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Searching for Dara Shikoh in Delhi

I look for Dara Shikoh in that part of the city where streets are named after past emperors. Dara Sikoh - the scholar, the sufi, the prince who succeeded Shahjahan for a while before being captured and killed by his own treacherous brother Aurangjeb. I see the planners of Delhi have named streets after Aurangjeb but Dara Shikoh... no one remembers, no one cares. Rahim's tomb lies neglected without a signboard at the corner near Nizamuddin Railway station. Mirza Ghalib's haveli located in Ballimaran street in Shahjahanabad, better known as the Old Delhi, was forgotten for a long time until cultural activists in collaboration with the local government renovated it.

The students and the migrants who come to Delhi are not much aware of Delhi's history, so are the local residents of Delhi. They go along with the humdrum of their daily lives without realising that they live and work right next to several historical cities, some still intact, some in ruins. They unknowingly criss-cross several historical treasures everyday. I feel sad seeing them spitting, urinating, defecating, throwing garbage wherever they can. The tragedy of Delhi is that the majority of us live in ignorance.

I came to Delhi as a student in 1997, got myself admitted in Kirorimal College, Delhi University and lived in the North campus for three years completely ignorant of Delhi's rich past. Then I moved to the Jawaharlal Nehru University located in South Delhi, not far away from Mehrauli, one of the very first cities of Delhi, spent next two years there, still being ignorant. It was only when I moved to the New Delhi or Lutyens' Delhi, I started getting curious about several mausoleums, tombs and ruins I saw while criss-crossing Delhi from North to South and South to North Delhi. By the time I realised the architectural splendours the modern constructions and perhaps my own blinkers had kept hidden from me, it was time to leave my beloved city for Moscow, Russia. I could only return to Delhi after five years.

When I came back here about two years ago, I wanted to make Delhi a city friendly to pedestrians, mothers with prams and people with wheelchairs. I wrote to the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), went to meet its officials but all I could achieve was mere lowering down of a road divider at Shantipath-Satya Marg crossing so that pedestrians could cross the road without jumping like kangaroos. In order to realise my dream of a clean and green Delhi, I went to the extent of physically cleaning the Nehru Garden, Raj Ghat and outer perimeter of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) along with a number of volunteers.

I tried and succeeded in bringing the National Gallery of Modern Art and National Academies such as Sahitya Akademi and Lalit Kala Akademi on Facebook so that their cultural treasures become more accessible to the people of Delhi and to the rest of the world. But that was not enough, more needed to be done. One morning Alka Tyagi who teaches English at Dayal Singh College, Delhi University and whom I had met a couple of times, called to invite me to take part in poetry reading at Humayun's tomb. I instantly agreed and came up with an idea of poetry readings in seven cities of Delhi in the next seven months. Our conversation started a new poetry movement in Delhi which we call 'Poetry at the Monument'.

We succeeded in getting enough poets on board to start our 'Poetry at the Monument' movement. The eminent poets who participated in the first of 'Poetry at the Monument' series at the Humayun's tomb included Laxmi Shankar Bajpai (Hindi), Tarannum Riyaj (Urdu), Sukrita Paul Kumar (English), Anamika (Hindi), Alka Tyagi (Hindi) and Vijay Shanker (Hindi), among several other budding poets. People taking their morning walk in the charbag within the perimeter of Humayun's tomb first curiously looked at us from a distance for a while and then joined us to listen to our poetry reading. It was a unique spiritual experience for me to read and listen to poems in the open space in front of a historical monument in the wee hours of a Sunday morning in May when summer is at its peak in Delhi. It took me and other poets to a higher plane of consciousness.

In the next seven months along with a group of Delhi poets, I plan to organise poetry readings at all the seven cities of Delhi - Lal Kot/Qila Rai Pithora, Mehrauli, Siri, Tughluqakabad, Ferozabad, Purana Kila (Shermandal) and Shahzahanabad (Mirza Ghalib's Haveli). This a cultural project of great importance for me and Delhi. We want to bring poetry back to this historic city of great poets such as Amir Khusro, Ferozeshah, Mir and Ghalib.

As a logical extension of 'Poetry at the Monument' project, I started thinking of putting in place an International Poetry Festival in Delhi. I was surprised to find out that smaller cities like Medellin in Columbia and Struga in Macedonia organised international poetry festivals every year with great fanfare and international participation while Delhi or India did not have a single international poetry festival. India deserves to have its own poetry festival and there could not be a better place than Delhi to host an annual international poetry festival. So head on, since the past few weeks I am trying to lay the foundations of a Delhi International Poetry Festival which could see the light of the day in February 2013.

Again the whirls of time are conspiring to take me away from my beloved Delhi. But can they part my spirit from my beloved city? I wait for my return but hope that the new movement we have started will see Dara Sikoh and Rahim find a rightful place in Delhi.

Abhay K is a diplomat and author.
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