Akbar Road, in my head, will always be the “fast road”. It’s on the way from my house to the airport - which is the only reason I know what it is - and as soon as I reach it, I tell whoever is driving to hurry the heck up so I get there in time to buy an Orhan Pamuk novel (which is what we call a Dunkin Donut past security check). There’s never traffic on Akbar Road unless some VHP or VIP is taking a joyride and the cops are forced to shut its infinity of gol-chakkars. To most Delhiites like me, that’s it: it’s pretty and tree-laden and has huge houses whose prices are so high as to be meaningless.
For a long time now, the keepers of India’s alt-history have been trying to get us to give up on Akbar himself as one of India’s great unifying forces. Last week, some jokesters - alt-geniuses, if you like - got a flex and some Fevikwik, and pasted it over the signposts. For one night and half a morning, it magically turned into “Maharana Pratap Marg.” It’s a pretty clever joke (if that’s what it was, which it absolutely Was Not), given that it happened on Pratap’s birthday, and we’re now teaching children that Pratap defeated Akbar at Haldighati. Imagine spray-painting Brian Lara’s name all over Wankhede stadium.
Well, road names will come and go - ask our friends in Bombay / Mumbai. But road signs in Delhi have a certain cultural uniqueness. Delhi’s pluralist identity is distinct from the rest of the country, and I’m not just saying that in a “the aloo parathas from my kitchen are better than yours” way. For better or worse, it was built to be that way a hundred years ago, and its first Indian rulers hoped to make it a model for the rest of the country 70 years ago.
A phrase I’ve heard often is, “Dilli kisa ka nahi hai, Delhi belongs to no one.” It’s a constant work in progress, they say, seized and destroyed and rebuilt and improved by a smorgasboard of leaders, rulers, conquerors, settlers, travellers, immigrants. That’s there’s no real native population to the city. Whenever I tell people I’m from Delhi, they respond with, “Sure, but where are you really from?” (And they make a face.) An auto driver told me once how even the weather of Delhi is borrowed: it rains in the hills and we feel the chills. Rajasthan has a heat wave and it gets hot here.
The thing is, these perfect parts were meant to come together in an imperfect, always-changing whole. The road signage — in four different languages: Hindi, English, Urdu, and Gurmukhi — has meaning. Each sign is a reminder of a past time in the city’s life, each a relic from a different world. Not every Mughal emperor gets a radial road named after him in Lutyens’ Delhi: but the ones who do are there for a reason. (Or were, until the government decided to exchange one Muslim for another and gave us APJ Abdul Kalam Road where once ran Aurangzeb Road in 2014.)
Maybe I’m being paranoid — I definitely am, given that history books are literally notbeing re-written these days and the whole Padmavat-eeks fiasco didn’t happen just a few months ago — but it seems like a concerted effort to erase the complicated past of the city and what it’s supposed to stand for; not only to us, but to others in India.
The naming of things is undoubtedly important, especially when something is problematic in a modern context — history needs to be neither rewritten nor incorrectly glorified. And I get the sentiment that requires us to rename the legacies of the British, even if I personally disagree. Yet to pretend this isn’t a sort of imperialistic exercise in itself is pretty pointless - especially in Lutyens’ Delhi, where governments of all stripes have, over the last 25 years, changed road names to suit themselves. The Congress, post 1990, was especially good at doling out names by way of obituary. I still don’t get why it has to be “Shrimant” Madhavrao Scindia Marg if Akbar and Aurangzeb didn’t get “Jahanpanah” affixed to their names, by the way.
Really, I’d appreciate it if people kept their hands off Delhi roads, most of all, because I am cartographically challenged. I have no sense of direction. I get lost on my way from my living room to the bathroom. I need four tries to read a compass. Like inThe Office, I’d drive into a lake if that’s what Google Maps tells me to do. It’s embarrassing.
The city’s geography is complicated as it is. Delhi is a bunch of spiralling concentric circles with anger issues bisecting each other at multiple odd points. There are literally at least five different ways to get from one point in the city to any other point.
Over time, I’ve developed a kind of muscle memory and a pseudo-understanding and a false bravado when it comes to Delhi roads. Certain names are attached to certain memories, like my “fast road” to the airport. Give me enough tries, and I’ll get to where I need to be. Plus, there’s my GPS running on patchy network connectivity. It’s a fragile ecosystem I exist in. Your fake Fevikwik signs may have their eyes set on the future, but man - they’re messing up my extremely precarious present.
Akhil Sood is an arts and culture writer living in New Delhi.
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