The July rain pattering on Delhi is like a pinch to the city’s cheek, bringing colour back to everything. At Purana Qila, tall grasses and ancient trees gleam greener, lending sparkle to the yellow of the backhoe loader turning a gracious little Partition-era building housed in this medieval citadel to dust.
The exchange of populations between India and Pakistan in 1947 made millions homeless. In Delhi, many of these people took refuge in the premises of medieval monuments, one of which was the Old Fort. The building now being demolished on these premises is a relic of those makeshift times, a school started here soon after Partition, and operational for a few years. A security officer with the Archaeological Society of India for 30 years, points to the lawns across to the structure. “A basti was set up here for the refugees of Partition,” he says, “and the school catered to the kids of these people.”
The ASI’s Director of Antiquity, DN Dimri, says the building is being demolished because “it is a modern structure.” It takes work to keep history up-to-date: the Purana Qila is currently receiving a facelift by the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) under the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme, which is also the means by which the Dalmia Group, more noisily, ‘adopted’ the Red Fort last month.
A clerk with the ASI, who did not wish to be named, says that the structure has always been known as a school, even if it ceased being one decades ago. “Elderly sardarjis from Bhogal and Jungpura used to come with their kids and say: this was my school,” he tells us.
“There is no place to tell the history of Delhi and the public trauma of Partition that most of its residents faced,” says Neera Misra, chairperson of the NGO Draupadi Dream Trust, which sent representations to the ASI and to the ministry of culture arguing against the demolition. “This school building should be preserved, maybe as a museum, to tell the socio-cultural history of the Partition.”
Inside the Kuntidevi Temple, another Purana Qila building that isn’t from Sher Shah Suri and Humayun’s sixth city of Delhi, an elderly Munni Devi has something even more solid: an inherited memory. “There was aabaadi (population) here, a school, and also a bazaar,” she says. “The aabaadi stayed till Nehru Ji’s (Jawaharlal Nehru) death in 1964, and were then shifted to Lajpat Nagar, Sant Nagar, and so on.”
Her late husband, whom she married in 1975, studied at this school, she says. “The school was shifted to Pandara Road a few years after Partition,” she recalls, gazing in the building’s direction. What about the temple she calls home? It’s “many, many years and generations old, nobody knows,” she says. “Maybe from the time of Pandavas, as people say.” She goes back to sweeping its courtyard, gathering fallen leaves beside a coarse-stone shivling.
“The school did operate from the Purana Qila from 1948 to 1952, and then shifted to Pandara Road,” BN Singh, the vice-principal of the Government Boys’ School at Pandara Road, confirms. “In 1952, for an unrecorded reason, the school and all its belongings were hastily shifted overnight to the Pandara Road location,” Singh tells us, having looked up the school records. Co-ed at the time, it is now divided into two separate buildings – one each for boys and girls. It recently got a mural painted on its walls with aid from the government’s BaLA Fund. The painting depicts the Purana Qila.
As newer histories are flattened, older histories get excavated. Perhaps hundreds of years from now, the future’s ASI will dig up the remains of a classroom, remnants of a Partition that tore up a city and a country, etched onto a desk or a wall. For now, some elderly Jangpura resident’s attempt to rediscover their childhood is bound to turn to disappointment.
Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia journalist based in New Delhi.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city