Delhi – My Dilli


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Ravi P BhatiaDelhi is the capital of India but is also a beloved of many old people including myself who have been living here for decades. We call the city Dilli which has a reference to the word Dil (heart). Many books and accounts of this grand city have been written by historians, novelists and ordinary people. It is not dissimilar to the adoration of many world novelists and poets for cities like Boston, London, Paris, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Moscow, Cairo, Istanbul and countless others.

The Indian capital city of Delhi has a long, tortuous history built, destroyed and rebuilt innumerable number of times by one invading kingdom or another. But Delhi has continued to remain an important political, cultural and economic centre of India and as the capital of various empires from about 1200 AD. The first city that came up in what is today’s Delhi is known as Indraprastha that finds mention in Mahabharata but whose historical evidence is lost.

Some of the important ones where historical records are available include:

  • Tughluqabad Fort, built by Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq around 1320 AD
  • Siri Fort, established about 1303 AD
  • Firozabad, built by Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq in 1354 AD
  • A vast city built by Shah Jehan around 1640 AD is named Shahjahanabad [Old Dellhi] after the Mogul emperor himself. It houses the vast complex Lal Qila (Red Fort). He had also got built the world heritage monument Taj Mahal in Agra in honor of his deceased wife.

When the British started ruling large parts of India, they made Calcutta their capital city but in December 1911 they decided to shift the capital to Delhi. Subsequently they started building several government offices including the parliament complex, and other monuments, residences of the Viceroy and important personalities in New Delhi. The centenary of modern Delhi was celebrated on 12 December 2010.

When India was divided into two nations in 1947 Delhi was almost an urban village but gradually due to the arrivals of millions of refugees (including my family) from Pakistan, the city became more populated and its complexion began to change with the construction of new nagars (residential areas) like Lajpat  Nagar, Rajendra Nagar, Kamla Nagar, Roop Nagar and other areas that came up by removing farmers and converting farms into various buildings such as offices, schools, colleges, factories and hospitals etc.

Thanks to vast opportunities for education, government jobs and business, Delhi has attracted millions of people from all over the country and some from overseas such as Nepal and Afghanistan. Today it is estimated that the population of the city including the floating population is about 18 or 20 million. Most of these people live in houses big or small, apartments or slums that have come up all over the city and along the vacant spaces near railway lines. A few get to sleep in some hutments run by the government or NGOs.

But some people who come here from villages do not find any place and so literally sleep on the streets. They sleep along the roads with cars and vehicles whizzing past. How they can sleep there in inclement weather — when it is extremely cold or in rain is really admirable. Some poor people who push cycle rickshaws sleep on these vehicles again in fine or rainy weather.

Why do these people come from far away places or their farms? Obviously in search of employment – pulling a rickshaw or working in a factory or as security guards or whatever — even by begging. They say that they will not starve as they would if they remained in their villages. They are able to earn enough not only for their own minimum requirements but also to send some money to their wives and children in their homes. Admirable guts and determination!

These men are poor and may look haggard but they seem to possess more humanity than many of the rich and so called properly dressed people.  If you smile and exchange a few words with them they respond with pleasure and warmth. They talk about their families living in villages, they are glad to tell you about the aspirations they have for their children.

If one gives them some food or money or clothes they may not say ‘Thank you’ but they smilingly accept the gift. A family of four – father, two small children and their grandmother live in a small shanty just opposite my home. I have been occasionally giving some gifts to the children and they recognize me and gladly accept any packet of biscuits or peanuts that I offer them. Their smile, their radiance is a bigger gift to me than the small packet I offer them. I feel so happy and content.

Like any big city Delhi also has its rag pickers who are doing a yeoman’s effort to keep the city reasonably clean. One particular pair of rag pickers is a poor young couple who drive a cycle rickshaw which carries two or more jute bags into which they dump the rags that they pick up, sell the garbage and thereby make a modest living. Their efforts are in stark contrast with the so called well dressed people who buy some packets of potato chips or peanuts, eat them and carelessly throw the plastic on the roadside. I ask myself who is the more civilized person – these rich young people or the rag pickers?

Outside big homes on streets of Delhi, trees and flowers bloom. Although strictly not allowed to pluck the beautiful flagrant flowers, one may pick up a few especially those that have fallen on the ground and carry them and offer them to the deity in one’s small temple at home. One day I saw an unusual sight – snowfall from a large sized tree near my home. In the hot weather of Delhi snow is impossible. How to explain this wonderful sight? Coming closer I saw that the tree was a cotton tree known as Semal and the so called flakes were just white cotton flakes.

New Delhi is the city built by the British to accommodate its offices and officers – neat, well planned and wealthy. But come to Dilli – the heart of Delhi with its flabbergasting diversity, multitudes of cuisines, and people sleeping on the roadside. It is not very clean or rich but it is lively and always on the move. It accommodates the rich and the poor alike – business men and rag pickers; students and rickshaw pullers each working hard and dreaming of a better future.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Oct 2016.

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