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From Dilli to Delhi (in Dialogic Mode)

Ayesha Kidwai

par kaun jaye ae zauq, ye dilli ki galiyan chhorh kar But who can go, O Zauq, leaving these lanes of Delhi behind Zauq (1789–1854) dil ki basti bhi shehar dilli hai jo bhi guzra usee ne loota. An abode of the heart too is the city of Delhi Whosoever passed by it, looted it. Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) jai nagri raihi ho bai ki si kaiho/Billaia le gaye oonth ko/Hanji, hanji kahiyo' Do and say what everybody else in the neighbourhood says. If they say the cat carried away the camel, your reply should be Oh yes, oh yes'. In the popular imagination, the ruling composite image of Delhi is of a city doubly marked by the dazzle and cavort of the poetic word and the deadly glint of swords and bayonets, as they repeatedly rend the fabric of a fragile, but oh so alluring, secular culture, woven by the magic of language. Urdu is the language of that city, an idiom that threads through a city of narrow lanes and by-lanes, and is the art by which its inhabitants gave meaning to life itself. And today, both city and language lie in tatters, overrun by alien tongues and sensibilities; first in the aftermath of Partition, and later by the never-ending influx of migrants from the poorer parts of eastern and northern India. For those whom this rudimentary vision of the past provides refuge, the first two epigraphs to this essay are constitutive; but for others who believe that no one language can ever live in an entire city, the third proverb directs us to imagine a linguistic past of the city where there is art not only in poetry and inclusion not only through Urdu, but a melange of languages that live together in the selves of writers, artisans, migrants, and householders. These languages and selves are not recoverable as a popular cultural memory, but they are accretions of a past that merits reflection. Most of the great Urdu poets of the 19th century were migrants from lands where Awadhi and Braj were spoken-indeed the Urdu they composed in bore the mark of these languages. If we could dare to ask of our vision of them, 'what languages did they speak at home?', a quite different Delhi would emerge. For, ironically, in this most multi-linguistic of spaces that is South Asia, the one history that cannot ...

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