Until the pandemic kept most of us indoors, winter in Delhi meant at least one trip with friends to Old Delhi to wander its clustered lanes, snacking on parathas, the airy daulat ki chaat, kulfi or phirni, stopping for rusks with chai, and maybe, if it was open, squeezing one’s way up the twisting staircase of the Jama Masjid’s minaret to look out across the city. Shahjahanabad, as the walled city was known, is associated with everything from Mughal-era architecture often hidden behind masses of electrical wires, bargains on ittar and embroidered saris to the most authentic local food.
The chaotic lanes of Old Delhi, which seem to run to rules unfathomable to outsiders, continue to intrigue and fascinate both Delhiites and those who visit the Capital. It’s to this almost 400-year-old chaos that order was to be restored with the redevelopment of the main thoroughfare, Chandni Chowk.
Planned for years, it was delayed by a shortage of funds, red tape, court cases and the pandemic but finally inaugurated last year. About four months later, though, many residents aren’t convinced that the change has been for the good. Our cover story looks at what it takes to rebuild a heritage city to accommodate both the old and the new, while retaining its essence.
Historical hearts of cities, which more often than not tend to be their markets where people gather, need to be preserved not just as artefacts for tourists but also because they are a living reminder of a city’s culture and community ties. In a similar vein, we have a piece on Jamshedpur, upheld as a model post-industrial city—but it’s one that has erased its Adivasi history in this pursuit of cosmopolitanism.
The pressures of contemporary urban expansion do make an imperative of change to improve infrastructure or to accommodate growing populations. But, is such change possible in a way that strengthens the community’s ties to the area? After all, as John Berger says about art in the first episode of Ways Of Seeing, which marks half a century this month (we have a piece for the milestone), “Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is.”
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