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The city has ignored its most endearing lover.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Mr. Robert Kaplan, the author of Balkan Ghosts, carried just one book, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon—A Journey Through Yugoslavia, in his shoulder bag while travelling through the Balkans. I walk in Delhi and my fellow traveller happens to be Mr. Ronald Vivian Smith’s modern classic The Delhi that No-one Knows. It’s a book showcasing all the myths, legends, rumors and secrets of Delhi in an easy and neat language that speaks straight to the heart.
In the book’s introduction, Mr. Smith writes:
I did not refer to any book, did not make notes from dusty volumes in old libraries—I just walked! Sometimes I took buses—many a long afternoon years ago, when as a bachelor and a young journalist in Delhi, finding out about old monuments was a passion.
Mr. Smith is what I aspire to be. I recently met him and was shocked.
The gentleman, one of the most charming chroniclers of Delhi, has clearly been ignored by this city. He looked harassed and beaten down. While other Delhi writers (think William Dalrymple, Khushwant Singh etc.) live in elegant apartments and plush farm houses, Mr. Smith has his residence “somewhere in Mayapuri.” He carries no mobile phone and owns no car. He is old and commutes in crowded DTC buses.
It was difficult to link the gentleman to the book he has written. But just a two-minute conversation with him made it clear that here is the man who knows all the stories of this city: the qawwals of obscure dargahs in the old town; the kothas of Chawri Bazaar, the churail of Delhi Gate, and much other delightful folklore.
I’m told that Mr. Smith, in his young days, would initiate people into the art of love making. He would guide them to the best courtesans in town, teach the correct way of eating paan, explain how to tie a gajra, and how to talk of love to the beloved. Mr. Smith would also write poems describing the adas of the leading society ladies of the day.
But that was yesterday. Today Mr. Smith seems bogged down by the blows of life. His son is a spastic and he still writes for Statesmen...Statesman! (Who reads Statesman? This man clearly has no idea how vital he is to the narrative of this city.)
Besides, presently Mr. Smith is concentrating all energies in helping his 21-year-old college-dropout niece to realize her dream of becoming a model. But he hardly knows any important person in the city who could make her task easier. Recently he met one such person who knows many important people. As the third person in that get-together, I was witness to Mr. Smith, the walking-talking encyclopedia of India’s capital, reduced to having tears in his eyes as he begged that important person to do all she can “to make my niece a model.”
Later, I discovered that Mr. Smith is particularly unlucky with nieces. I opened The Delhi that No-one Knows to find this:
Dedicated to Anamika Smith (Mun Mun) my niece, a flower that faded in full bloom.
Mr. Smith and niece