City Life – Reading Lolita in Delhi

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Reading Lolita in Delhi

A stranger in one’s own city.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Last night I dreamt that I was in England. I went to St. James Square, tiptoed inside the Reading Room of the London Library and felt the presence of George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyale and Henry James. I wandered down to Westminster Abbey where, standing by Charles Dickens’ grave, I mused on David Copperfield. I travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown, and mourned on the bad luck of Juliet and her Romeo. I went to the Cathedral at Winchester and left a flower on Jane Austen’s grave. The pilgrimage ended when I woke up in the morning and found myself back in Delhi.

I just don’t feel at home in this city.

Apart from a statue of Pushkin, near Mandi House, and a road named after Tolstoy, near CP, there is hardly any ‘familiar’ landmark here. OK, they say that Arundhati Roy lives somewhere near Lodi Garden and Vikram Seth is out there in Noida but…but where is Shakespeare?

And Nabokov?

Reading Lolita in Central Park is all very well but I look around the bench and no one in the picnicking crowd looks white enough to have a name like Humbert Humbert or Dolores Haze.

I’m a stranger in my own city.

We convent-educated, thinking-in-Angrezi types live in cities like Delhi but devote our reading lives in the pursuit of characters from London, Paris and New York. We read James Baldwin and internalise the Harlems of the world but don’t think of our own ghettos. We re-re-re-re-read the novels of Jane Austen but hello, she never belonged to our des. She never knew our language. As far as I know she not once tasted dal chawal. She never fancied Dilli.

On my way to Nizamuddin dargah, I always pass by Mirza Ghalib’s tomb. His verses are said to offer spine-tingling pleasure. My spine remains indifferent though. Ghalib’s greatness eludes me for I can neither read nor understand Urdu. His tomb never gives me the kick that Shakespeare’s does – even though I have seen the latter’s only in dreams. Then there is Prem Chand’s archive in the Jamia University. He too excites no passion in me. I’m a foreigner to my own cultural landscape. I know everything about Harry Potter, but nothing about Ameer Hamza.

Last year after reading about the death of Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder I went to her still-fresh grave in the Jamia Nagar kabristan. I have never read Hyder’s novels but I knew she was considered great and so I tried hard to feel her loss.

I couldn’t. My loss.