Delhi's hall and arch of fame
ANY TOWN hall has a history. The one in Delhi had seen lots of it ever since it was built in 1865, though the construction began five years earlier, when Bahadur Shah was still in the Red Fort, but a prisoner of the British. Civic affairs were not conducted here in those days for it was then the Lawrence Institute -- of educational and cultural affairs -- probably named after the famous Lawrence Brothers. But later it was converted into the municipal headquarters, though the European Club and library continued to exist in it.
The solid looking building, now undergoing renovation, looks quite British even today, though the statue of Queen Victoria outside has been replaced by one of Swami Shraddhanand. A far cry indeed from the imperial queen to the Arya Samaj leader, but then that expresses the present ethos better. Queen Victoria was at the helm of affairs at a turning point in history and statues to commemorate her were erected in many cities, gardens and parks. Schools, museums and maternity hospitals were also named after her. As a matter of fact, the whole zenana system seemed to enjoy her patronage.
This was not unusual for Victoria did consider herself as the magnanimous successor to the grand Moghuls and prized India as her special realm, where she thought people, specially women, would thrive on her patronage. She even started learning Urdu under the guidance of Munshi Abdul Karim, who graced her court at the time when Jawaharlal Nehru was born and was regarded as handsome by the queen herself, though the story of an affair seems exaggerated. The Munshi returned to his Karim Lodge in Agra after the queen's death and breathed his last there a few years later.
Along with the clock tower that collapsed in 1952, the Town Hall was -- and still is -- one of the biggest landmarks of Chandni Chowk in the Walled City of Delhi. The place where it stands once formed part of the gardens laid by Shah Jehan's daughter, Jehanara, in which was also situated a beautiful sarai on inn.
The Town Hall was regarded as the seat of British paramountcy by the freedom fighters and it was close to it that they threw a bomb as a procession carrying Lord Hardinge wended its way through Chandni Chowk. Many of the revolutionaries used to wander about at night past the Town Hall in those days, among them the eccentric Sarin Bhai, who came out around midnight, wrapped in a blanket and smoking a bidi.
The Town Hall, like St. Mark's Square, is a reminder of many events of the past which the ever-present pigeons seem to revive with their cooing. Now on to another haunt of pigeons, past Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg down Tilak Marg, until you reach a memorial of the British Empire built after the Town Hall. This is India Gate, the 39.62 metre-high and 27.43 metre-wide arch commemorating the British and Indian soldiers who died in World War I and in the Afghan War of 1921. Each brick has the regimental number of the fallen hero and each tells a tale of the battles that were fought in France, Flanders Iran, Mesopotamia, East Africa and in the North West Frontier Province.
Gazing at the arch one thinks of other war memorials in the world to the dear departed -- many of them unidentified but "Known unto God'' to quote Kipling. Monuments similar to the one at India Gate are the Menin Gate at Ypres and the Thiepval Memorial. But India Gate is different since it is such an important part of the New Delhi skyline. In the evening when the balloon-sellers and ice-cream vendors attract customers on the lawns of the memorial one would think there was a regular mela of people who have come to spend their free time in the open spaces, which form the lungs of the congested, bustling city that is Delhi.
And yet one can draw closer to the gate, away from the crowds, and think of all those bricks which are akin to the pages of the Golden Book shown, by the angle to Abou ben Adhem -- containing the names of all those who were dear to the Lord. And you will recall that Abous name led all the rest when the angel came to visit him the next day, accompanied by a flash of lighting. Such indeed were the men who laid down their lives to fight for others.
Whether it was France or other theatres of the Great War in Europe or in West Asia, these men, whom the bricks now commemorate left their towns and villages to struggle for what they were led to believe was right. They went in smoky ships and learnt to use the commode. Some of them got the clap while trying to fight off homesickness in alien lands before they died from German bullets. And there were others who faced the fierce Afridi tribesmen when they defended the Khyber Pass in 1921 against Amir Amanullah Khan, the Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims but Indians all in an undivided country. But these are things of the past and India Gate is also a part of the present. People cling to it much more now than in the British days, and there are some who have funny ways of doing so, like the Swamiji who used to park his car on the road and take a stroll on the lawns from 3 a.m. until the first rays of the sun showed up. Wonder if he and his like still haunt India Gate! As for the Town Hall -- there are many like Sarin Bhai who continue to smoke bidis while relaxing near the Victorian building.
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