Confessions of a Lutyens' Child

We, the much reviled liberal secular minority, are here – inconvenient though it may seem. We too are 'proud Indians' in our own right. 

It has taken some time for name-callers to discover that ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’ is not really an appropriate insult for the likes of us ‘sickular libertards’, since Sir Edwin Lutyen’s elegant 1930s bungalows, buildings and spaces are currently inhabited not by us, but by government offices, and the residences of ministers, senior bureaucrats, and members of the armed forces – not to mention the BJP party headquarters and our prime minister himself.

I rather like the ring of the new term ‘Khan Market gang‘, but lumping together as it does Jawaharlal Nehru University intellectuals with left-wing leanings and us other supposedly anti-national types with Delhi fashionistas designer label shopping, kitty party ladies who lunch, diplomats buying overpriced fruit, vegetables and cold cuts, not to mention the hardworking refugees who built up their businesses there post-Partition, is catchy but equally inappropriate.

Like many of our PM’s jumlas, it has sound but not substance.

It’s time for me to come out of the closet and pronounce myself an original Lutyens’ Delhi child. I was born in 1947 in the then Willingdon Hospital (now renamed after Ram Manohar Lohia), grew up (between spells abroad) in homes in Robert’s Lane, Willingdon Crescent, and finally Race Course Road. In fact, my teenage angsts and first crushes were where Modiji now resides – the very lawns famously depicted in that yoga video.

All these roads now have new names, but the tree-lined avenues and colonnaded bungalows still have much of their original aura, despite the security guards and party hangers-on that proliferate. In those days the jackals, peacocks, vultures, and other birds of prey who frequented our gardens were real ones.

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In retrospect it seems a simpler time. Idyllic in many ways, though devoid of many creature comforts we now take for granted. No ACs and the electricity went off for hours, the heavy black bakelite telephones seldom worked, and people still sent round their chaprasis with chits – terminology now out-of-date and unfamiliar. As are khansamah, khidmatgar, jamadar, bearer, bawarchi, malaan, masalchi

In winter the bhishti came round every morning with a precious half bucket of hot water heated in the kitchen. In summer we slept on the roof or in the garden, our sheets dampened to catch the night breeze. The measly foreign exchange allowance meant no one went abroad. Our holidays were picnics in Jamali Kamali and pony treks in Gulmarg.

Nostalgia is dangerously deceptive, but what made that time so different was the sense of common purpose everyone had; that we were collectively building an exciting new nation. An India that was really ours. There was camaraderie and energy in the air. A shared ownership and certainty of our directions.

For our family and countless other Muslims, there was huge pride and investment in the India that we had opted for over Pakistan. For those Hindus and Sikhs who had come across the border, loss and hardship was mingled with the challenge of creating new lives in a beloved country. Partition had left terrible scars, but they were tempered by emotive memories of loved neighbours and a shared past. Today’s visceral hatred and stereotyping was absent.

Conversation on the lawns in the evenings while drinking nimbu pani was of the new universities and scientific and medical institutes coming up, of leading an imaginative non-aligned movement that would breach the Cold War, the creation of the new Akademis for the arts and literature, a National Museum, the IITs, the ICCR… Taking Indian music, dance, art, and film to the world. Auditoriums, airports, performance spaces, and parks. 

We greatly admired our leaders, and believed in them. Many, not all, were worthy of that belief. They mercifully at least had a sense of humour. In today’s climate, cartoonists K. Shankar Pillai and R.K. Laxman might have languished in jail. Instead, they were honoured and applauded.

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Life in Delhi in the 50s and 60s revolved round the government and embassies, and weeks could pass without venturing beyond Connaught Place and Civil Lines on one side and the Diplomatic Enclave coming up in Chanakyapuri on the other. The ‘Old Delhi’ of Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid was an exotic, unchanging, self-contained life of its own, where we went to eat kebabs and buy jewellery.

In the mid-1950s, my father took us to see the plot he had bought in Shantiniketan in south Delhi. It was a green-blue vista of fields and ponds. It seemed like the back of beyond. A few years earlier, Abba used to go duck-shooting there. No one could visualise the development that would eventually stretch for miles beyond, linked by flyovers and metro lines.

In 2000, when my brothers and I sought planning permission to rebuild our family house, we were initially turned down. The refusal was on the grounds that in the 1950s plans the road in front was marked as 13 feet, whereas the present reality was an eight-lane highway. Since we didn’t pay bribes, it took 18 months and many trips to the Kafkaesque DDA Office (with every table and chair chained and locked to the floor, and cupboards bulging open under the pressure of thousands of dog-eared, stained files), to persuade them that though the road had widened, our plot remained the same.

This obtuseness, lack of logic, and reluctance to permit us our own legitimate space seems a metaphor for the current reluctance to accept that those of us who don’t quite fit into the majority mainstream are nevertheless very much part and parcel of this country.

We, the much reviled liberal secular minority, are here, inconvenient though it may seem. We too are ‘proud Indians’ in our own right. Surely, our views have value, if only as a  counterbalance and barometer of alternative public opinion?

And surely the expertise and experience that exists in this so-called ‘Khan Market gang’ is a useful resource, given that India is still developing its institutions and systems, and needs professional expertise and intellectual capital. In a nation, as in parliament or a university council, an opposition view is an essential part of democracy and nation building.

Where that early post-Independence generation went wrong I think, was taking for granted the principles on which the new nation was born. Though Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad, and our other founding fathers, were each so different, they took it as a given that secularism, democracy, freedom of speech and social practice, equality of caste and gender, were so integral a part of the new India that they didn’t need to be explained or safeguarded.

They ignored the fact that all over India, in villages and small towns, people still lived lives untouched by these concepts. That they needed to be given relevance and resonant Indian names, linked to age-old Indian philosophic traditions of tolerance and diversity, built into our educational systems and text books, made the foundation of every institution small or big, inculcated as part of the thinking and training of our politicians, corporate leadership and bureaucrats. Not seen as elitist, alien, irrelevant.

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After 72 years, we should have the self-confidence to disagree, accommodate and accept. To  see things from other perspectives, avoid knee-jerk type-casting. Excluding divergent viewpoints from the discourse completely misses the point of India. Nationalism is not black and white. It can have many shapes and colours. Even our national flag has four.

A latest proposal making the rounds of changing the name of Khan Market, named after one of our most beloved freedom fighters Dr Khan Sahib, brother of the Frontier Gandhi Abdul Ghaffar Khan, to Valmiki Market, is one more sign of this limited vision; carrying the removal of all traces of our richly diverse past to an absurd but also detrimental extreme.

Maybe all sides of the political spectrum need to stop name-calling, name-changing, and whataboutery, and get on with the real business of India.

Laila Tyabji is the founder member and chairperson of Dastkar, an NGO working for the revival of traditional crafts in India.