ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Living Image: what Old Delhi urbanity means in modern South Asian literature


Gupta Trisha - OP Jindal Global University, Jindal School of Journalism and Communication (JSJC), Sonepat, India


08 – Imagining the city: Literary and religious practices of urbanity in early modern and modern South Asia


“Anything about which one knows that one soon will not have it around becomes an image,” wrote Walter Benjamin. While the physical city of Shahjahanbad is nowhere near disappearing, elegies for its spirit have been written for a century. With New Delhi emerging in 1931, Shahjahan’s once-magnificent city was relegated to the status of ‘Old’ Delhi. The new state and its allied elites saw the old city through critical-developmental lenses (‘congestion’, ‘overpopulation’, dirt), rather than as a Mughal city fighting the odds to keep its vision of urbanity alive in a modern world. But how do we interpret the fact that even as power and patronage moved to New Delhi’s tree-lined avenues, the walled city’s bustling kuchas may have become the literary locus of a ‘more authentic’ urbanity? Among the first to document the disappearing life of Shahjahanbad is Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (1940), set in 1911-1919 and already framed as a lament. In Mohan Rakesh’s modern Hindi classic Andhere Bandh Kamre (1961), even romantic journalistic pieces on Old Delhi can only lead to demolitions. Anita Desai’s In Custody (1984) paints a tragic portrait of the old urban culture, hollowed out and feeding on itself. Sujit Saraf’s The Peacock Throne (2007) depicts a thriving Old Delhi underclass under constant threat from the state. Reading these & other Delhi novels alongside memoirs and history, I hope to sketch the outline of a theory of literary urbanity as something always on the edge of collapse.