How Delhi compares with other capital cities through eyes of the world's finest poets

Capitals are tied together by a common thread despite their seeming differences on the surface.

 |   Long-form |   26-01-2017

Capitals are considered the highest achievement of human civilisation in terms of art, literature and architecture. No doubt Daniel Libeskind says — "Cities are the greatest creations of humanity." Our planet is divided into more than 193 sovereign nation-states, each with their own power-centers located in their capital cities.

In contemporary times, the flow of ideas, people and goods among these capitals is greater than smaller cities or towns. Thus, capitals are at the forefront of making a truly cosmopolitan global society. After travelling to many countries and to their capitals as a poet and as a diplomat, I feel that capitals are tied together by a common thread despite their seeming differences on the surface.

As Italo Calvino, the author of The Invisible Cities, has put it so succinctly — "Travelling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents." Each day a legion of diplomats, parliamentarians and officials travel to these capitals to carry out the affairs of the state. Scores of businessmen, tourists, students, journalists and workers travel for business, sightseeing, visiting friends and relatives, education, reporting and employment.

A large number of travel writers and photographers visit all corners of our planet and publish their travelogues and photographs. They are all consciously or unconsciously helping the world to come together, creating a close-knit community of global citizens aware of the exquisite beauty and diversity of our planet.

Cities have always fascinated me. I grew up in Nalanda, Bihar before moving to New Delhi for higher studies. I studied Geography at the Kirorimal College, Delhi University and later at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

After joining the Indian Foreign Service, I worked in New Delhi, Moscow, St Petersburg and Kathmandu before moving to Brasilia. As part of my work, I often visit the capitals of different countries at very short notice. I look for poems on places I visit before setting out as I believe poems have the ability to render a deep and intimate experience of a place. Thus I set out on an impossible journey of finding a poem on each capital city of the world.

Jumoke Verissimo's Abuja is a — "Signpost/This capital is under construction/So enter into this rock town/shaped like a mug/and see that/still when nothing happens/it moves into the news." She takes us to Abuja's dark underworld and bares her soul. She expresses her deep fears of being swallowed and at the same time hopes to move on.

Kwame Dawes in his poem Green Boy takes us to a night in Accra when drums are heard instead of the sound of guns — "That night, they stared into/the orange dusk over Accra, poured libation,/listening for guns first, but soon/it was drums, the celebration." Liyou Libsekal describes Addis Ababa as a — "dappled green core pulses with early song/ taxi boys in convulsive refrain." In Christopher Merrill's Algiers — "the ash fall hasn’t reached the city, and yet the sky at noon is pitch-black."

Betsy Orlando visualises Antananarivo as a lady walking with grace carrying a basket on her head. In Bamako, a lady longs for a husband. Grandmaster Masese proclaims the immortality of the capital of the Central African Republic — "Bangui never dies." I had heard a lot from my diplomat friends about Cape Town, one of the three capitals of South Africa, but had never imagined Gabeba Baderoon's visualisation of Cape Town in her poem — "I step on the old silences of the city./What can explain/this exact and unjust beauty?/In the last flash of the sun, the city gleams/white and hard as bone."

I have never been to Conakry but Gerard Noiret's poem on Conakry instantly makes me feel the heat of this capital city in capital letters — "WHO FORGOT TO INVENT SHADE IN THIS COUNTRY?" Charlotte Hill O'Neal reminisces about her city In Memories of Dar es Salaam,— "Charcoal smell wraps ‘round makaa coals/Sizzling and fizzling and assaulting my nostrils/with acrid sweet odors that I will never forget."

Tim Cummings finds old men squatting in the heat of the sun in Khartoum — "Time moves like grain through wood,/memory opening up like a palm, /fermenting in buckets for moonshine/booze that scrambles the eyes/of old men squatting in the heat/of the sun, generous in its embrace." Sita Namwalie's Kigali — '… is a mirror of shifting moods,/A place of heaving seasons." Frank M Chipasula's Lilongwe — "Though the white city curses the black/in fluent Afrikaans, it stutters on the bird-/lime of Mandarin and carefully broken English."

Meg Pierce finds herself yawning in Lome where — "The din of night,/meanders into early morn./Under the motionless,/moonlit sky a lone moto/hums along, silently scattering/plastic scraps./I yawn." Jekwu Ozoemene is stared down by an angry sun in Lusaka. Yusuf Adamu's Niamey is a capital of contrasts and segregation. Only a poet can compare the river Niger to a mirror in which Niamey refuses to see its face — "In this city of contrasts, the city of segregation/I breathe the scent of Hausaland in Zango/In this brownish city of lower and upper markets/I see the new capital refusing to see its face/In the mirror of the river Niger."

Karla Brundage can't forget Yamoussoukro of her mother's days and with great pain writes — "The wildlife is gone/ No ivory left in the Ivory Coast/It is cliché to tell young people that/The elephants have gone/My students don’t care/They want an iPhone 7." Joseph Brodsky remarked once — "What I like about cities is that everything is king size, the beauty and the ugliness.' Viola Allo's Yaounde is a such a mish-mash of contrasts —'I see the maddening mish-mash/of wealth and adversity, and/I squeeze my father’s hand,/clamber back into his car and stay there."

In Imruh Bakri's Basseterre, the capital of the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis — "The circus clock/was standing still/and going nowhere/when Marcus Garvey/stood on Basseterre Bay Road/not far from the old slave/market in Pall Mall Square/His voice took the sea/breeze inland/where volcanic rock resides." Amparo Osorio's Bogota is — "like a swarm of fallen angels/the afternoon's reddish clouds descend/In the hollow of the city" and "it is impossible/to meditate in silence." Marcus Freitas's Brasilia is a — "city without traditions" living in "half a century of solitude/within the central highlands."

Linda M Deane writes about Bridgetown — "we kill more Time—/another round and later, leave the way we came,/passing men and boys at ground level, still/Playing games at the edge of Bridgetown." Buenos Aires is — "an invisible city, continuing, made of messages/Strung together by those who have most cherished/The lucid pleasures of thought," in words of Clive Wilmer. In Marcela Sulak's Caracas — "it´s raining/on her bright breasts, it's raining on her belly/down her thighs; the people below are wet/with stolen light."

montebd_012617124100.jpg Luis Bravo's Montevideo — "is not a city for tourists but for explorers of the spirit."

Mark Mcwatt's has many Georgetowns in his memory fleeing — "Georgetowns of my memory flee/from me now, taking with them/those long-lost houses, whose quiet corners/and dark, hiding cupboards used to sing/songs of comfort and belonging."

Pedro Pérez Sarduy in his poem Searching for an Unemployed Lover writes — "Havana lives on the edge of darkness/with its air contaminated by tourists/and uncommon dissidents./ Havana was there mine and more sensual than usual /leaning out as always from her balconies." "On Kingston’s flat worn earth,/everything is hard as glass./The sun smashes into the city— no breath,/no wind, just the engulfing, asthmatic noonday" — writes Kwame Dawes about the capital of Jamaica. In the evening in Ernesto Cardenal's Managua — "the neon lights are soft/and the mercury streetlamps, pale and beautiful /And the red star on a radio tower/in the twilight sky of Managua/looks as pretty as Venus."

Zoe Brigley's Mexico City — "is an island like a jewel or scarab/on the flat lagoon where herons wade./They walk the circling zócalo from city door /to city gate." Luis Bravo's Montevideo— 'is not a city for tourists but for explorers of the spirit, in Montevideo the poets dream a dream within a dream.' In Alfred Corn's New York—'They stare back into an increate future,/Dead stars, burning still.' Lucy Cristina Chau's Panama City is surreal — 'while you’re sleeping—/a woman is drawing herself/using the precise lines of the infinite/and preparing— as in an invented ritual—/the clandestine meeting/with your kisses.'

In Derek Walcott's Port of Spain—"Night, the black summer, simplifies her smells/into a village; she assumes the impenetrable/musk of the negro." Delroy Nesta Williams asks— "How do you walk through Roseau/And not smell the stench?"

jerusalembd_012617013633.jpg "In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls, /I walk from one epoch to another without a memory/to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing/the history of the holy." (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Luis Chaves's — "San Jose was nothing but/some lights in the distance:/a bureaucratic constellation/looking a little less underdeveloped in the dark." In Veronica Zondek's Santiago —"Pregnancy is a circumstance./Life is weird/and stretches out as a statistic. /Death hides away behind thick walls/in a black disposable bag." Jael Uribe's Santo Domingo is a place where — "Happy people/run wild in the streets/shadows dance on concrete." Alex Bramwell finds the Bolivian capital confounding — "The city of the House of Freedom/has four names and forty languages/but all words are the same." In Kim Roberts' Washington DC— "The Lincoln sinks into the Potomac/with a sigh" while in Myra Skalrew's Washington DC earth talks — "In this freest city. Oh if earth/could talk. Earth does talk in the neatly framed yards/where death thinks to lay us down to rest. Asleep,/the marker stones."

Look at Müesser Yeniay's Ankara fending for itself alone like a widow— "cold, winters, leaves piercing/inside the body of a girl/—Ankara is alone like a widow" or Astana of Temirkhan Medetbek for that matter — "It is so bitter cold here/that your spittle becomes ice/and face swells/as a pumpkin."

Poet Salah Al Hamdani's Baghdad is a fallen city — "Oh Baghdad/cursed city/like you perhaps, I'll die among exiles/and I'll bind my tears to yours/and to those of your impotent gods." In Arthur Sze's Beijing — "man hauling coal in the street is stilled forever. /Inside a temple, instead of light/a slow shutter lets the darkness in."

Poet PS Cottier's Canberra is a city "built as a compromise." Michelle Cahill finds Canberra with —"A swathe of poppies, memorial to Darafshan, /a father’s odium for the rogue soldier." Two poems on Jerusalem, one by Asa Boxer, another by Mahmoud Darwish, show different visions of the historic city. In Asa Boxer's Jerusalem — "Terror lives in the cornerstones, and in the small/monuments around what seems like every bend. /Terror at the children murdered in their dawdling." Mahmoud Darwish has altogether a different vision and depth— "In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls, /I walk from one epoch to another without a memory/to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing/the history of the holy."

Ali Al Jallawi's Manama sheds tears— "Like two sycamores/Like doves/Landing on a wire of his ideas/God poured from his chest/His knees dropped onto a star/And nearby, Manama cried." Marra PL. Lanot's Manila is — "… rich with the warm/Spit of barbers and shoeshine boys, /Of guitars strumming for stolen chickens/ Manila that is mother earth/For it is brave enough to own/Heroes killed for unremembered cause."

Ashjan Hendi ruminates on Riyadh — "Let my dreams reach the sky/please don’t wake me up/and don’t ask me why/dreams should be sweet/when they come true/in luscious Riyadh." Kim Gyeongmee advises on how to eat in Seoul — "Be a heart like the bean sprouts boiled to the core/Never spill a single grain of the quiet in the shade of rice." Alvin Pang tells us — "if S’pore exists, if it is to be/found within the bounds/of this island and not just/in the colour of my passport, of my smart card."

cap_012617124144.jpg CAPITALS: A Poetry Anthology, by Abhay K; Bloomsbury.

Sudesh Mishra's Suva is a happy place — "Yes, it rings true: we are the happy few./We have been kept in the dark for so long/We see in it the first stirrings of dawn." Hamid Ismailov reflects on his life in Tashkent — "In your life you’ll still write another/twenty five books in the little square/among the mass of stone, ugly memorials." "I love to travel in the night in dark streets of Tbilisi" —writes Sabrina Masud and then explores the city's history, myths and legends through her poem. In her poem on Tehran Mimi Khalvati asks — "What if the city/that gave credence to your sickness/were as vanished as the home/you took for granted you would bless/with success and happy children?" In Jan Napier's Tokyo — "… nights are charred paper./ Whispers transform them to flakes of ash/ the wind lifts and whirls like fairy skirts." 

G Mend-Ooyo writes about the sparrows of Ulaan Baatar — "The last leaves tear from the trees and fly away. /A flock of sparrows come in to take their place." Bryan Thao Worra Vientiane is a — "Sandalwood city/The moon hangs high above us/Night fragrant and calm. /So many temples here, /Monuments and kind people/The Buddha strolls by." In Jennifer Compton's Wellington — "There is a darkness..: and also an itinerant rainbow/strolling like a twister with one lazy finger dipped in water." Lola Koundakjian sees in her dreams in Yerevan nights — "herself on a bed of clouds/Reclining/Reposing."

Europe is presented in different moods from Helsinki to Nicosia, from Dublin to Moscow by European poets and those from other places. Joris Lenstra writes about Amsterdam — "He’s got a mouth like a river, juicy and toothless. /Everybody loves him because he’s willing to shoulder anything/Without ever complaining. /He shifts tons through small waterways to Germany." In Andorra la Vella of Ester Fenoll Garcia — "the sky and lakes/guard the silence of dawn."

In Athens it is so hot that Claire Askew is at loss — "All night, under the chattering fans, /I think about the girl’s chapped throat, /the boy she lies beside, /their mouths. None of us sleeps." She adds — "Things that thrive here: mules/and stones, crickets loud as fire alarms, /the harder vines. Old women/whose hands and feet are tough, /whose men worked boats or built homes/all day in the big heat, /and died young." In Jelena Lengold's Belgrade — "The old people in… street/walk in the park every day staking their life with their cane/like leaves. /Sometimes they stake through the heart of a young green leaf/which utters a moan."

Milan Dobricic's Belgrade carries — "The smell of linden-trees/a tremor of water/the scuttling of sparrow." Hatto Fischer is in a state of shock in Berlin — "That was not what I had expected to see, Berlin at the end of the bar, mind you the Einstein café was created by an architect friend from Hamburg, and who went to Paris for the materials to cover the seats and sofas, while the carpenter of this longest bar had already fitted out Onassis' yacht." Brigitte Fuchs compares Bern with a bear after which the city is named — "Since he lent the city its name, he holds /the Berner (clumsy and unhurried) on his toes."

Charles Baudelaire lands up in Willem Roggeman's Brussels — "with a burning suitcase full of melancholy/… in order to escape his creditors/and in the hope of finding a publisher/for all of his poems." In Astrid Alben's Bucharest —"Distant voices hum along arthritic electricity poles./Ravens lick their scabs." George Szirtes's Budapest — "… offers you no evidence /Except the collage of the overheard,/Extended clauses of a broken sentence." Phillip Nikolayev reminisces about his happy Soviet childhood days in Moldova's capital — "Those were days of cholera epidemics/in Moldova. We’d buy peasant-cooked/fodder corn on the cob when we got hungry, /haggled with old ladies over pennies."

Philip McDonagh writes about Copenhagen— "At Horsholm, Holte, and along the coast/the subfusc autumn colours of the trees;/by every bus-stop workers at their post/before the dawn, in silent companies." In Anni Sumari's Helsinki — "snow falls in slow motion/someone wades into the dark/the unpronounced polar dawn is/quelled by snow sweepers."

Anatoly Kudryavitsky's Kiev is — "a gaping wound in the sky. /The city has been running /a high fever: buildings swollen, /all the corners rounded." Xavier Frias Conde's— 'Lisbon/wanders barefoot.' In Les Wicks' London—'Long-distance buses are a sort of death/every bodily function closes down in an odoriferous, slumped shuffle.'

Valzhyna Mort asks in Minsk— "How hard it is to pull ourselves up /from the pose of a question mark/into the pose of an exclamation?" In Phillip Nikolayev 's Moscow — "The parks begin to yawn, where statues still /stand half-emphatically, as if leaning /toward the vacuum of a lost empire." "Inconsolable, I gave myself to the sullen/glory of great poems and ended up here, on the/windiest corner of the windy city." "'Go to Oslo,'/said the young woman, 'there is no wind in Oslo." — writes Mark Strand.

Remembering her father's city, Pascale Petit writes — "All of Paris is quiet, while the oxygen machine/struggles to fill your lungs." "I was wanted in Paris. Paris, astounded by my splendor/and charmed by my excitable manner, /waited to open its arms to me." — writes Vijay Seshadri.

Adam Borzic's Prague — "… is dressed up as a warder/In long flowing cloak, the color of rain/Seeks all fragile souls/And every time gives them the same frozen kiss." Luca Benassi's — "Rome is red sunsets/and golden days swept away from hills/with nothing left/but ruins that nurture a romance." In Anatoly Kudryavitsky's Sarajevo — "a boy wearing headphones/ walks off the edge/ into his silent music." In Sudeep Sen's Sarajevo — "air is memory, memory photo-plates,/ plates repository of translucent images/of fire, birth, and now— your time now."

Magdalena Horvat's — "Skopje is cigarette smoke/its sky pierced by chimneys and factory towers/ the language stuck in our throats, in our lungs." Kapka Kassabova's Sofia — "is the place where in dark, empty apartments the people you love live inside mirrors." Mathura (aka Margus Lattik) remembers Stockholm of his childhood and very poignantly writes — "Stockholm is beautiful. I am ordinary."

In Hasso Krull's Tallinn — "The trees look medieval. A half-naked girl in golden shoes steps out on the street from a cellar. Somebody stops you: hey, do you have a lighter?' Mathias Ospelt on Vaduz roundabout does not know what to do next — "Should I go now to the 'Löwen'? /Or should I go now to 'Left'? /Should I go to the movies? /Or should I go home to bed/I could also just idle in this roundabout/Staying here wouldn’t be so bad/Outside it’s way too dangerous/Out there the world’s gone mad." 

It is not all rosy in Immanuel Mifsud's Valetta — "A dog’s turd in the middle of the street, crowned by a legion of flies. A couple of filthy strays wagging their tail." Irish poet Pat Boran writes about the Vatican City — "Barbarians inside the gate, we could tear down/this whole splendid city, this gilded confection, this stunning/insult to the poor, the queer, the fallen out of grace."

Priya Sarukkai Chabria's Vienna is— "A peephole, an iris closing on itself:/My view of Vienna or von Stroheim’s shimmering/film of him playing his dream: the Count immaculate in debauchery." In Zagreb Tomica Bajsic waits at an ATM to get hold of a banknote of a thousand Kunas with a portrait of Ante Starcevic, the father of Croatia. He ends up complaining that he has grown old waiting in queue to meet the father of his nation.

Delhi: India's capital

"I asked my soul, what is Delhi? She replied, The world is the body and Delhi its life."

- Mirza Ghalib

I arrived in Delhi in the monsoon of 1997 from Patna with a dream to become a civil servant. My first impression of the city was electric. I went to the North Campus of the Delhi University and instantly fell in love with it. I was fortunate enough to get admitted into Kirori Mal College and to find a place to live in Kamla Nagar. Delhi looked heaven compared to Patna. The first thing I did was to buy a pair a jeans, a symbol of coming of age and liberation those days, and walked back and forth on the crowded sidewalks of the Kamlanagar market. In the evenings, crossed a maze of campuses of the Delhi School of Economics, St. Stephan's to walk in the rose garden of the Delhi University. Three years zoomed past as a sweet dream and I migrated from the North to the South of the city after getting into Jawaharlal Nehru University. I explored Basanta Vihar, Saket, Muniraka, Sarojini Nagar market and occasionally Connaught Place from here.

After spending three years at JNU, I again migrated, this time to the heart of the city, between India Gate and Connaught Place. All these years I was unaware of Delhi's history, countless monuments and ruins that lie scattered around the city. I left for Moscow in 2005 unaware of the city's great treasures, historical personalities who had lived in the city but when I returned to Delhi in 2010, I had a new pair of eyes, Delhi started revealing itself to me, I started seeking cities of Delhi like a nomad.

I visited the ruins of seven cities of Delhi. I started noticing little girls selling flowers at the traffic stops, ragpickers, Neem and Jamun trees, maids, security guards, bureaucrats, countless tombs and monuments, the river Yamuna that sustains it and I broke into verse-

  • My eternal city
  • every mid-night
  • I see you
  • with my clear eyes,
  • cherish your contours,
  • your changing skyline
  • your shimmering lights
  • your shades of darkness
  • I sense your changing mood
  • your lingering lust
  • for blood and wealth
  • and your deadliest addiction-
  • power.
  • Delhi As I Am

  • I am the city of cities.

  • Invaders, conquerors, merchants

  • immigrants appear and disappear
  • on my horizon as words
  • written on a palimpsest.
  • I am the city of ruins.

  • Look carefully at my mausoleums,

  • cemeteries and tombs
  • count them all if you can
  • how many lie buried there
  • who ruled me once.
  • I am the city of Satya, Shanti and Nyaya.

  • My streets bear these names

  • yet truth is rapists roam my streets
  • in peace and my women seek justice
  • in the city courts.
  • And...

  • My smell

  • my nakedness
  • entices hordes of human flesh
  • traders, emperors, marauders
  • from faraway lands
  • I pose nude up on the hill

  • below a feast
  • of eagles
  • possessed
  • intoxicated.
  • I would like to end it with an observation about Delhi by Jan Morris that holds true even today -

  • "But Delhi? Delhi is not just a national capital, it is one of the political ultimates, one of the prime movers. It was born to power, war and glory...Delhi is a soldier's town, a politician's town, journalists' and diplomats' town...and lives by ambition, rivalry and opportunism."

  • Also read - Only poetry is not shit: Jeet Thayil on writing

Writer

Abhay K Abhay K @theabhayk

Poet-diplomat Abhay K is the author of two memoirs and five poetry collections including The Seduction Of Delhi (Bloomsbury). He is the editor of CAPITALS--an anthology of poems on 185 capital cities of the world

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