City Life – The Delhi Walla’s Speech on Being a ‘Hyperlocal Homer’, India International Center
The Delhi Walla’s talk on International Greek Language Day.
[Photo by Ismini Panagopoulou-Boudouris]
Hello everyone, hello Mr Ambassador, and thank you Ismini for inviting me.
To me, who lives more than 3000 miles away from Athens, the word Greece first and foremost used to evoke… “Greek salad.” This is true: Greek salad was my first practical exposure to Greece—and not really the history schoolbooks. Each time I would be eating this exotic-named dish, I would wonder: what’s the fuss about Greek salad? Seriously, the taste was no big deal—at least in the restaurants of the UP cities where I grew up. The salad would have too much kheera—cucumber—in it. And no green chillies, which I adore.
But Greece—Greek language—Greek myths—Greek literature—and its greatest writer—came to me much later, long after I arrived in Delhi as a hotel waiter. And like all classical themes, Homer—more the idea of him than him, really—entered my bloodstream slowly, drip drop drip drop, without me even realising it, without me even reading Iliad and Odyssey from cover to cover. It’s like knowing about Romeo and Juliet, or about Sholay and DDLJ, without having read Shakespeare, or watched Bollywood films.
Today, I see Homer as a writer who created a world to which some of us might turn to satisfy our curiosity about how life used to be in a particular culture and a place thousands of years ago. But mostly, I—we—so many millions of us—turn to Homer because of the pleasure his language gives to us. And how surprising it is to discover that the sentiments of his long-ago heroes are so similar to ours. Great writers invent us; it is not their stories, but their way of telling those stories that train us to feel, to think, and to be human.
One of the passages in Iliad has become an essential part of what I do everyday, which is trying to be a person who writes about people and places of the city, currently Delhi.
But rather than that passage, I will share with you what it inspired in me—it is an excerpt from a dispatch I wrote long ago, about an elderly Delhi gentleman who shared with me his youthful memories of Delhi street food:
“Hearing Satish Sundra talk of Chandni Chowk’s old time eateries and dishes is like reading that famous chapter in Iliad, in which Homer catalogues the ships and warriors of the Achaean army. “The Ghantewala (confectioners) commanded a following because of the almond-studded sohan halwa. Meghraj’s Punjabi pinni is still other-worldly, so is Chaina Ram’s Karachi halwa. To this day the unnamed stall (outside Srishti Sarees showroom) in Malliwara, very close to Gali Paranthe Wali, makes such excellent bedmi poori that I often overeat to the point of becoming sick. A further 10 yards from there, as you turn left, stands a lassi stall; very generous with malai. Before I was forced to cut down on my sugar, I would have at least 100g of jalebis each time I stopped by Dariba Kalan’s Old Famous Jalebi Wala. Their jalebi is as thick as my finger! There also used to be a chaatwalla off the Esplanade Road, beside a drain where people pissed. But what golgappas! That man hasn’t been seen since decades. A pavement golgappa stall near Haldiram’s has emerged as a decent substitute.” As soon as Mr Sundra utters the name of the sweets and snacks chain, he makes a sour face, as if he had tasted something mass-produced.”
Homer chronicled a war, a civilisation, the adventures of a man trying to find a way back home. My stage is not less grand. After all, friends, we are talking of Delhi—so vast, so complicated, so much an assortment of all its cliches as well as anti-cliches.
Without being self-aware about it, I began my own Homer way back in 2007 when I silently launched my blog, thedelhiwalla. Of course at that time I was not thinking of Homer, I simply wanted to understand myself. I felt I could do that only by cracking the city I was living in. But so impossible to understand a city like Delhi—so I decided to be a small-time chronicler, a hyperlocal Homer. I decided to start with a home, a wall in the home, may be just a taak in the wall of that home, and then I would go to another home, or to a shop perhaps, to a corner in the street, gali, kucha, locality, suburb, sector… I eventually started with a small funeral procession crossing a busy road—that was my first blogpost on the city.
And as I started walking about Delhi, I discovered it was altering right in front of me—old mansions giving way to flats, familiar roads vanishing overnight, neighbourhoods no longer looking like their earlier versions. I felt it more and more urgent to make a record of this shift. It must have been with this sense of urgency that I started to write a book on GB road, Delhi’s red light district. Indeed, when I began to go daily to spend evenings and nights with my friends there, I realised that this red light area, so close to the railway station, so much in the heart of a precious real estate, could not last as a red light area for much longer. It would be claimed by real estate sharks. I had to quickly write about the place to make a sense of it, while it was still here. (It is still here, for now.)
And while writing this book, I discovered another great poet. He too happened to be Greek and, like me, was living in a city that had already seen its best days. This poet is Cavafy, whose lines perfectly encapsulated my life in the red light area — I actually used them as an epigraph to my book.
Let me quote those lines.
“When I went to that house of pleasure
I didn’t stay in the front rooms where they celebrate,
with some decorum, the accepted modes of love.
I went into the secret rooms
and lounged and lay on their beds.”
Today I see Cavafy’s lines, his feelings, his melancholies, scenes from his poems, in so many places as I go about the city. In a chandelier in Madras Coffee House, in a dimly lit walking track in Nehru Park, in the figure of an elderly bachelor living in my neighbourhood.
Talking of walking, I think my latest god—sorry Mr Ambassador—is no Greek. He is James Joyce. But then Joyce is a writer who thought of Homer as one of his heroes, and who modelled his greatest creation—Leopold Bloom—after Odysseus. Joyce worshipped Greek culture so passionately that he insisted that the cover of his novel Ulysses had to be the blue shade of the Greek flag. I first read that fun raunchy sentimental beautiful difficult mad novel only last year, and then I read it again, and now I read it everyday. One of the principal characters in the book—that Bloom guy—is mostly walking through the city (Dublin), seeing things, chatting with fellow citizens. And friends, that’s all I want to do—to walk through my city—to be a Bloom of Joyce, to be an Odysseus of Homer, to search for my home, but never wanting to reach that home.
Since there is no immodesty in sharing one’s innermost dreams, I tell you frankly that I want to be a Homer. That in thousands of years from now, if some of the people living in that unknown era wonder how life used to be in the city of Delhi so and so years back, they might turn to my blog and Instagram to satisfy their curiosity. I also desire that they turn to me primarily not for history or sociology’s sake, but for the way I tell my stories, for the way I click my photos. And then those unknown people must be surprised at how similar the sentiments of my times are to theirs.
Thank you. Long live Homer. Love you Cavafy.