‘The black, pensive, dense/domes of the mausoleums/suddenly shot birds/into the unanimous blue.’ —‘In the Lodi Gardens’, Octavio Paz
‘Yeh kahan aa gaye hum, yunhi saath chalte chalte…’ —Silsila (1981)
As an anthropologist of space, place and architecture, I have always wondered about the monument. Moving back to Delhi, the city of monuments, a cryptographic ensemble of ruins, my understanding of it has been limited to the ‘good nostalgia’ that the city evokes for anyone who leaves it after a fun-filled childhood of running down the grassy slopes of Lodi Garden or playing hide and seek in its ruins and shrubs.
‘Ruinophilia: Appreciation of Ruins’, Svetlana Boym’s seminal essay on the love of ruins in the modern age, places the obsession with ruins as a longing for the past that is seemingly more perfect than the present. Delhi’s historical walks and walkers, now proportionally ever more than before, offer up the spaces of Delhi’s past to this nostalgia, of what we were—the glories of empires, kings, court poets, Sufi saints and others. As if everything lived now is a paler shade of grey to what the city was or could have been.
Something there is that desists ruination.
Ruins are rescued from ruination through their continuous resurrection as monuments, nostalgia’s favoured fetish objects. There is nothing inevitable about this though, the monument does not become one until we make it, push it into a museum, or push a museum into it, fold it into white paper sheets of restoration and walk past it like Benjamin’s fetish object, antique shop windows. But there are other small, everyday and unintended acts that breathe life into the ruins, call it the city’s vita activa, erotics in the park, or hopeless love in the ruins.
Something there is that will not rest till the life force has left the building or the body, its erotics.
My fetish for open spaces and horizons in the city took me to Lodi Garden, when I accidentally moved back to Delhi after 12 years. Lodi Garden, part of my primordial nostalgia for the city, still offered something of what my memory had held on to. Young couples, some older, but mostly young, tucked away between trees and walls, monumental corners, which one did not imagine could exist, benches, groves of trees, bushes or just the plain green grass, were still coming here. Still thronging the beds of grass, benches and staccato corners of the ruins, folding in that bit of the beloved’s hand, prolonging the extra tight hugs, the myriad milieu of the erotics, the first kiss or the last. I now see more than I possibly had or could in my childhood.
Something there is that makes the present brighter than nostalgia.
Lodi Garden houses the tombs of two rulers of Delhi, that of Mohammed Shah from the Sayyid dynasty (built in c. 1444) and of Sikandar Lodi of the Lodi dynasty (built in c. 1517) among other structures. The crafting of disjoint ruins as one garden can be located in a larger trend of fabricating tombs, mosques or forts as monuments, which was undertaken by the British government and consolidated through the setting up of the Archaeological Survey of India. This transitioning of lived and used spaces of an earlier era into the monumental archive changed the form of and access to these places. In 1936, villagers of Khairpur, the site of the Lodi tombs, were relocated and the area was landscaped as a garden at the behest of Lady Willingdon. With the creation of the enclosed garden, the once scattered tombs get remapped as real and imagined centres of the park, as well as radials of other centres of the city, for instance, the shrine of Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya. It is possible to imagine the shrine as the centre of a larger constellation of crypts, with the tombs of Humayan, Safdarjung and the Sayyid and Lodi rulers swirling around it. Delhi thus emerges as an expansive Golgotha, a necropolis, not in any sardonic existential sense but in the materiality of its spaces. Graves throng the city, and the making of the monumental city is knotted with the history of graves and graveyards. It is amidst this, as if playing out some sublime version of Bataille’s treatise on sex and death, that the young lovers emerge, or merge, trudging along to sit, walk, hold hands, inhabit corners, curl up against walls and ragged edges, holding together the idea of love in the midst of dust, with awkwardly placed glances, hands and words.
Something there is that loves to look at lovers.
There are lovers of all kinds to see, tucked away or in your face, on a regular walk through the gardens. The secluded bamboo grove, with its wandering benches, is always full of young couples, talking, holding hands, sometimes kissing. But then so are the open lawns, with smatterings of round bushes—the swarm of lovers, lying in each other’s arms, makes one feel like a trespasser. One wonders what Lady Willingdon would think. Today, the gardeners are still playing god, creating new spots or clearing out others, setting up a hide-and-show game for lovers to inhabit and abandon. Like they did with the dense thicket around the (in)famous wall. An akhada of runners, walkers, health-conscious junkies has grown in congruence with love-struck couples, their paths criss-crossing each other. Each is pretending that the other does not exist. Though the lovers’ bodies know that the running bodies are always vicariously watching.
Something there is that makes you kiss.
There are spots for the first kiss, or the last, and everything in between, for sitting under the shade of the monument, next to a grave, in Delhi’s heat, dwindling time and youth with summer loves. Somewhere between the lake, the walking paths and Sikandar Lodi’s tomb, there is a map for lost lovers, indecipherable to those who have forgotten how to love.
A game is being played, of being seen or being hidden, and it depends on the kind of lover you are. If there were to be a catalogue of classifying lovers, albeit an incomplete one, it would look something like this: the anxious lovers, the shy-to-hold-hands lovers, the kissers, the waiting lover, the extra-marital-affair lovers, the confident lovers, the lonely-stooge-pretending-to-read-book wannabe lovers, the newly married lovers, the we-will-figure-out-everything lovers, the crying woman–consoling man duo, the staring-into-the-horizon lovers, the we-bunked-school-for-this lovers, the I-am-getting-married-to-someone-else lovers.
Something there is that wants to unlook.
History will not bear witness to these lovers, tucked in the crevices of the monuments and the longue durée of social change. Patriarchy, normativity, communal and casteist lines forbid the creation of circles of love. It is about repression and continuous control, about unlooking desires, by generations that draw lines of control around the possibilities of life, living and love.
This essay is a tiny insertion into the lines of normativity, historicity and the monumental—a curved circle, a sublime kiss, a heartbeat. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, my favourite philosopher of the everyday, the meaning of a monument is its use in the make out.
This work was earlier presented at a show curated by Gitanjali Dang, titled ‘Love in the Time of Choleric Capital’ at the Department of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. Though under production for most of one’s vicarious life, the work took shape in collaboration with Briana Blasko, photographer and fellow deep observer of life and forms of love. I am also always in devoted gratefulness to Samprati, the oldest partner in crime, for her critical comments and more than diligent editing.
Cover painting ‘The Lovers’ Dome’, by Sarover Zaidi.