City Moment – Annie Ernaux Starts Singing, Lodhi Gardens
The perfect Delhi instant.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
“The black, pensive, dense,
domes of the mausoleums
suddenly shot birds
into the unanimous blue”
This is the entirety of “In The Lodi Gardens”, a poem by a Nobel laureate in literature.
This morning, another Nobel laureate in literature enters the Lodhi Gardens, fully prepared to be seduced by this central Delhi sanctuary speckled with flowers, trees, birds, and centuries-old stone edifices. Author Annie Ernaux is in the city as a special attendee at the Delhi Book Fair. Her brief stay in the capital has been entirely claimed by appointments, interviews and speeches, and this excursion is a non-violent revolt to her tightly packed schedule, fixed weeks in advance. By stepping into the park, she is stepping deeper into literature. For Lodhi Gardens exists equally tangibly in the world of fiction and poetry. The aforementioned poem was written by Octavio Paz—the 1990 Nobel awardee had served as Mexican ambassador to India in the 1960s, and like all contemporary literary figures with connections to Delhi, he ended up appending Lodhi Gardens to his oeuvre.
Strolling on the grass, wet with the previous night’s dew, Annie Ernaux gazes at a tomb, and then with equal fascination, her gaze turns to a brown dog — one of the many community dogs who have made Lodhi Gardens their home. A feeling of affection abruptly clouds over her eyes.
Lodhi Gardens occupies a central position in Khushwant Singh’s novel The Sunset Club. It hosts a major scene in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. It has been mentioned in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. It is there in a Vikram Seth poem as well. It also appears in Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the French translation of which Annie Ernaux is currently reading. The gardens complement Javed Akhtar’s poem in the film Silsila, during a romantic sequence starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha.
Sitting down on a bench under a dead tree, in front of the Shish Gumbad monument, Annie Ernaux stays silent. While it is difficult to read her thoughts, one does apprehend that the park is somehow failing to cast its magic on the writer. It turns out to be true. Maybe the place is too much of an idyllic escape, too far from the real world. She says she is more stirred by things anchored in everyday life, by places such as public transports, or the commuters of the Paris metro. Indeed, she prefers the crowds and chaos of Old Delhi, which she visited on her first day in our city, than the tranquility of Lodhi Gardens.
Some minutes later, on nearing the stone bridge over the lake, she spots a black bird, which reminds her of French singer Barbara, who would always wear black clothes (and whom she also quoted in the Proust questionnaire that was published on these pages on Saturday). She then recalls a “feminist” song by Barbara, about a woman telling her far-away lover that she will start a new affair if he doesn’t come back to her soon. The next moment, Annie Ernaux starts singing the song, “Dis, quand reviendras-tu?” With birds, trees and white ducks as an audience. At last, Lodhi Gardens work its charm on the writer.