Letter from New York – On The Delhi Walla Books

Letter from New York – On The Delhi Walla Books

Somewhere in Delhi

Award-winning American author introduces The Delhi Walla’s books.

[By Geoffrey C. Ward]

Delhi Wallas come in at least three varieties: those lucky enough to have been born there; those who chose it as their home; and those like me, who live elsewhere but yearn always to be back.

I was fourteen when I arrived there with my family in 1954 and I wept shamelessly when I had to leave three and half years later to go home to college in the United States. Thirty years went by during which, for one reason or another, I was not able to get back to the city I still stubbornly considered my second home. But throughout that time the Delhi I remembered haunted my dreams.

It may be hard for today’s Delhi Wallas to believe, but one could always park in Connaught Place in that Delhi. The broad avenues now choked with cars were mostly empty, except for the bright shoals of cyclists that converged on the Secretariat each morning and left it deserted again each evening. The prime minister moved about the city in a lone Ambassador without sirens or security and if he moved too slowly for one’s driver’s liking the great man’s chauffeur would move to the side to let him pass. At night, bullock carts with wooden wheels creaked past India Gate carrying precious loads of potatoes and onions and cauliflower to Sabzi Mandi and later plodded toward home again, their weary drivers wrapped in blankets, sound asleep. Jackals howled, too, and nilghai emerged silently from the jungle in twos and threes to nibble potted plants in Sundar Nagar.

I’ve been lucky enough to return to Delhi with my wife 24 times since 1983. The city I knew now seems almost as unimaginably ancient as Tughlak’s capital or the one the Lodis knew. Its strangeness might be more off-putting than it is if it weren’t for Mayank Austen Soofi’s wonderfully evocative website, The Delhi Walla. I have never met its creator but it sometimes seems as if he knew by instinct just where I wanted to go, what I wanted to remember or to see for the first time. Old friends and favorite corners appear as if by magic, alongside people I’d like to know and places I hope to visit the next time I’m actually in town. For long-distance Delhi Wallas like me, his constantly shifting kaleidoscopic view of the city and its people provides a badly-needed fix, and I couldn’t be more pleased to learn that in September his work is to appear in four new volumes from HarperCollins. Nothing can compare with actually being in that timeless, ever-changing city, of course, but I’m sure his books will offer a warm and knowing welcome to newcomers as well as provide people like me with vivid reminders of why we can’t wait to come back again.

(The author is a historian, screenwriter, and former editor of American Heritage, is the author of thirteen books, including A First-Class Temperament, which won the 1989 National Critics Circle Award and the 1990 Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians. He has written or co-written numerous documentary films, including The Civil War, Baseball, and The West, and is the winner of four Emmy Awards for screenwriting. He is also the author of Tiger Wallahs.)