|Balabrooie Guest-House, Bangalore|
I should have been a historian, or at the very least, studied history in university. I instead chose to study English Literature and Creative Writing, of which I only really enjoyed the creative writing part. I soon learned that it was one thing to read for pleasure, losing yourself in these imagined worlds but another thing altogether to study literature. I was loath to analyse and mine meanings from a book when in fact, I was more interested in writing a book myself. I didn't realise back then that being a historian would have been a perfectly viable career option or that I could have written a book and simultaneously been a historian: I could have written a historical novel, for god's sake! I now wonder whether I secretly perceived history as akin to a museum, full of glorious beauties to be admired and yet ultimately belonging to that alien planet, the past. Perhaps, my eighteen year old self also perceived historians as fusty individuals imprisoned in the past, constantly trying to achieve time-traveling when in fact, they could not? And yet, the truth was also that the courses I took in history during my undergraduate and graduate years were the ones I enjoyed the most.
I have been on Twitter for a while now, largely as an observer/eavesdropper on the incredible diversity of conversations taking place among those I follow. What has really fascinated me though in the last year or so has been my discovery of History Twitter, where I have stumbled upon the most amazing treasure-troves of threads; historian and writer, Paul Cooper is one person that springs to my mind, whose threads are a wealth of information, his 'Ruin of the Day' thread masterfully knitting the past and present in form of the intriguing ruins across the world (fun fact: we are both alumni of the same course at our alma mater, University of Warwick!) I have also admired how yesterday and today come together, as in this piece by Sarover Zaidi on Chirag Dilli where she exquisitely wrote about love in Lodhi Gardens, "a map for lost lovers" in that wondrous green space in Delhi, where sprawling, iridescent bougainvillea trees rain flowers, the ancient tombs and mosques watch, as they have done for so many centuries.
|Safdarjung Tomb, New Delhi|
When I lived in Delhi, Lodhi Gardens used to be one of my favorite places to visit in the city, aligning to my imagined notion of Delhi. For, before I moved there, I had honestly and excitedly thought I was moving to the City of Djinns, the Delhi which William Dalrymple so romantically describes and evokes in his book of the same name. I imagined myself wandering through the tombs at dusk, peeling away one historical palimpsest after another, immersing myself in the drama and beauty and pathos that was the city. However, I arrived in Delhi, fell sick on the first day, and developed respiratory issues which would greatly plague me during my two year stay - and realised the stark difference between anticipation and reality. It's not as if I didn't explore the city at all, though. My husband and I loved visiting Hauz Khas Village: I recall the domes turning lavender at night to the beat of live music, the crumbling madrasa ruins crawling with lovers, families, and instagrammers. I spent a lovely winter afternoon at Humayun's Tomb (my favorite tomb of them all), taking around out of town visitors to Sadfarjung Tomb and the vibrant Lodhi Art District, listening to a concert one almost-winter redolent October evening at Purana Qila. Yet, as I recall these explorations, I find that all of them are underscored by feelings of melancholy or lassitude or plain physical unwellness. After a while, these tombs and buildings and histories simply did not matter because there were so many things to grapple with your today; the yesterday was subsequently of significance anymore. And we ultimately left the city, having no other choice.
I sometimes like to say that I came to Bangalore for the trees - and while that still largely remains true, I have to admit that it has encouraged me to start thinking about history more consciously than ever before. Even though the skyscrapers pile up and unattractive cuboid plastic-glass buildings spring up everywhere, I see tantalising glimpses of its recent colonial past in its bungalows, government buildings, and churches along with its much older ones in inscription stones, temples, and monuments, inviting me to unearth their stories. When I recently took a heritage walk in Avenue Road in central Bangalore, I learned about its beginnings, how KR Market used to be a pond and that the aftermath of a war saw it becoming a market, and how the founder of Bangalore, Kempegowda determined the the boundaries which once defined Bangalore. During the walk, we found ourselves inside a courtyard of Mohan Building, a building which once used to be a family home, a police station, a lodge, and now a commercial market housing silk and cotton shops; a collective of Bangalore-based artists, the Klatsch Collective subsequently decided to reinterpret its multiple layers of historical avatars through a multi-disciplinary art intervention by holding on-site installations, paintings, and dialogue last year.
|The Beauty of Space: Ambara, Bangalore|
Over the years, I have come to appreciate more than ever at how heritage structures are finding new, alternative, exciting contexts in which to reincarnate. Bangalore has been no exception at this front and I am glad to see how beautifully restored and renovated mansions are enjoying a new avatar as hip boutiques and cafes and art spaces such as Cinnamon, Raintree, and Ambara and of course, the magnificent structure that is NGMA Bangalore. Yet, I am also painfully aware of the numerous heritage structures which are being demolished or under threat of demolition every day, the colonial bungalows springing to my mind, for instance. The other day, after I chanced upon and explored Balabrooie Guest-House, which was built in 19th century, I learned that it had been rescued from being destroyed thanks to the valiant efforts of local activists back in 2014. The demands for its demolition. had been made so that something more useful could spring up in its place. Does history always have to be useful? Can one not appreciate history for what it is: history?
There is no singular past just as there is no such thing as history; our many pasts are full of both his-stories and herstories. Last November, I greatly enjoyed participating in a mapping walk led by Aliyeh Rizvi of Native Place. As we walked from Cubbon Park to MG Road (the boundaries which once marked that of the erstwhile British Cantonment), we heard stories about what it once was, what it was now, and what it could become; we participated in constructing new stories about the city while reinterpreting the old, mapping a new atlas upon that of the old. And it struck me that I too was doing the same in a sense through my daily documentation of my experiences in the city on Instagram, a city which I was now starting to call home. With the exception of Muscat, I had never stayed long enough in all the other cities I had lived in to call them home - and if I forever remained a migratory bird of sorts, how could I invest myself in the city and its stories, let alone begin to narrate them?
Yet, in Bangalore, I have found myself wanting to narrate its stories of its past and people and architecture - and realise that there lies the making of a historian somewhere anyway. I place my ears against these ancient walls, like one does with shells, conjuring up the sound of the crashing waves and wind. And I try to hear what once happened inside those walls, what secrets I can persuade the matrix of stone and cement and design to reveal to me if I am patient enough - and how they will color in the blanks of a city which is only just beginning to take shape for me.