For anybody who has had the fortune of calling Delhi his home – either for a part or all of his life – Lingering Charm of Delhi: Myth, Lore and History by R V Smith is not just a must-read. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Savouring it for the first time, you feel as if you are being shown around a place you have never actually been to.
Suddenly, you realise that the Delhi you encounter every day through the busy, hectic rush of routine life is just an opaque surface. Behind this is a hidden treasure trove of heritage, history, beauty, joy, misery, triumph and tragedy.
The author, whose prose is poetic, takes us back and forth across the Delhi of today and the many Delhis of yesterday. Throughout the book, Smith’s sense of nostalgia is so intense and so overwhelming that it seems as if he has actually lived through all the successive reincarnations through the millennia of this hugely fascinating – and usually equally tragic city.
In 60 short, sharp and crisp pieces (I will not use the term essays because each of these reads almost like a work of creative, literary writing) Smith vividly describes vignettes of the current national capital of India and links them to its long history, which many believe extends to the era of the Mahabharata. He divides his articles into four sections – Wither Delhi, Feasts and Festivals, Faith and Mystery and Nostalgic Medley.
Moreover, the individual pieces come out not as distinct, separate articles but as connected chapters in the backdrop of a huge canvas of history and geography.
Smith has the true journalist’s eye for detail and minutae that has become so rare among today’s super-hyped and totally shallow mediamen. His portrayal of the city is through the unnoticed nooks and crannies, not the glamorous and over-visible superficial structures or personalities. He turns the city of Delhi into one whole living being and worries that is in deep decay and disarray. It is obvious in every sentence of the book that Delhi has become a part of R V Smith’s spirit and soul.
When he describes the long periods of devastation, death and all-round mass misery that accompanied events like the invasion of Afghan Nadir Shah in 1739 or the Great Revolt of 1857, he narrates and communicates the scenario just like an eyewitness. Only someone who combines extraordinary curiosity, sensitivity, compassion and an innate sense of history can achieve such a feat.
There are many historians with encyclopaedic knowledge but R V Smith has imbibed the essence of history. He has read history, felt history and, yes, he lives history. What he so capably does is to show us how today’s Delhi has evolved over time and where contemporary events surrounding this city, our country and the outside world may be taking Delhi.
Relishing the refined pages of this gem of a book, one realises that Smith is no run-of-the-mill journalist; he is a superb story teller and novelist waiting to happen. One just hopes he will use his latent talent to produce a more full-length book or novel on Delhi. I, for one, would pre-order it the moment it is announced.
Particularly refreshing in these days of highly compartmentalised, narrow and almost bigoted thinking– even among the “intelligentsia”– is Smith’s refined synthesis of the different communities, races, ethnic groups, classes, religions and cultural strands to give a unified total picture of the city as it has been through the ages and as it is today. His exposition becomes all the more powerful due to his language, which as I have already said, lies on the border of poetry and prose, and his style, which is more like that of a fiction writer than a chronicler of mere facts as they were.
The words flow freely from his pen and it is so obvious that he enjoys his writing just as a singer enjoys his song or a painter his painting. R V Smith is obviously not just a writer at work. He is not even an artist at work. He is an artist at play, cherishing every moment of his craft.
That is why his book is a treat. That is why I envy the person who is yet to
read Lingering Charm of Delhi: Myth, Lore and History. For, the experience of reading it for the first time is more than a journey through Delhi past and present – it is a journey through heaven crafted by a world-class craftsman of a writer. Happy reading.