Soon one will see Delhi again. It’s not my home but I have an obligation that needs me to be in the city before heading to the real home by the sea. Nearly everyone who’s been and hasn’t been here, hates this city and it has a bad reputation for women’s safety too. Delhi is frustrating and chaotic yes but it’s also the city of a little magic. This moment in front of the Tomb of Safdarjung is etched in my memory. It’s difficult to explain in print. The sight of a dazzling but clearly neglected landmark, bus loads of tourists and school children rushing past the stone walls, some asking me to click their pictures, I comply. I watch the children scramble on the tomb of the vizier, disrespectful and oblivious to the sanctity of the space. Elsewhere they engrave their names into the stonewalls with sharp stones or a permanent marker suffices to stamp the monument with their devnagri names. First-world foreigners are dumbfound and document the disgrace with their cameras. Strange I thought. Shouldn’t the tomb of a be part of the art and architectural framework we need to preserve? I try to ignore the selfie-taking marker-using students and continue my study of the few flower motifs left on the floor, the rare imperfect symmetry and the stunning ceiling that have been spared from the wrath of time and markers. The tomb of the vizier is still surrounded by cackling and turns into a theme park. I stop one of the children running around the tomb and ask him if he knows anything about the vizier. Sure enough he knows nothing. He points to my camera and asks for a photo. “Only if you let me tell you about the vizier”, I said. He agrees. I rapidly show him my sketches and before long I’m surrounded by these young neat uniformed children all ears about the Emperors. They immediately ask the others to stop the cacophony. Pleased, I continue and they seem entranced by my story and the details of my sketchbook. Afterwards I spend a good fifteen minutes taking pictures that I’ll never be able to send. But it makes them happy and keeps them away from destroying the monument, so I continue. 4 or 5 overburdened teaches come to call it a day. Least bothered about the learning experience of the excursion. Then they all jump into the dozens of rented buses and drive off. All alone at the monument is thrilling, a thousand birds fly overhead, the floral motifs and stucco work seems fresh as ever and the anti-chambers that lead to the tomb are radiant. A brief respite for him and me I thought. It was difficult to pull away.
Present day: I taught a class on the Emperors, thousands of miles away from Delhi. I was dubious of the reaction. Would they be as interested as the boisterous uniformed children? Would they stop the random and trivial and listen to my story? Well, most gave me the attention required for a good grade. And a handful seemed entranced. For that I was thankful. Wonderful I thought, all the inspiration that came out of that one moment could be bottle up and used to make other terrific moment.
It’s been six months now and I reflect on the number of buses that brought more boisterous children to see the “tomb”. How many markers and stones attacked the monument? All this I’ll know soon enough on my next visit to the city of Emperors.