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In the swirl of change

By Sohail Hashmi

One is increasingly coming across all kinds of claims of ownership; most are aimed at proving that the “other” has no claim and, therefore, no business to be where s/he is currently located. People are increasingly being told that if you do not speak a specific language or do not follow a given set of rituals or do not eat a particular type of food you have no business to be in a specific place and you should in fact be in some other part of the country or preferably in another country altogether. Those setting up these standards have little idea of how civilisations evolve, how things and ideas travel and how identities are created.

Let us take Delhi as an illustration to underscore this formulation. According to current estimates, Delhi is a city of approximately 1.9 crore people. In 1947 the figure was under 900,000. This almost 20-fold increase is certainly not a result of natural growth. Please keep in mind that a very large population of the city, the Muslims, constituted 30 per cent of the population of the city in 1947. Some of them had migrated to Pakistan. So Delhi, that had about 300,000 Muslims out of a population of about 900,000, had lost all but 6 per cent of its Muslim citizens. Into the newly created India, poured in more than 500,000 refugees from the newly created Pakistan and suddenly the city of Urdu became the city of Punjabi.

Hidden within this larger picture were the numerous other languages that we rarely think or speak about when we talk of the influx of Punjabis into Delhi. With the Punjabis came the Multanis, the Sindhis, the speakers of Saraiki, Pashto and those who spoke the many dialects of these and other languages.

In the East, there was a migration from what was then East Pakistan into what came to be known as West Bengal. Many of those who had worked with the government of British India in East Bengal, travelled all the way to Delhi and were eventually but much later allotted land to build their houses in the 1960s.

So the Delhi that came into being in the late 1940s and early 1950s was very different from the city that had existed prior to that.

The change was all pervasive —the ubiquitous chicken and paneer were unknown as common ingredients of food in Delhi before 1947, the practice of eating on the street is also a post-Partition import. Language, attire and music also underwent a change. New festivals were introduced, Lohri and Baisakhi for instance, and with these came the dhol to replace the dholak and it brought with it the bhangra and the Gidda, and so on and so forth.

In all respects, pre-1947 Delhi was very different from the Delhi of 1977 and the Delhi of today after its transformation in the last 25 years is very different from the Delhi before the early 1980s. This latest change has also been induced by migration, but this time it is neither sudden nor cataclysmic, though its overall impact is as fundamental as the change that Delhi had gone through in the immediate aftermath of Independence and the accompanying disorder and disarray.

Just as chicken and paneer had made a place for themselves in the menu 70 years ago, litti-chokha is quickly moving in from two directions, from the top through fine-dining experiences at places like Pot-Belly near Yashwant Place, and from push-cart stalls outside metro stations. Phrases of Bhojpuri have begun to creep into the conversations on the streets and very soon many of these will become part of the language of the city, just as Punjabi had started more than 70 decades ago.

The point that is being made is culture and its constituent elements — language, attire, food, music, dance, and rituals — that are markers of our identity are in a state of flux. We are constantly changing, adapting, absorbing, appropriating, accepting and discarding things and in that process we give birth to a way of life and a system of values and ethics. It is in this dynamic, in this constant renovation, innovation, even reinvention that identities are fashioned and refashioned and, therefore, to talk of categories such as culture or identities as frozen in time, as unchanging categories, spanning across centuries is flying in the face of facts of history.

We must remember that the city known as Delhi has been in the making for more than a thousand years. We must remember that the linguistic, cultural, gastronomic, sartorial, musical and creative identities of Delhi have drawn as much from the Jats and Gujjars who inhabited the plains in scattered villages as they have from the diverse range of migrants who came and continue to come and reshape the city in their image. And yet the city retains its Delhiness, even as it constantly renews itself.