Smell and sensibility: When my nose toured through Delhi

As I set about, re-imagining the city through a sense of smell, I smelt how the necessary markers of modernity wrestle with that part of the city which is basking in its own congestion, overflowing population and a tenuous connection with history, which one calls, with typical touristy condescension, as “charming and quaint”— the Burberry wrestling with the shimmery fabric of Chandni Chowk, the white oolong teas with the masala chai of Paharganj, the erstwhile hinterlands with millennial cities, the western colours and contours, with the vestiges of quintessential Dilli.



But what does Dilli, the ‘quintessential Dilli’, even smell like? Surely, it goes beyond the kebabs, the phirnis, the biryanis, the Dargahs and the ancient temples and rose-marigold garlands. Surely, its chequered histories have multiple smells? I think of the Red Fort, the all-important feature of every itinerary for the city, smelling of the teeming groups of tourists, the packets of chips, the paan in the impassioned breath of the tour-guide, and overworked camera reels. The Red Fort, with its marble domes and manicured lawns is the cynosure of all eyes. But, within the same complex, barely a five-minute walk away, lies the Salimgarh Fort, open to visitors but closed off from visibility.



As you take a turn from one of the narrow exit gates of the Red Fort to make your way to Salimgarh, you already smell solitude in the boundary walls damp with mould, the untrodden road devoid of footprints, the fallen leaves of the trees allowed to decay undisturbed. The Salimgarh Fort, built by the son of Sher Shah Suri, acted first as strategic fort, and then a camping ground for armies of rulers and invaders. However, it is known mostly as the prison that held Aurangzeb’s poet sister Zebunissa for twenty-one years; the house from where Bahadur Shah Zafar colluded with the mutineers against the British in 1857, and where he was eventually incarcerated; the jail chambers that held hostage soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA) until independence in 1947. This Fort smells of a death of resistance and dissent, of the gunpowder of mutiny, and, despite still having a handsome facade, it reeks of desolation. If the Red Fort represents the resplendent seat of the empire, Salimgarh represents the violent military aspect of it. While the Red Fort bears the fragrance of glory, Salimgarh bears the smell of the secrets of the empire and its enemies. One has its history etched in memory as well as text, the other is part of the growing corpus of cultural amnesia.

These twin monuments, I think, are representative of ‘quintessential Dilli’, of histories written, over-written, forgotten but ever-present. When you smell the itra, biryani and kulcha-nahari near the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, you can perhaps also smell the poetry of Ghalib resting with him in his tomb nearby; you can smell the subdued brilliance of Jahanara and the dried flowers at the foot of her maqbara at a stone’s throw away from Ghalib’s. When you smell the enduring brick and mortar of the imposing Qutab Minar, you can also smell the sulphuric deposits of the neglected Rajoh ki Baoli nearby, of the dust that encrusts Quli Khan’s Tomb at some distance. If you but strain your senses just a little hard, you can smell it all.


chilla quarters of the hazrat

If you smell the well-tended walls and minarets of Humayun’s tomb, you can also smell the peace and tranquility of Chilla Nizamuddin a few miles away, and the collective folklore that lie buried at Patteshah’s Dargah just round the corner. If you smell the gratitude of fulfilled wishes at the dargah of Bakhtiyar Kaki, you can also smell the fresh flowers from Phoolwalon ki Sair at the neighbouring Jog Maya Temple. And of course, when you smell the ancient books in Humayun’s library in Purana Qila— the infamous Sher Mandal from where he fell to his death— you also smell the intellectual thirst of young academics in the libraries of Delhi University. On lush green lawns of the Purana Qila, you also smell the loss and disenfranchisement of refugees as they camped here after Partition, and the poetic (and prophetic) writing of Begum Anis Kidwai, as she tended to the hapless.

You smell the painted walls of Khirki, contesting its squalor; imposing the daring colour of its concrete walls on the bleak landscape; making a strong political statement through street art. I smelt the alluring aroma of coffee being brewed in the mall nearby, partitioned from the treacherous streets by its glass walls and glass doors— a sign of refined architectural design. I smelt the perfumes of the people in the cafe, the safety with which they were ensconced within those fragile glass walls, which, paradoxically, became opaque to the dark roads, and its perils, right outside.

It’s not the monuments you see, but the histories and its futures that you smell. You can smell the seven cities, and the many countries whose destinies were forged in Dilli— their personalities, their aspirations, the colour of their stones and mosques, the foliage growing in the dead monuments. And you can smell a modern, ever-shrinking and ever-expanding world growing right beside it.


Author and Photo Courtesy: Swarnima