Delhi Stories

Peter Popham on the decline of Old Delhi, an Edinburgh sensation, and an Indian one ­ fine wine
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The Independent Online

Two years ago this week, President Clinton interrupted his Independence Day holiday to take Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan, on one side and tell him that his army's aggression in the Kargil district of Indian Kashmir had to stop. That day, thanks to Clinton, the mountain war in Kargil that had cost nearly 1,200 lives came abruptly to an end.

Nawaz Sharif had narrowly averted a general war that had the potential for going nuclear. But in doing so he humiliated his nation, and no one felt the shame more acutely than the man who had conceived Pakistan's daring military plan, General Pervez Musharraf, the Army Chief of Staff.

Three months later, the general had his revenge, ousting Sharif in a coup d'état and installing himself as Generalissimo with the slick new title of Chief Executive.

For a long time Chief Executive Musharraf was the man India most loved to hate. His Kargil adventure had exploded India's "bus diplomacy" to Pakistan, and made Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee look like a sap. Indo-Pakistani relations went back into the deep freeze.

Suddenly all such unpleasantness is water under the bridge as India prepares to welcome the newly self-styled "President" Musharraf to Delhi next Saturday for another bash at sorting out the subcontinent's problems. Anyone with a memory going back more than six months ought to find the proceedings highly peculiar: Delhi is welcoming the "author of Kargil" as its long-lost son.

Because that is exactly what he is. India's enmity with Pakistan is the strangest adversarial relationship in the world, because although they are divided by religion, essentially they are one people, united by language (called Hindi or Urdu depending on the script), culture, a common history, and a shared devotion to Bollywood films.

The "President" is the living embodiment of that truth, having been born in Delhi's Old City in 1943. His family emigrated to Pakistan at the time of independence, four years later. For the past month Old Delhi's local politicians and the municipal authority have been bustling about trying to get the site of the Musharraf's former home, Naharwali Haveli, licked into a presentable condition. It is a challenge. Delhi's Old City was once charming, but decades of unchecked and illegal development have reduced it to a nightmarish jumble of jerry-built shops, warehouses, offices and homes, squashed together between narrow winding lanes that are nose to tail with filthy traffic.

Old Delhi's greatest pride was the havelis, the dignified old villas built by the city's Muslim merchants round airy courtyards. After his working day the gentleman of the house would repair to the courtyard to sip sherbet, smoke his hookah and listen to melancholy gazals, old love songs, while the little kites flown by local youngsters bobbed about in the sky.

The prodigal son may dimly remember elegant scenes of this sort, but when he goes there next Saturday he will find the old house demolished and the shabby tenements erected in its place, owned by three squabbling families, hemmed in by shops and offices piled carelessly on top of each other like hamster cages. If he recognises anything at all it will be remarkable.