Delhi’s Political Cemetery

Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone. Beautiful ministerial houses, assassination-tourism and more.

ByAnand Ranganathan
Delhi’s Political Cemetery
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What should be the suburbs is actually the heart of the city.

Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone: an area of a few square miles, inaccessible to the native as recently as 60 years ago, is now the most sought after property in the country. Bribes are paid, transfers are made, friends are stabbed, enemies are pampered, seats are bartered, ministries are swapped, and at the end of it all, the victorious can move into a 90-year-old bungalow with a 24-hour power and water supply, with 15-foot-high ceilings, with a gravel path approach, with a lawn to die for.

Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Delhi, dwell 14 million humans of the same colour and features. They work hard, they sleep less, they travel on buses, they disappear down manholes, they die in road accidents, they pay bribes to the power and the water people, they wake up every morning with a tin bucket in hand and rush to the only tap in their crumbling tenements, they survive another day, another week. Then, exhausted, they come on the weekends to the heart of the city with their children and their parents and lie on the cool green grass by India Gate. They remove their socks and dip their two feet in the boat club pool and wiggle their toes. They look around and see roads that are protected from the sun’s fury by hundred year old jamun tress, neem trees, imli trees. They see the roads merging at roundabouts as big as the parks where they live. They see in those roundabouts the seasonal flowers in full bloom, the art deco fountains bursting with energy, they see that no one can get in the roundabout gardens as they are cordoned with spiked chains and iron railings. Then they get a bit adventurous and start to stroll about one of the tree-lined avenues. “Look, that must be the Home Minister’s house”, they point to their kids. “And look there! That is 7, Race Course Road, the Prime Minister’s residence!” But their sightseeing is interrupted rudely by a lathi-wielding constable who looks up and down them and asks them to get lost.

The heart is still inaccessible to the native, and 1000 years from now, when archaeologists stumble upon the mythical city of Delhi, the most well-preserved ruins they shall find would be of Lutyens’ Pompeii. The tumblers and the vases of great sultanates and dynasties will once again be on show.

The departing British handed over to the native something magical – his own land. The native received that land with watery eyes and a lump in his throat, and now that he had the government sanction and the Constitutional right to walk on the soft lawns, smell the flowers, collect the jamuns, drive on the boulevards – now that he was free, he quickly made it his and only his. And over the years, many of Lutyens’ bungalows have become imposing shrines of refuge, away from the heat and the dust of Matrubhoomi, with the accompanying green acreage giving way to swimming pools paved with Italian marble. And those obtrusive colonnaded porticos, a reminder of the whimsical draughtsmanship of a scornful white man, have been torn down and replaced with mock Mughal-Greek-Tudor architecture, all to the delight and satisfaction of the victorious.

There they sit – you cannot see them but – fenced away as they are by stitched-up cane – but there they are, perched on rattan in their manicured lawns, with their sprinklers whirring gloriously, providing a welcoming mist to their golden mornings, with their dogs already up and running, retrieving Frisbees and Indian Expresses and Jansattas and – oh, look! There he comes, the cummerbund-ed servant with the frilly turban, and he brings the first flush on a silver tray, and the silver teapot is teacosied in a velvet wrap, and the wrap is embroidered with silver zari, and the perfectly shaped sugar cubes are arranged in a silver bowl, and to pick the cubes is at hand a silver tongs, and rich, frothy milk sloshes gently in a silver beaker, and to absorb the ugly cup rings, between the silver cup and the silver saucer, is wedged a ruffled blotting paper, and the silver spoons are in abundance.

And the lord? He jolts the newspaper rigid and doesn’t even bother to look up and acknowledge anything, all that silver.

There they sit and from there they rule. And when they die, their next of kin miraculously get the same bungalow to live in for the next 50 years.

And it was inside such bungalows, over such lawns, amidst such flowers, under such trees, surrounded by such servants, that the baby girls and baby boys who would one day rule India were born.

Where do I go? At the altar of which one of these temples of decadence do I remove my slippers and touch my forehead?

The heavy traffic towards 10 Janpath forces me to turn left from the PM’s residence and onto Safdarjung Road. A small distance beyond the Gymkhana Club – the den our parliamentarians rush to in the evenings as though it was a well – I see a large crowd refusing to take heed of a lathi-wielding constable. The crowd has spilled out from a tourist bus – Panicker’s Travels. (Only in India would an entrepreneur – Mr Panicker, I presume – not think twice about baptising his travel agency with this surname).

The crowd has by now swelled. People who have climbed down from the bus have predictably taken root at the spot of their landing. The constable asks them to keep moving; he scolds and pushes them to one side. The crowd takes it sportingly. Everyone laughs and titters. Some among them are without footwear. The women cradle wailing babies and thump their backs lovingly while the men re-tie their lungis. The commotion is strangely comforting, especially because this hardly seems to be the place for it. Could it be true? The real inheritors of our nation’s wealth, those very millions who are remembered by the LBZ dwellers once every five years, who live in matchboxes and slums and villages and small towns, could it be that these valiant men and women have journeyed all the way to the throbbing heart of this cruel nation to reclaim what was promised them? The answer, as I am about to discover is, sadly, no.

The tourist buses are parked haphazardly, making it impossible for the sightseers to arrange themselves in a procession. They are being ordered to cross the road – that is where their destination lies, across the tarred ocean. 1, Safdarjung Road.

I park my car beside a yellow metal barricade and approach the constable who, in addition to beating his lathi on the road, is blowing his innards into a referee’s whistle.

“Hello.”

The constable jerks his head enquiringly. The crowd, meanwhile, shuffles across en masse; their chatter recedes.

Sir yay…itni bheed…?”

“All from South”, the constable says, “Madrasis. They come in their thousands to visit that”. He raises his lathi and points to the bungalow across the road. I look to where he is pointing, and I know at once that I have found my temple.

1, Safdarjung Road is where Indira Gandhi lived, where her sons lived, where their wives lived, where their children lived, till some among them got assassinated, thrown out of the house, met with an accident, got bombed, or simply grew up and moved away to lead their own lives, in their own bungalows nearby.

But the river of time flows still. 1, Safdarjung Road is where Indira Gandhi continues to live, so do her sons, their wives and their children. The bungalow is now a memorial. The lives are being led in silence, and the only sounds are from those who till the earth of Mother India so a chosen few might get this bungalow to live in, die in, and then live in one more time. They come, as the constable said, principally from down South. They enter the bungalow, after having admired the magnificent lawn in front, and are ushered into a large hall that has its walls covered elegantly with newspaper blow-ups. It is a nice way of recounting a person’s life, until you realise that the curator can pick and choose the headlines and the editions he wants to exhibit. Needless to say, the Emergency has been glossed over with exhortations of electoral and military victories. I hunt for Ramnath Goenka’s famous blacked-out front pages, or the scathing Op-Eds by the few editors who risked everything by not towing the line, but what I find, instead, are reams of pulp glorifying a lady, trying to turn her into the soul of an eternal nation. India is Indira and Indira is India. Debauchery prevails even though the bungalow lies vacant of those who debauched it.

Is this what we as a society want? To venerate a fellow human being, to lift her on our tired and sagging shoulders and then deposit her onto a glistening slab of marble so she can be deified for generations?

Man becomes god when people can touch and feel his closeness, when they are shown proof of his sacrifices, of the bullets that he took for their sake, so they may not suffer the same fate as he.

We believe what we see but that does not turn man into god; for that to happen we must see what we believe. And the beliefs are in evidence everywhere at 1, Safdarjung Road. Her blood-splattered sari, her blood-stained sandals, her itinerary of October 31, 1984, painstakingly scheduled and then typed as though it was just another day at the office. To witness at such close quarters the pain and suffering of a fellow human being, and then to imagine that unbearable sound of the machine gun, brings out our basest emotions. Primarily, it softens us and allows us to ignore the failings that we otherwise wouldn’t have. Humans aren’t perfect; gods are.

A few rooms further down, inside a glass enclosure and hanging from a hook, is the shredded and threadbare kurta pyjama of Rajiv Gandhi. Placed below this exhibit is a pair of tattered lotto shoes…

I look away, aghast. The blood-splattered sari was a terrible sight, but this is beyond the limits of bad taste. There has to be a reason behind such travesty. And then I get it. The myth-makers know exactly what they are doing. They understand us like they do the lines of their furrowed palms; they know what stirs our wriggling and thrashing neurons into inducing a solitary teardrop at the corner of our eye. Deification is a sob away. And then, soon after the teardrop has blossomed into an unmanageable deluge, the transformation is complete. Man has become God. Jab taq suraj, chand rahega, Indira tera naam rahega.

Those who refuse to believe their resale value is nothing but a boxful of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen, are the ones who need a museum to be remembered by. Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone is that museum – a museum for the living, a museum for the dead, and a museum for the living dead. The entry is free and it is open even on Mondays. Go stroll.

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