Monday, March 31, 2008

Profile – R V Smith, Delhi’s Classic Chronicler

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R V Smith, Delhi’s Classic Chronicler

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

R V Smith, Delhi’s Classic Chronicler


najib shah said...

as usual a most interesting piece;where does one get a copy of the book?who is the publisher.

najib shah

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have that book, and have read it twice over. It didn't quite make me go and see the monuments again, but it's simple, and interesting. A bit like the author, I now see.

John said...

I am amazed at this blog. It is fantastic work. Any tips for a fledgling blogger?

m a v e r | c k said...

Love the article!
God only knows how I wish to come back to Delhi and get lost in those starlit bylanes of the city....
"kaun jaaye zauq par dilli ki galiyaan chod kar"

Paramvir Thakur said...

Thanks for unravelling the mysteries of Dilli.. where can i get this book /publisher ?


naveed said...

I have only one reference to a piece of my family history which is Dargah Sabriya in Darya Ganj. Thanks to this blog and R V Smith's book I found reference to it in which he has written a few pages on it. My mother was born there and my great grandfather was the Sajjada nashin of the Dargah. My grandfather however moved to Pakistan and I live in England but my heart is there in old Delhi although I have never visited. Thank you Mr Smith! I wish I could meet you.
Dr Naveed Siddiqi

suigeneris8 said...

Wow! I recently read Capital Vignettes A Peep Into Delhi‘s Ethos by RV Smith and immediately fell in love with the city that I am born in again. All the wonderful stories reflect a pale nostalgia and this piece makes me sad. Your blog and his stories are the perfect odes to this majestic city. Keep it up!

Vijay said...


Aapki kahani...dard bhari...aur kathin prashn puchti huiee...bahuth khoob...bahuth khoob...

All i can say is a line fm the movie Pardes "...aur kuch nahi kar sake, tho dua hum karenge..."

I hope and pray that Smithji and niece will find a better future in this new year 2009.

Bye...Take Care

Vijay Gupta

Saifullah Badar said...

Great going... I wonder how come everything I discover about Delhi and turn to find more on the net I invariably reach your blog through google...! You seem to be not just steps but miles ahead!

Looking forward to meet you...!

Vinod said...

Thanks Mr R V Smith for taking me back to my childhood which spent around Pataudi House in 50s-60s. I am a witness to many things he has said and I hv visuals before my eyes of the history gone by.

I use to map the road leading to Jagat Talkies by the walls of Victoria Zenana Hospital, where the original Kabaadi Bazar used to take place. I once threw a garland on to Edward's statue which accidently graced his horse's neck. I dont know if people still get massaged in that garden and whether 'ear cleaners, still roam about the garden.

Recently, I shot a documentary on Delhi and got few visual support from abroad. But my pet project remains incomplete because I need b/w photos of life in Jama Masjid, Darya Ganj for the film. Could anyone tell me why Barakhamba Road was named? Even Mr Khushwant Singh had no answer when I asked him !!

Well I can be contacted with information on if someone wants to pass me information I'am looking for.


Vinod Kapoor