The Biographical Dictionary of Delhi – Ronald Vivian Smith, b. Agra, 1938
The definitive directory of famous Delhiites.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Of all the authors who made Delhi the central theme of their literary lives, the case of Ronald Vivian Smith is the most intriguing. He has given much to the city, but the city has held back. Author of several slim volumes on Delhi’s monuments and street life, Mr Smith has also produced novels and poetry. Yet he has been denied the eminence enjoyed by other Delhi chroniclers such as Ahmad Ali, Khushwant Singh and William Dalrymple.
Common to all prolific writers, Mr Smith’s work range from excellent to crap, just like Khushwant Singh’s. But Mr Singh is a star, Mr Smith isn’t. At Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market, Mr Singh has sold more than a 100 copies of his various books in the last six months. Mr Smith has managed about 10.
Khushwant Singh has an apartment in Sujan Singh Park and William Dalrymple lives in a farmhouse in Chattarpur. Mr Smith lives in a Middle Income Group flat in Mayapuri, west Delhi. He has no car, no laptop, not even a wooden bookshelf. He is not a member of the India International Centre. He is never spotted at book launches.
Mr Smith writes on a typewriter but speaks in long sentences as if he is dictating a book. He likes to have biryani with beer. In his youth, he broke the hearts of at least 45 society ladies and street sluts. Clever with wordplay, he helped friends compose their love letters. In 1968, his love marriage to primary school teacher Alvina James caused a rift from the family. The breach healed but the romance died. “Since last 18 years, my wife thinks that she is too old and now she thinks that I’m also old,” said Mr Smith. A year ago, he finished writing a book titled, Jasmine Nights and The Taj – A Romantic Novel. Sample an excerpt:
How lovely it would be to wake up in the middle of the night, to find her head on my chest. To feel her early in the morning, kiss her mouth and hide my face in her long tresses before getting up from bed.
Born in Agra, Mr Smith’s father, Thomas, was the district correspondent for two dailies: Calcutta’s The Statesman and Allahabad’s The Pioneer. His mother, Ruby Irene, was a housewife. Mr Smith was the oldest among his two brothers (Neville, Ivan) and three sisters (Noreen, Doreen, Moreen). After graduating from English literature in Agra’s St John’s College, he came to Delhi in 1961 and became a ‘sub-editor-cum-reporter’ in the Press Trust of India. Two years later, he joined The Statesman and retired as news editor in 1997. He also freelanced for Sun (now closed), The Times of India and Hindustan Times. His weekly columns continue to appear in The Hindu (Monday) and The Statesman (Thursday). He has been a columnist with the latter since 1984.
Before moving to Mayapuri in 1978, Mr Smith lived in Civil Lines, Matia Mahal and Daryaganj. “It was a difficult change from Old Delhi to west Delhi,” he said. “The flats look drab and the area has no character. But now I’m used to it.”
Mr Smith’s favorite writers are all British: Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Stanley Lane-Poole, Matthew Arnold and Henry Rider Haggard. His children are: Enid, Bunny, Tony, Minnie and Rodney. Some of his books are: Tales the Monuments Tell, Glimpses of Delhi, Lesser Known Monuments of Delhi, Delhi Vignettes and The Delhi That No One Knows.
Mr Smith, alone in the park?
The sparkle in Mr Smith’s eyes
Mr Smith’s private library
Mr Smith clean his books
Mr Smith makes a paan
See you, Mr Smith