Mission Delhi – Aanchal Malhotra, Jama Masjid

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

While most girls of her privileged background are obsessed with bar-coded clothes and pub parties, Aanchal Malhotra, 20, finds joy in simpler pursuits, such as blowing soap bubbles. “There are so many beautiful things that we take for granted,” she says, walking through Daryaganj’s Sunday Book Bazaar, clicking candid shots of people. We are taking a tour of the Walled City.

Photography is Ms Malhotra’s passion. “Through my camera I explore why people meet, how emotional connections are made, why relationships change.” Focusing the lens towards The Delhi Walla, she points to the rainy sky, “See, the smell of the wet earth. People don’t think about it. They rather worry about ‘I’ve to go here, there… and where’s the driver’.”

Brought up in south Delhi’s Safdarjang Enclave, Ms Malhotra went school in Springdales, Dhaula Kuan. Now a student of the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Canada, she is doing a major in printmaking with a specialisation in etching. In Delhi for a month-long holiday, she rarely goes to a mall or multiplex, not even to upscale Khan Market, where her family runs the landmark store, Bahrisons Booksellers.

“Why should I go to Khan Market?” she asks half-mockingly while changing the setting of her Canon Rebel XSi. “There the people can’t stop talking of ‘I did this, I did that, I went shopping in Paris’. Who cares!” Chatty, cheerful and clever, Ms Malhotra talks like a stream that can’t be stopped. “What can I do there other than buying books? Should I buy a Rs 5 lakh suit for my own wedding?”

She prefers going to the less elitist markets of Lajpat Nagar and Sarojini Nagar. “I like the crowd, the colour and the smell. So many conversations are happening there among so many people packed in such a little space. It’s a kind of accepted chaos; such fun, so different from Khan Market.”

Suddenly running across the Asaf Ali Marg to a park full of pigeons, Ms Malhotra exclaims, “My God, this is the first time that I’ve seen them fluttering in confusion – otherwise, they always fly in formation.”

Unless carried away by her thought flow, she speaks in Hindi. “English is my first language,” says Ms Malhotra, whose mother was born and raised in Toronto, “but I want to retain my culture. Otherwise, Indians of my age both in Delhi and Toronto don’t want to talk and dress like Indians.”

Just because she is not feeling like a ‘tourist’ doesn’t mean that Ms Malhotra has fallen big time for Old Delhi. In Jama Masjid, she is not in awe of the Walled City’s grandest monument. “It’s a nice place to click pictures,” she coldly says, while coming out of the mosque’s gate No. 3.

Sitting cross-legged in the red-walled sufi shrine of Sarmad Shahid, Ms Malhotra confesses to missing her three dogs the most when away in Toronto. She does not feel the absence of her mother, thanks to the Internet. “I never feel shy of talking things with her,” she says. “But sometimes people say, ‘Wow, your mom looks so young; you two look like sisters.’ Now, what does that mean? It makes her look 20 and me 35 and this irritates me.”

Being the daughter of one of Delhi’s leading booksellers, it is no surprise that Ms Malhotra is fond of reading. Being the granddaughter of a couple who migrated to Delhi from what is now Pakistan, it is no surprise that she is fond of Partition literature. What is surprising is that she has never discussed that pivotal historical event within the family. “I never asked my grandfather; he never told me. Grandma would tell bedtime stories about her life as a refugee in Delhi, but nothing on her life in the North West Frontier Province. And it never occurred to me to ask her. Maybe they have their own private sorrows attached to those times which they don’t wish to share.”

Removed by one generation from a tragedy that killed one million and displaced 12 million more in the subcontinent, Ms Malhotra looks at the Partition from a detached perspective. “Once we were one, but after the separation, we became different in our habits and thinking. Yet, if you talk to any Pakistani, you will find their life similar to ours. I want to know why we Indians and Pakistanis are so different as masses and so alike as individuals.”

One more week and Ms Malhotra will leave for Toronto. I ask her, “What do you want to achieve in life?”

“I want to be happy.”

I ask, “Are you?”

She replies, “Are you?”

[This is the seventh portrait of the Mission Delhi project]

With the pigeons

In Daryaganj’s Sunday Book Bazaar

At Jama Masjid

In an Old Delhi bylane

Hands up!