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Book Review: Take your historical blinders off, and behold the real Delhi

BooksBook Review: Take your historical blinders off, and behold the real Delhi

New Delhi Love Songs

By Michael Creighton

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 122

Price: Rs 299

Historical cities have a way of imposing themselves on the artistic imagination. The past here is offered not as a set of cherished memories, but as a living monument overshadowing the present. In a place like Delhi, how could a painter not be attracted to the jagged forms of some Mughal ruin? And how could a writer not engage with the palimpsest of Delhi’s tormented past, written and rewritten by invading armies, by mass migrations, by imperial ambitions?

The ghosts of history have always haunted Delhi’s landscape, and that may be why the city has never had its modern awakening in the arts, unlike, say, Bombay or Calcutta. The default turn an artist makes here is towards “the way things were” (which, incidentally, is the title of a tedious historical novel, set in Delhi, by Aatish Taseer), rather than the way things are. Even the greatest Delhi poets, including the holy trinity of Ghalib, Mir and Zauq, had little to say about the great city of Shahjahanabad as it appeared to them. It was as a source of myth and metaphor that they celebrated Delhi, never as a real place. In their writings, the city becomes visible only when it reflects the romantic soul. (Mir: “Dil ki basti bhi sheher Dilli hai/ Jo bhi guzra usee ne loota.”)

One of the strengths of Michael Creighton’s New Delhi Love Songs, a book of poems on contemporary life in, and beyond, the national capital, is that it is unaffected by the lure of the historical. His subject matter is the moment, and whatever else—a scene, a character, a dream—the moment enfolds. The only historical monument to feature in this collection is the Jantar Mantar, in “Divinations”, although in this poem, too, the reader’s gaze is soon directed away, to a spot “just outside”, where “a coconut-milk seller sits on a wool blanket laid over brown grass and dust”.

This subversive shift of focus from the centre towards the margins, from the monumental to the man on the street, is an old modernist conceit. The ragpickers hogged the limelight in Baudelaire’s Paris; and Arun Kolatkar’s Bombay is incomplete without its hawkers and beggars and “the miserable bunch/ of drunks, delinquents, smalltime crooks…”  

Creighton is working within that same, well-established tradition. Yet this traditional approach comes across as entirely fresh and inventive in a setting like Delhi. That may be because the heroes of our streets—Delhi’s own miserable bunch—have gone unsung for centuries. It’s a delight, then, to discover that the poems in New Delhi Love Songs can together be read as the poet’s declaration of love for Delhi’s street life, as well as its street names. 

Ring Road, Khel Gaon, Moolchand Flyover are all mentioned within the space of the same poem, entitled “In the Early Days of the BRT”. There are poems that carry place names as datelines, like “May Lychees”, which is reported, as it were, from Tito Marg. The localities sometimes come embedded into the title, as in “South Delhi Roadside, 9 p.m.” 

These poems are about auto rickshaws and metro rides; about the flower market in Ghaziabad and the garbage dump on the Badarpur Border; about heat and dust, rain and smog—typical Delhi themes, if only we took our historical blinders off. If only we cared enough to look.

“Step back, look and listen,” Creighton writes in a poem called “Advice”. This slim volume is evidence that the poet can perform exceedingly well on all three counts. He looks intently, even at the sun (“the evening sun glows/ like an electric tangerine…”); and he is an avid listener (“a temple bell, a rooster’s cry, / the knock and crack/ of steel on stone”).

But above all, Creighton is an expert storyteller. I think this is where he parts ways with his modernist forebears, in that the “image” and its portrayal don’t quite concern him. Unlike Baudelaire, Creighton doesn’t designate himself as the “painter of modern life”, and has no intention of sermonising on “truth” and “beauty”. He is more interested in mining the narrative potential of a scene. As an old-fashioned novelist, he wishes to inhabit the characters he writes about—to the extent that their stories become his own. At this point, some of his poems seem to break all contact with the poet, creating an illusory link, unmediated, between reader and subject.  

Thus, in “South Delhi Roadside, 9 p.m.”, we don’t just witness the migrant selling “half-melted mango popsicle” on a pushcart; we can also hear his thoughts: “…that by now/ the ice must be melting/ high in Himachal.”

Another brilliant narrative poem in this book is “Escaping Chirag Dilli”, about five boys manoeuvring a cycle-rickshaw through a busy street on a summer day. Four of them are pushing the rickshaw along, gripping its sides, while the fifth, the youngest, sits on the seat upfront, “his legs too short/ to reach the rusty pedals”. The ride goes dangerously off balance due to a “crack in the road”, until “the small one hurls himself/ onto the handle bars/ just in time to right the leaning load”. All this dramatic effect, this Chekhovian ballet of conflict and resolution, compressed within the 35-line stretch of a two-page poem. You try doing it.    

Appropriately, the weakest poems in New Delhi Love Songs occur when the poet’s imagination is farthest from Delhi. The Garhwal poems, for instance, in the concluding section of the book, lack the energy of the preceding pages. “The sun is bright and warm” is not a good line wherever you put it, but to end a whole poem (“Baptism”) with it is a fault too serious to be ignored. Creighton is also fond of the ghazal form, which can be very tricky to work with in English. Alas, the opening poem of this collection, “New Delhi Love Song”, is a ghazal; but it only goes as far as a few lines, and it only takes so long to turn a page. 

Reading Creighton’s poems, the question of how poetry affects us kept occuring to me. How does it affect us? Well, for one thing, it evokes in us a sense of joy. Second, it makes us more alive to the world around us. If these are our twin touchstones, then the best of Creighton’s poems from New Delhi Love Songs surely qualify as great poetry. But the unique achievement of this book is that it manages to resist, throughout, the tug and pull of history—even in Delhi, the city of the dead. 


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