The Delhi Walla Books – Interview by Yuva Magazine
[By Yuva Magazine]
Despite being bestsellers, most newspapers and magazines ignored The Delhi Walla books. Corrupt as India media is, the editors and book beat reporters are always plugging books of friends or of authors who can afford the services of public relation firms. So, if you only read The Times of India, or The Indian Express, or Hindustan Times, or Mail Today, or India Today, or Outlook, you would have never heard of The Delhi Walla books. But then there are exceptions, such as the Bombay-based Yuva magazine that carried my two-page interview on its August 2011 issue. (Please buy a copy!) Yuva editor Sharon Fernandes talked to me. Here’s the full story:
One can never predict the journey of the written word. Especially when it starts as a personal tribute to a city, in the form of a blog by a writer who “eats, drinks, and breathes” Delhi. Mayank Austen Soofi writes like a veteran who is recalling all his years in a city that he loves. Mayank knows the essence of Delhi. The Delhi Walla – Portraits, the latest in his series of of The Delhi Walla books, is a poignant look at the people who personify the multi-hued, multi-layered spirit of teh city. We speak to author Mayank Austen Soofi about his favorite topic – Delhi and his obsession with it.
Have you always lived in Delhi?
No. I’m living in Delhi since 6-7 years. I started out as a waiter in Radisson Hotel near the international airport. I had rented a room in a jaat village called Rangpuri, just behind the hotel. My neighbours were all drivers. Sometimes we would cook food together on a stove. The landlord’s buffaloes lounged in the courtyard. The air was suffused with the warm smell of cow dung. The water came only in the morning and evening. In summers I slept on the rooftop, sometimes I would wake up and watch the planes preparing to land.
Do you have a definition of the Delhiwalla?
Anybody who lives in Delhi is a Delhiwalla, whether he likes it or not. Some romantics assume a Delhiwalla to be a man hailing from the Walled City. This ideal creature must always be wearing sherwanis and topis. He must be eating kebabs and biryanis daily. He must be speaking in perfect Urdu and – of course – must know his Ghalib inside out. This is actually just one cliché of a dream Delhiwalla. Another one is of a Punjabi living possibly in Tilak Nagar, west Delhi. This gentleman must be eating butter chicken every evening at Kake Da Hotel in Connaught Place. His girlfriend’s name must be Sweety. His chest must be hairy, complete with a gold chain. Every week he must be going to pray at Seesganj Gurudwara in Chandni Chowk. Every year he must be going to bow his head at the Vaishni Devi shrine in Jammu & Kashmir. Then there’s another stereotype: the barcoded human beings of south Delhi. They buy groceries in Khan Market, shop in Vasant Kunj’s DLF Emporio mall, they never eat Chinjabi food. And they are very beautiful. Then there are some more postcard perfect Delhiwallas. But really, all these stereotypes are false and unfair. The city, like other great cities, is constantly evolving and turning into something new. And each person who lives here has his own Delhi. All of us Delhiwallas – we are more than 13 million – are as different from each other as our finger prints.
Is Mayank Austen Soofi your real name?
Yes, it is my real name, in the sense that it reflects my real identity. Earlier, I had a different last name, which I got because of the accident of birth. The problem with a Hindu caste name is that people initially judge you by it, and that’s such a false way to start. So, I took on a real name. Mayank is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘moon’ and it reflects the legacy of my parents who gave me this name. Austen is because I love the witty, ironic and bitchy Jane Austen, who so brilliantly wrote a couple of novels out of drawing room chatter. Soofi, because I love Hazrat Nizmauddin Auliya, the 14th century sufi saint of Delhi.
How is it you live in a library? Tell me that story.
Please don’t imagine me sleeping and showering in the British Council library or any of the Delhi Public Libraries. I live in my library, a work of several years. Now, I have more than 10,000 books, many bought from the fabulous mile-long pavement of the second-hand book bazaar that takes place every Sunday in Daryaganj, on the fringes of Old Delhi. Talking of the library, last year I started a new project on my website, in which I’m chronicling private libraries of Delhiwallas. I think reading will never die but – thanks to iPad and Kindle e-readers etc – the world of page-and-print books is threatened. And – I feel – the whole thing about buying a book is so beautiful, old-fashioned, especially so when people buy them not to learn about something but only in the pursuit of pleasure. That’s why I’m fixated about private libraries and want to capture this vanishing world before its too late.
Do you think a city is in the eye of the beholder? A city could be something to you but something completely different to another person. In a sense, it reflects you.
You are absolutely right. A city is like a collection of short stories. My Delhi is very different from the Delhi of Khushwant Singh, from the Delhi of the homeless man who is living in the India Gate maidan for 8 years, from the Delhi of a sex worker in GB Road, from the Delhi of an auto walla bhayya from the Delhi of… I can go on and on.
Cities are man-made. Each of us maps our city to our own liking. We have our own beloved and hateful landmarks, both spiritual and physical. We cruise through our own private neighbourhoods and roads that also intersects with the physical signposts. What emerges is a complicated, multi-layerd land that cannot be pinned down to one version. This is what I have tried to show in my Portraits books.
Do you think the story is about Delhi or the people?
It’s always about the people. Delhi, or any other city, is the story of its people who come to it to make a new life. They leave behind their private and public histories, adding more substance to a metropolis already rich with too many stories of too many people.
How did the The Delhi Walla blog come about?
Well, I’ve 5 blogs. My first was on books called Ruined by Reading. But then I was also writing about Delhi and I thought that why anybody who liked coming to ruinedbyreading.blogspot.com would care to read about Delhi. I mean he would be more interested in books. So I created a new blog and called it The Delhi Walla. I gave it this name since I’m very pretentious. I wanted – and still want – this blog (now a website) to be an alternate gateway to Delhi for sophisticated people. I modeled the name after The New Yorker, my favorite magazine. My ideal The Delhi Walla readers are those mythical people who read Marcel Proust, recite Mirza Ghalib, eat cheese, drink wine, love watching clouds, and collect old copies of The New Yorker.
Tell me about the journey of your blog to the book.
Well, I didn’t try hard. I was happy writing for my website when HarperCollins India approached me if I could do a series of Delhi books for them, with photos. For someone who had this dream of becoming a published writer, it was a gift from God. I signed the proposal over date cake with hot toffee sauce at Café Turtle, Khan Market.
Most writers have a day job? What is yours? And how do you demarcate these spaces in your life?
I write about the city. My day job is also my night job. So, I never have to demarcate. I love walking around Delhi, meeting people, talking to beggars and pickpockets, socialites and artists… taking their photos, writing their stories. I also like hanging out in ruins, and imagining how they were 500 years ago. (Was there a chandelier hanging from the dome? Did the princess made love to her love-slave in that corner?)… and I also like to understand how these ruins have evolve over the centuries and how we people now relate to them.
How do you get under the skin of a canine? I think your interview with Editor the dog in the Portraits was more about the Mehtas. Did you intend it to be a peep into their lives or was it just Editor?
Well, I was interested in Editor. When I visited him for the first time at his apartment in Nizamuddin East, I was amazed to find him standing against a background of so many books. What a lucky dog! I would have loved to exchange places. And obviously, he was being fed with imported cheese and other things that I couldn’t afford. Finally, I was very jealous that Mr Mehta, the Outlook magazine editor, loved him so much. For a few months, I was a city reporter for one of his small magazines (which was so good that it couldn’t have survived and so shut down a few years ago). Mr Mehta never even once acknowledged me. I never existed for him. And here was this dog, the apple of his eyes. Life’s so unfair.
Your portraits were about a world I think is almost long gone. What you think about the new Delhi?
It’s almost the same as the old Delhi. Same sort of people. You just need to spend some good time with any of them and out comes the stories, the struggles, the little pleasures, the lasting grieves. 500 years ago too we were slaves to similar passions. So much changes but – in the final analysis – nothing changes. And yet, our experiences, ruled by same sort of emotions, are still so differently lived. I feel that a city is not cracked by its monuments and bazaars but by understanding its peoples.
What was the selection process for the portraits that did go into this book?
Anybody who is living in Delhi. I wanted to include dead people too but the publishers were less adventurous. We tried to have people from as many backgrounds as possible.
Your photographs are something that suits your writing style to the tee. I am sure your blog readers and book fan would love to know: Which camera? Do you set the shot? How does the image come about?
Thank you! I use Cannon 1000 D. But I’m not a professional photographer. I don’t know the camera technicalities (but I should). I don’t set the shoot. I see something and I click. Simple. I often get mails complementing me for my photos. I like that but sometimes it’s frustrating because these e-mail writers don’t say a word on my writing. And I fancy myself as a writer, you know. Since I don’t take photography seriously, it’s pure fun. I’m not worried about the results. But writing is serious, and every time I’m starting a new piece, it’s like starting from the scratch. It’s torturous. Photography is a stress buster; reading and writing is life.
What was your most interesting portrait you think, for you personally as a writer?
Author Arundhati Roy, of course. I spotted her in Hauz Khas Village, took her photos, imprinted the moment in my memory and wrote it out that night itself. I love her writing and her ability to think differently.
What is the one Delhiwalla you would love to profile but haven’t yet?
I want to profile a woman called Sonu Punjaban. She is imprisoned in Tihar Jail. She was Delhi’s big-time call girls supplier.
What is your favourite book on Delhi?
Twilight in Delhi by Ahmad Ali, the best English novel on the vanished elegance of Old Delhi. It is cliched but I like it.
So if you were to choose one favourite hangout, one monument and one place to eat and drink in Delhi…
Night walk in Matia Mahal bazaar in Old Delhi, Mughal Masjid in Qutub Minar complex and gobhi Manchurian in Lajpat Nagar Market.
Which other Indian city do you like?
Bombay, because of its highrises.
If not Delhi, where would you choose to live?
New York City.
Busy finishing a serious Delhi non-fiction for Penguin.
The Delhi Walla interview by Yuva magazine
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The Delhi Walla – Portraits