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Scents of a City

2024

A melancholic riff is laced delicately with the call to prayer. Broadcasted, it strains against the throbbing drone of evening traffic. A sliver of its echo finds its way through the carved lattice windows of stone homes and falls upon our ears. Down below in the streets of Chandni Chowk, the winter smog hangs heavy over a kaleidoscope populace, inching as fast as it can. Rickshaws meander deftly in between cars. Mufflered vendors from the fringes hawk neatly arranged blueberries on carts. Cows munch their puke and laze centre-stage, nonchalant and lean as usual. This is the Delhi made of dreams, both ancient and aspirational. It has seen its fabric recklessly woven from the silken threads of Mughal grandeur, visionary sprawls exclusively reserved for the British elite and a relentless influx of labour who trade in their paddy fields for the promise of stable wages.

Halfway across the world and exerting to isolate itself politically, London shares an odd kinship with Delhi. Despite being much older, it bears the same indelible mark of empire. Under a gunmetal sky, the distorting ribbon of Thames mirrors a fleet of red double-deckers squelching tar. Pub signs flicker and wink in the rain-washed cobbled streets whilst church bells toll away solemnly into the night. What ultimately divulges the secret link between both cities is the all too familiar heaviness of London’s moonless air.

Delhi has rebuilt itself along the banks of Yamuna seven times over, crawling slightly northwest each time. London has had to recuperate from plagues on more than one occasion. Shaped by centuries of plunder and patronage, both places have managed to simmer up some truly inimitable scents. Coincidentally, it is tricky to pinpoint that one secret ingredient which sets them apart from most other places faced with systemic destruction, physically or of the spirit. Compare them to modern-day Kathmandu, whose temples and brothels still piece themselves up from the same jigsaw rubble left by Himalayan earthquakes, every few decades. Or, jump so far back in time that we can only speculate if the mythic fire that burned Lanka to the ground was triggered by the lustful hubris of its demon king or kindled and spread by a Promethean ape. Inspired by timeless Ukiyo-e, we could float ahead to the frozen moment when atom split atom, and Hiroshima was wiped clean by the ironic misnomer of a Little Boy, engineered half-way across the world in the remote secrecy of Los Alamos.

Or how the scope of aerial bombing over the pre-industrial heritage of Dresden was deemed prolific or brutal, depending on which side of humanity your sympathies found agreeable. Beirut would not make the same cut until its accidental bomb blasted through prefabricated barricades around its Parliament, inciting a collective awareness of crowd control and the reversal of corrupt power structures in Lebanon. Who knows what is to become of Palestine?

In relation to all these instances, the unsurprising legacy of Delhi and London is that they have never been completely annihilated. Rather than be dictated by the ruthless loop of death and rebirth, they have always rebuilt and expanded out of living necessity. Their magic is banal, sprinkled in the daily stench of damp wool and coal smoke that clings to everything alive. They both embody the rare capacity to colonise oneself, akin to a virus – playing dead patiently till the wheels of time churn out another land to invade, loot and populate, spicing up anew old imperial scars to puncture the skylines of their host bodies with the silhouettes of colonial ambitions. So, while the internet may still flood us with dreamy images of bleeding edge infrastructure perfected by Generative AI, the smell of pollution never lies. The kinds of decay which bloom at the centres of empire are putrid like pits sweating through corporate shirts wrinkled before work, again and again. Rugged palms blossom in unison and latch onto the cold, brushed metal support in metros elaborately designed to snake under the datum, taking on lines of myriad colours.

Once underground, which particular neighbourhood bears witness to London fade out and Delhi in? These colourful lines run deep and wide enough to infect all tender remnants of the empire - cutting vertically through strata of civilisation stacked atop each other - bones, stories and bricks spewed together, waiting to be fossilised into fuels, chugged by cars today and expelled back out as smoke tomorrow. Microplastic tyres make a bland world go round, and chemical aromas break out through all preconceived boundaries between distance and death, sense and sensation, life and the now. Five and a half hours apart, when each city dreams of the other, they almost kiss to become one and the same – an ameboid network of vehicular light slowly eating into the surrounding dark of forests, seas and space.

written by Sarvesh Singh

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