my earnest wish that no evil might happen to the people of the place but it was ordained by God that the city be ruined” 

And this is how the city has lived on for years under subjugation. It has been ruled by one person or the other. For these rulers, it was not the love for the city that drove them to Delhi but to attain power. Delhi has seen destruction, has been in ruins, and resurrected itself, building a new city from the rubble of the broken walls.

In a description by William Dalrymple through the writings of Lieutenant William Franklin, the author describes that on first looking at the city he saw that “the environs of the once magnificent and celebrated city appear now nothing more than a shapeless heap of ruins.”

It also talks about the period in between the collapse of the Mughal empire and the advent of British rule where similar to the description in the book ‘The Jungle’ there is an air of uncertainty and mistrust. The city became a refugee of robbers and brigands. Hence the book talks about phases through various accounts of people and the changes they led to in the very lifestyle of the people. But still, there is something about Delhi that takes you in, wrapping you around its history and culture. 

Emily Eden, another British visitor writes “Delhi is a very aggressive and moralizing place-such stupendous remains of power and wealth passed and passing away and somehow I feel that we horrid English have just gone and done it, merchandised it, revenued it and spoiled it all.”

It’s a city whose age, manner, and disposition easily absorb the styles of successive rulers. It was born to power, glory, and war. But yet it is treated like an object in possession being passed down because as Perceval Landon writes about the city, “she has no rival in greatness from the mountains to the sea, and all men know that who so holds Delhi holds India.”

It is the mistress of centuries of medieval endeavour. 

Book in Focus : City Improbable by Khushwant Singh - Sheet3
Shahjahanabad, Delhi

In a chapter of City Improbable called ‘The Building of New Delhi’ by Sheela Bajaj, the author describes the planning of the city by Britishers during its rebuilding. The site was chosen after constant debate and deliberation and the planners were hopeful that this would be a good transformation of the city. The site was chosen because it was suitable in respects such as altitude, drainage, water, health, etc. But in the excerpt ‘Shahjahanabad: the city that once was’ the author, PavanK. Verma writes “The decision by the British in 1911 to build New Delhi, without integrating the old city with the new, sealed the fate of Shahjahanabad. From then onwards Purani Dilli would live on but only like an aging courtesan abandoned by her new suitors, waiting to die.”

Hence unlike other cities what we call the seven cities of Delhi is what makes it so fragmented. Every ruler wanted to build for the future nobody wanted to look back to the past and inculcate it in their presence. For them, they were just ruins that once held power. Hence the book has put across various viewpoints which makes you ponder, taking you back to the historical city of Delhi.

In between talking about these changing cities, there are accounts by Khushwant Singh and Namita Gokhale which describe the flora, fauna, and seasons of Delhi.

“The seasons are such that it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Delhi is really for distinct cities” 

The author further says the cycle of seasons begins and the city observes itself change and the river Yamuna is the constant in this change.

The best part about the book is that through various excerpts it describes what the city means to different people who are demeaned and their importance.

Rag pickers- If they refused to work the municipality would collapse themselves having to suddenly clear all the extra waste. But they see themselves as Delhites hoping for a life of some security and dignity that most citizens of the capital take for granted.

The Hijras-The city displays the archaicness of eunuchs in the 21st century. The same beings that are seen as the heterosexual Indian male’s nightmare-made flesh are needed to give blessings at the birth of a child which makes one hopeful.

The best thing about this book is that it doesn’t take you through a continuous journey like usual novels do. It throws in views of various people which makes no sense in the beginning. Everything seems jumbled up but at the end of the book, you sit in complete silence for a minute not even realizing that the book has ended. Instead of a description of the city, I think the book provides various insights into the city at various time periods confusing you and forcing you to ponder what this city is. Something I am yet to fully comprehend and discover.

Delhi is too raw and amorphous. The book makes you realize that Delhi is truly like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It’s fragmented, ugly, abused. It has seen bloodshed of the innocent but yet there is something about it that pulls you in like a magnet with open arms converging the old and the new with remnants of the past, power of the present and hope to live on in the future.


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