The empty quarter
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
So here they stand and make big speeches.
This temple-like pavilion in central Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan was built by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 for Queen Elizabeth II. She stood there looking down at the thousands of Indians who had packed the ground to get a glimpse of the sovereign.
In early 2014, this same rostrum hosted yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who sat alongside Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee too had dropped by around that time to make a campaign speech. With a capacity of 50,000 people, the maidan hosted an increasing number of political rallies as voting day neared.
In less politically charged seasons, the ground is favoured by godmen — Asaram Bapu was a regular before he was arrested on rape charges. And of course, every year in October, during Dussehra, Ravan kidnaps Lord Ram’s dutiful wife Sita on this very stage — a key scene in the theatrical presentation of the epic from which this ground got its name.
But beyond the mythology, some dates of Ramlila Maidan have helped it make history.
It was here, in 2011, that activist Anna Hazare fasted for 12 days, forcing Parliament to endorse his demand for a strong anti-corruption legislation. In 1975, socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan asked the police, Armed Forces and government servants to disobey the “immoral orders” of prime minister Indira Gandhi, prompting her to impose Emergency the same night. In 1965, prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri gave us the slogan Jai Jawan Jai Kisan (hail the soldier, hail the farmer). In 1963, singer Lata Mangeshkar mourned the humiliating debacle of the war with China by singing Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo, which famously moved Mr Nehru to tears in public.
In December 2013, social activist turned politician Arvind Kejriwal took the oath here as Delhi’s chief minister, a swearing-in ceremony until then held at Raj Niwas.
And now Ramlila Maidan might become the second Jantar Mantar, which has been the Capital’s protest venue for many years. In February 2014, the Delhi Police issued an advertisement asking crowds of more than 5,000 to hold demonstrations at the maidan instead of the 300-year-old observatory.
This morning, soon after however, there are only a handful of people on the sprawling ground, seemingly the size of three football fields. The ochre-coloured ground is a rectangular expanse of sand. In the distance two dogs lounge beside a bougainvillea hedge. Five half-naked smack addicts are sunning themselves on a rare patch of brown grass. Two boys are playing cricket — an empty Maaza bottle has been turned into a wicket.
This is the view from the stage, littered with rotting marigolds. Reached by a flight of 25 stairs, the rostrum is hemmed in by the central Delhi skyline. The 28-storeyed Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Civic Centre stands tallest — it houses the municipal corporation that grants permission to host rallies at the Ramlila Maidan.
In 1961, there must have been very few high-rises around the ground. There is no record of whether Queen Elizabeth II was able to see the famous Jama Masjid from the stage. Today, you certainly cannot, though the grand mosque is very close.
The Ramlila Maidan is sandwiched in a sort of no man’s land that divides the Walled City from British-built New Delhi. Turkman Darwaza, one of the Mughal-era gateways to Old Delhi, is a mere 50 steps away. It’s hidden from the stage by the Faiz Ilahi Masjid. The white marble mosque, tucked in one corner of the maidan, was built over a Muslim graveyard (the courtyard hosts wedding banquets at night).
Deep inside the Walled City, in Pahari Imli, lives 104-year-old Mian Naseem Changhezi. A necessary contact for any self-respecting scholar on Delhi, Mr Changhezi has an encyclopaedic memory of his life in the city. “I played football and gilli-danda in the Ramlila Maidan,” he says, half-reclining on a white sheet on his verandah. “My father said that there used to be a lake outside the Ajmeri Darwaza called Shahji ka Talaab and next to it was a vast garden called Shahji ka Baagh. After the failed uprising of 1857, the British filled in the lake. Today, you see Kamla Market over it. They also destroyed the garden. It later became a maidan to stage the Ramlila, which had previously been held somewhere on the banks of the Yamuna.”
As it turns out, the present-day Ramlila Maidan shares its border with a garden, though this one opened as late as 1989. The noticeboard at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Park bars entry to goats but nothing can stop rats — there are hundreds of them, and hardly any grass.
Once Ramlila Maidan had enough grass for buffaloes to graze upon, as was customary during the twilight hour. The cattle belonged to a community of milkmen who lived beside Turkman Darwaza and were relocated by the administration to south Delhi’s Okhla village in the 1970s.
Nowadays, there are no buffaloes but there is a special desk at the adjacent Shri Ram Hanuman temple where you can donate fodder for gaumata, the holy cow. The temple also offers coaching classes on stitching, computers and English, but it is most remarkable for its resident godman. The portly Machan Walle Baba resides in a thatched hut built on an elevated wooden platform just inside the temple gate. Barefoot devotees sit piously on the plastic chairs below and look up at the dhoti-clad sadhu who tosses bananas at them.
“The rallies interfered with my meditation,” Baba says, pointing towards the Ramlila Maidan, “but now they have improved the sound system and the noise doesn’t reach my ears.”
Outside the temple, across the road, is the Skin, Hair, Sex & Weight-Loss Clinic. This is a luxury that cannot be afforded by the area’s residents, many of whom are rickshaw-pullers and daily-wage labourers who live on the pavement that skirts the boundary of the maidan. Part of their income is spent on cheap meals in Mukhtar ka Dhaba and on toilet facilities at the “Latrine Ghar” — both landmarks look to the rally ground.
Recalling his boyhood, Mr Changhezi says: “Every year the Persian gypsies would set up their tents at the Ramlila Maidan for a few months to sell knives and rifles and chickens. The men wore silk tehmats (lungis). The women dressed in long skirts. They would spread out handwoven carpets on the dusty ground upon which they would neatly arrange their knives and rifles. Sometimes the men would exercise and wrestle with each other.”
Mr Changhezi’s story seems as remote in time as the morning of 28 January 1961. Addressing Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip at the Ramlila Maidan, Mr Nehru said in his speech, “Today you are welcome here in this city of Delhi which has been a city of kings and emperors, but which today is the capital of the Republic of India, and I think no king or emperor could have given you a welcome that the Republican citizens of Delhi have given you.”
On this very stage, the queen was presented with a replica of the Qutub Minar. But thoughts of that momentary adulation are somehow less compelling than other visions that dance fleetingly across the dusty ground… of gurus and godmen and political hopefuls, of Mughal-era citizens wandering beside a lake, of silk-clad gypsies proffering daggers, and of the joyous danda-wielding boyhood figure of Changhezi fading into the morning haze.
“We boys would make bets on who could hit the gilli over to the furthest distance in the Ramlila Maidan,” says the frail-voiced Mr Changhezi. “I rarely lost.”
1a. (Queen Elizabeth II at Ramlila Maidan, 1961)
7. (Mukhtar ka Dhaba)
8. (Latrine Ghar)
9. (Lal Bahadur Shastri Park)
10. (Mian Naseem Changhezi)