Talking the walk, Swapna’s Delhi Walk

When  Swapna Liddle’s  Delhi – 14 historic walks   was made available by  BlogAdda for book  review  I grabbed it because I wanted to  ‘re-visit’  Delhi; and because I believe heritage walks are not just for tourists,  but are  also for the likes of me wanting to re-discover Delhi. And here I found a historian with a doctorate in 19th century Delhi  to take me around.

Carrying,  as I do,  an emotional baggage of  having spent my college, and early working life in the city, I admit to reading  Delhi – 14 historic walks with tinted eye-glasses that had weathered 30 Delhi summers (1950-80s).  And if,  in  Liddle’s  290 pages,   I find the  book  leaves something to be desired,  it is because of my rather high expectations.  I expected the author to lead me by the hand while talking the walk,  pointing  things with anecdotes.  I expected a story-teller to bring  alive  the ruins and tombs of nawabs and other nobility with tales,  gossip and myths of their life and times.

I wasn’t totally disappointed, though.  Diwane Khas  at the Red Fort assumed a khasiat (added value) for me after reading Swapna Liddle ,  in the sense  I visualized  the emperor’s special court hall as the  spot where  Shahjahan  suffered the indignity of getting  deposed from the throne by his own son Aurangazeb.  Among other nuggets from history that Liddle weaves in her historic walks was Mehrauli’s  Metcalfe connection.  Sir Thomas Metcalfe,  British agent at the Mughal court in the 1840s, showed up as  bit of a crank in the sense that he converted the first floor of Quila Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli as a retreat.
The Qutab Minar, widely known as symbol of the Turkish conquest of northern India,  was seen by the Muslim faithful as a maznah, from where they gave the call to the faithfuls to come for prayer. Someone who could climb up the Qutab (72.5 m), and still have the stamina to call out to the faithfuls,  must have had super-human lung-power. Hogwash ?  Perhaps,  but it made an interesting read.

The book made me wonder  how Ballimaran got its name ;  I had no occasion to learn, till I read Liddle,  that  Mirza Ghalib lived in a rented haveli that belonged to a neibourhood  hakim.  And that Delhi’s St.Stephen’s College  was initially housed in a modest Chandni Chowk  house in narrow lane called  Katra Kushal Rai.

I wonder if  sarkari tourism  depts.  realise the potentials  of  city walks.  Walking tours are mainly done by  NGOs and through  individual initiatives.  I have read about some city-loving  San Francisco residents devoting their weekends to  taking interested  visitors on neighbourhood walks.  Nearer home, the walks with which I am familiar,  in Mysore and Mylapore (Chennai),  are individual initiatives.  The royal Mysore walks  is the creation of a software techie who got bitten by the walkbug in Singapore. While on assignment abroad Vinay was so taken in by the Singapore city walk  that he chose to return to  native Mysore  to start a heritage walk.  Vinay’s business model has apparantly been  successful  enough for him to start a Mysore bike tour.

I wish his success drives him enough to try out walks for other interest groups –  R K Narayan walk (of his haunts in the city),  the Maharaja’s College walk,  Kukrahalli walk (for bird-watchers),  The Mysore Banyan Walk , Mandi Mohalla or  the Agrahara walk. Speaking  agraharam,  my media friend Vincent D’Souza  has been conducting walks centred on the agraharam in Chennai’s Mylapore. 

INTACH with which the author is associated conducts the walks  she writes about in her book.  Her friend  Surekha Narain,  who acknowledges  Swapna Liddle  as a guiding force, is into conducting  Surekha Walks  devoted to the  Ghalib trail, the Pahargunj bazar, and the 1857 Mutiny walk.  I have a few walks ideas, triggered by my sense of Vintage Delhi. Would  Surekha  consider any of these ?

The Coffee-house walk:  Starts from Janpath where the original coffee-house was located. When the India Coffee Board decided to close  down  its chain of coffee-houses in 60s, their employees, left in the lurch, were backed by the Delhi coffe-house regulars to form a workers’ co-op to take over the Board abandoned coffee-houses. When they  faced eviction from  Janpath, the workers union started the search for an alternative, with  the support of coffee-house regulars –  they included artists,  academics,  poets,  journalists, politicians, lawyers,  insurance agents, and students. Among the regulars were  Inder Gujral and Young Turk  Chandra Shekar.  A joint agitation by coffee-house  regulars and workers  resulted in NDMC  allotment of open space where Thambu coffee-house came to be located .  So called because , the the coffee-house functioned under a tent.  That was the space where  Palika Bazar is now located.  The workers’  coffee-house  eventually moved to Mohan Singh Place,  still in Connaught Place (CP).

Meanwhile,  some  regulars from my time (70s-80s)  drifted away to other C P  locations such as the United Coffee House,  the Tea House in Regal Building. On a Delhi trip a while  back I discovered  a small band of old time regulars meeting  at Connaught Circus Embassy restaurant.  The group of coffee-regulars  is sustained  by my college friend  S P Dutt  (Barkha’s  dad) – we have been coffee-house regulars  since our days together in Hindu College,  till our jobs took us away from  Delhi.  I left New Delhi in early 80s, for good.  SPD, as friends call Dutt, returned to the city,   re-connected with old-time regulars after retirement,  and Embassy is where they meet nowadays.  Out-of-towners ,  like yours truly,  visiting Delhi can catch up with  S P Dutt’s group at Embassy, on weekdays –  ‘make it there,  11ish’,  as SPD would say when you call.

Karolbagh Monday market:  A weekly walk, on Monday,  holiday for  Ajmal Khan Road traders. It is  on Monday pavement hawkers of all type take over the stretch from Pusa Rd. end to the Unani hospital. The pavement close to the Gurudwara Rd. crossing on Ajmal Khan Road  would be of interest for pavement shoppers of used books.

Worship Walk, of 3 histoic temples, a gurudwara and a church. Could start from the Hanuman temple near Rivoli Cinema, Connaught Place;  walk down Irwin Rd. to  Gurdwara Rakhab Gunj;  Continue the walk upto the Gole Post office, where there is a church;  take a turn towards the Bird Rd. Kali Mandir, located on encroached pavement; and make your way to Birla temple on Mandir Marg via the heritage Gole Market.

The Mandir Marg Ridge: This walk could interest alumni of Mandir Marg schools,  notably Harcourt Butler and Madarasi.  Students living in Karolbagh used to walk to school through the ridge,  picking along the way  wild berries with sour-sweet taste,  that grew on thorny bushes.  The back-door ridge was also the escape route, notably for those who had running accounts at the Madarasi  school front  chai-samasa dukhanwala.

Delhi University Walk: For students in my times,  who did cafe-crawling before,  after,  and,  often, during class hours.  University coffee-house,  strategically located near the campus gate bus stop,  was usually the place where students started their day. From here it is a few minutes walk to the Miranda House cafe,  so named because  of its proximity to the noted women’s college hostel. And then there was Wenger’s,  an upscale cafe near the university library, conveniently located for students meeting  for ‘group study’.  After the study session at Wenger’s  day-scholars take a walk with hostellers to catch the bus home,  from the Miranda House stop. The 8 pm bus to Kashmere Gate,  Daryagunj and beyond  that passed by Miranda House was  widely known  among students as Ashiq Special. 8 p m was when the  women’s hostel gate closed for the day.

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The Dr Raj I knew

There are numerous others,  with better credentials,  to write about the  Dr K N Raj they knew as an economist. I have been his student at the Delhi School of Economics (1958-60).  He took our post-graduate  class in monetary economics.  But it was outside the class-room that  I had occasion to interact with him,  not on  IMF or IBRD ,  but on our school annual day play  – ‘She Stoops to Conquer’.

Not many may know of the interest Dr Raj  took in   extra-curricular activities of his students. He guided us  in the choice of the play, did the audition,  and sat through the rehearsals after the School hours.  As head of the students Fraternity I was  in charge,  if only notionally,  of production of the School play to be staged on our Annual Day. As such, I tagged along with Dr Raj during several evenings of rehearsals.  We gladly let  him  call the shots. Looking back, I cherish memories of the DSE days spent with Dr Raj,  Putul Nag (who bet most of us in carrams played at the Fraternity room), and Dr M V Pylee, who was students advisor.  I remember a couple other faculty members such as Dr Padma Desai dropping in at the rehearsals of our play , if only to watch Dr Raj wearing a  director’s cap.

At DSE those days there was no students union.  We had the Fraternity,  a forum  comprising both students and the DSE faculty. The then director of the school,  Dr B N Ganguli,  was the president of DSE Fraternity; and I (then in MA Final year) was elected vice-president. Dr Ganguli, though friendly with students , was remote from student activities. It was Dr Raj who took active interest in the affairs of the School Fraternity. He was so pleased with the students performance at our Annual Day  that Dr Raj hosted a dinner to the cast of the play  at a Kashmere Gate restaurant,  Khybar Pass .

After graduation I met Dr Raj just twice,  as a newspaper reporter  –  once,  when,  as  Delhi  University vice-chancellor,  he was gheraoed in his chamber  by a section of students ; and, a couple of years later , on the corridors of New Dehi’s Connaught Circus, when  Dr Raj had quit VC’s post and  shifted base to Trivandrum.

Marathon runner

A marathon runner has been,  for me,  an un-understood entity ;  and there was a time when I used to think it was something Ethiopians did.  Anyway, I didn’t give a thought to the prospect of ever meeting  anyone who did 26.2 miles  in one go.  This was till I met Dr Srinivas  a couple of years back.  But then I first knew him as a research scientist (at Berkeley) before I got to learn about  his marathon exploits.

A research lab,  I would have thought,  is the least likely place to nurse a marathon runner.  That Dr Srinivas averages a 14 hour-day at his lab, seven days a week,  makes him even  a less likely candidate to be in this business of long-distance running.  What makes his case  all the more baffling is his  ‘fairly complicated’ domestic life.  Didn’t I say  I couldn’t understand marathon runners ?

I can’t say I still do,  after reading Dr Srinivas blog post describing his latest marathon at Sacramento earlier this month.  His narrative about a mindset and fighting spirit that kept him going,  against a body in revolt made  engaging read. After reading him Dr Srinivas struck me as someone capable of  invoking a mental stamina that triumphs over a battered body.

As he put it,  marathon running, was for most part,  a mentality,  as it became evident to him early in the race . At Mile-10  he already started feeling  his ‘body  falling apart’. And there were 16 more miles to go. It was  at this stage Dr Srinivas  decided to ignore his body that kept telling  him to slow down, eat,  and replenish his electrolytes.  This would have been good for  his body;  but,  would have at the same time,  made him feel a loser.

This was when  Dr Srinivas  did what his book prescribed  for marathon runners,  at the mid-way point. Determined to stay on track, he pushed himself beyond physical parameters for extreme stress.  But then he had also to contend with an   ‘ego in tatters, and a  sense of self-loathing’.  His book didn’t tell how to cope with this.

It was at this point – Mile-19 –  that Dr Srinivas had a call from wife  Maya on his cellphone.  She wanted to know how he was doing ;  and he could hear his little daughter Ila on the phone. He couldn’t  be telling them about the state of battered ego. Dr Srinivas doesn’t  tell us what he told his wife.  But her phone call did seem to work wonders on him. He swallowed some salt tablet,  ate and drank as  much as he could, and focused on making it to the finish line – still over six miles  away.

On his final mile Dr Srinivas felt his body rebel against his sprits –  he could sense his  abdominal muscles going in spasms,  calf-muscles  contracting,  and toes curling into his  shoes.  Spirit was still willing  – “If  I had to crawl the last mile, I was going to finish the bloody marathon”.  And he did – all 26.2 miles of it, in four hours.  Which was 30 minutes more than the timeline he had set for himself. But Dr  Srinivas had gained 54 minutes over his previous performance in  San Francisco.

Where would it be next, Dr Srinivas ?  My hunch is Baltimore.  Maya mailed me they are moving there  early in the new year.   Johns  Hopkins  would soon have a marathon runner on their faculty.

Maya’s Berkeley

BerkeleyAug.26 057For the unfamiliar, and for those who couldn’t care less about its socio-political legacy/baggage,  Berkeley could be just another town. Its main street, with a string of Indian eateries, saree shops and jewellers,  can as well be in Chennai’s T Nagar or Bangalore’s Commercial Street.  Other ethic groups can, presumably, get a feel of their own home enviorns in parts of Berkeley.  

For its residents,  Berkeley is not so much a town as a lifestyle they came to embrace; a social attitude that is  not always in conformity with residents  in most other towns in the US.  Berkeley residents are mostly diehard democracy activists –  a term that could well refer to people  ‘who literally protest anything and everything, no matter how good something might be for the city and the majority of people’.

BerkeleyAug.26 122Maya Srinivas, a resident not so diehard in upholding the democracy cause,  wouldn’t however want to live anywhere else. That her husband Srinivas is a post-doc. researcher on the campus, makes her a Berkeley ‘insider’.  Maya took us – my wife and me – for a spin around ‘Berserkeley’, a town where, they say, democracy has gone berserk.  Life in berserkvile doesn’t come any cheaper, says Maya,  who pays nearly thrice as much house rent as she did in Denver, for a single-bedroom dwelling.

Telegraph Avenue on Thursday afternoon was bustling with shoppers, pavement sellers, and panhandlers who  flog ‘Street Sheet’, a tabloid of the homeless, holding out a plastic cup to collect small change. Pavement shops are one of the many un-American aspects of Berkeley. Hawking is okay here; and it is, for some,  an excuse to making a living.  According to a old-time resident,  many of them are illegals. I read  a website  comment that held it is the city’s illegals who make Berkeley what it has become –  retarded.

We move on to a more pleasant, and vibrant, sorroundings –  the UC campus. The crush of humanity on Sproul Plaza  reminded my wife of T Nagar’s Ranganathan Street, Chennai. At the start of the academic session Sproul gets crowded with activists who set up stalls to recruit freshers to student bodies with their own social and community agenda upholding causes fancied by self-described intellectuals, progressives,  visionaries, and queers.

BerkeleyAug.26 070An activist group was seen staging a street-play,  featuring detenus in orange overall,  masked and chained,  and volunteers carrying ‘say-no-to-torture’ placards. On way to the library is a massive panel displaying portraits of Berkeley alumni. Those featured were mostly overseas students,  many from India. “Berkeley has taught me the meaning of persistance,” says Sarathi Bhattacharya in his endorsement of the institution where he was able to pursue his studies through privately funded fellowship.

“Berkeley has taught me to listen better,and scream louder,” says Maxime Stinnet. Says another student, “Learned here how to be a big fish in a big pond”. M S Gidda,a yet another student,  says Berkeley was for him ‘a two-year Boot Camp’.BerkeleyAug.26 027The collage of endorsements from a thankful alumni is part of a campaign to raise $3 billion for faculty, students and programmes by June 2013.

Maya took us on a conducted tour of the four-storey library;  and drove us around the university’s recreation complex with a massive gym and swim-pool, so well equipped that Olympic hopefuls get their training there. Our next halt was at the muncipal pier from where you get a hazy glimpse of the San Francisco downtown high-rises,  flanked by the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Maya says the scene around has a contemplative effect on those with much on their minds –  ‘I come here whenever  in a crisis of faith’.  She has been here counless times, says Maya,adding that her daughter Ila  who went through liver transplant at five months of age had spent most of her time in hospital since birth.  The pier is where Maya comes to reflect,  to meditate and introspect – ‘the place reinforces your insignificance’.

We wound up our day-trip of Berkeley with ‘chena kulche’ at Vik’s. The desi joint functioning out of a warehouse is said to be so old and popular that long-time California residents consider Vik’s as  ‘mother of all chaat houses in the Bay Area’.  Maya sure knows her Berkeley.

I have a question – why do  they put so much haldi in chena ?

Oprah at Stanford

Wonder if it is customary for those invited to deliver Commencement Speech at Stanford to leave gifts for the students who give them a hearing. Oprah Winfrey who addressed the Stanford Class of ’08 gifted each graduate a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth’, and also A Whole New Mind – Why the Right-Brainers’ Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink.

“I really want to give you cars, but I just couldn’t pull that off,” said America’s best known talk-show host, as she informed her audience about her gift – ‘underneath your seats you’ll find two of my favourite books’. In her speech Oprah shared with Stanford grads, their parents, grand-parents, the faculty and the trustees the lessons she learned from failings, success, and her life in-between that she defined as ‘a reciprocal exchange’. To move forward in life, you need to give back. And it is in the giving, she finds happiness.

She reminded the students that the institution from which they had just graduated was the result of the giving by Jane and Leland Stanford, who had suffered in life the worst any mom and dad could ever endure – the loss of their only son to typhoid, at the age of 15. As Oprah put it, the Stanfords channeled their grief and pain into an act of grace, with their funding grant to the university, pledging to do to others’ children what they were not able to do to their own boy.

Link to Oprah’s Stanford speech was forwarded to friends by Bangalore-based blogger Tanay Behera.

Current TV one-minute video clip of Oprah’s speech