Times Cycles in Place
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Connaught Place, located at the center of the Indian capital New Delhi, is a place for time. It is where time slumbers and gets stored. Discerning the “actual time” that the square alludes to, however, is a difficult task. The colonial architecture, by itself, cannot signal that the clock has stopped. The commercial vitality of the place does not extend over the entire day; it becomes tedious. It is also devoid of the rhythms of neighborhoods like Colaba and Fort in Mumbai and the crowds' piety, and licentiousness that one can find in the alleyways of Chandni Chowk in old Delhi. Connaught Place – with its pale white walls eroded by the passing of time, the progression of seasons, the departure of the colonizer, the creation of the narrative of independence and its subsequent rupture, and the decades of neglect by “developmental” independence of city centers and their civilizational and architectural heritage – is the “withdrawn center” of a city with many centers. Compared to the other centers of Delhi , a city with spatially contiguous epochs interlaced through deterioration and disintegration, Connaught Place is an area of “positive neutrality”.

In Delhi, as in Mumbai, the observer watches through two lenses: the collective and congested scene, apparent in its entirety and that same scene seemingly “restored.” Of course, one is tempted to defend the “aesthetic” of the place as it is, with the beauty of dilapidated architecture, pallid walls, and sleepy alleys, whether under the circular arcade with two crowns (one inside and one outside) in Connaught, or its linear progression in Colaba in Mumbai. However, the eagerness to justify the “current aesthetic” cannot be separated from the “temptation of restoration” that sneaks into the place and lifts it. It is a restoration of the most peculiar kind, sometimes brought to life in white and black, or something to that effect, while the actual paleness of the walls teems with all sorts of colors, every kind of odor, and that peculiar “spirit”, “unanimously” designated by travelers as “the smell of India.” One can say that the smell retains a particular intensity wherever you go. From Kashmir to Kerala, the smell is somehow “metaphysical” but thoroughly sensory. It casts a spell on you, as with an old flame, making you thicker with nostalgia the further away you are from India.

Even if you settle the issue by describing it as the mixture of spices, perfumes, and bodily odors – human and animal – or as a blending of colors and sounds, Delhi’s Connaught draws your attention to a quintessential element that fabricates the smell of India: its walls. To a certain extent, it is the smell of colonialism. Particularly in Connaught, it is the smell of an entirely colonial building complex. One does not need to be a researcher of British colonial architecture to comprehend the degree to which this framework allowed the British to unleash an imagination that amalgamates contrasting European architectural eras. It is as though European history, when exported by colonialists through architecture, becomes a form of circular time. Particularly in India, questions of harmony and rivalry arise between the colonial architecture and the architectural forms that thrived in the subcontinent on the eve of colonialism and during its steady spread throughout the country. The completion of this process took a whole century. One wonders if some of the fragrance of Mughal forts was able to infiltrate that colonial architecture, especially the Red Fort towering above “Old Delhi”.

British colonial architecture in Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata is unique and differs from that of the Portuguese (Goa), Dutch (Kerala), or French (Pondicherry). It indulges in Imperial form to such an extent that it no longer aims to illustrate the “British Empire” but showcases the “British Indian Empire.” In a sense, India was not a “colony” linked to the “British Empire.” In India, Britain created a “whole Empire,” albeit subordinate to the former. It did not treat New Delhi, the Capital of the British “Raj,” as an “extremity linked to the urban center” in the London Metropole, but as a metropolis of another kind. The metropoly of British architecture in Delhi might not match the extent of embodied Orientalism as in Mumbai, but attempts to capture, in a more assertive manner, the idea of building an Indian empire through the “amalgamated” reproduction of the British. The term “Empire” here translates with a “Roman revival” dimension, which can be explicitly felt in British Delhi and in Connaught Place, albeit in the form of heritage.

I landed in India for the first time in September 2008, arriving with impressions, about Connaught Place in particular, that my imagination has assembled mainly from images on the Internet. When I arrived there in the early morning, I was surprised to find it much bigger than I had imagined it to be. In the morning, it does not merely appear as a city square arousing from its sleep, but as a place that was abandoned by its dwellers the night before. Life abandoned the square decades ago, probably with the retreat of the colonists, and the British colonial architecture began to eat itself up, year after year. However, I also recall how I went back to the place a few hours later that morning find myself in the midst of a totally different setting. The backdrop cannot be described as the “beating heart” or “lively center” of the city. These descriptions do not befit Connaught Place, at any time. It is, nevertheless, a place that slowly imparts a sense of uncanny affinity that makes you feel welcome, as if you had a virtual account in the place, one whose facts and data are organized according to one’s knowledge, which you can temporarily suspend every time you leave the place, and then reactivate on your next visit. This is Connaught: a virtual space, a virtual time.

The circular frame of the place poses itself as a query. Sometimes it makes you feel surrounded and blocks your exit. You quickly look around and find yourself in another circle. Connaught is, in fact, composed of two squares: the actual Connaught Place, officially called Rajiv Chowk, and the surrounding place, called Connaught Circle. Sometimes you feel compelled to link this with the Hindu concept of circular time, but then you remember that the British built the place!

First and foremost, Connaught is an extreme spatial interpretation of circular space. You turn around the square but also spin around yourself; in the outer circle, you float around the inner one, and vice versa.

However, the circle of the crown is made up of several blocks, sometimes monolithic, at others separate, differing from the exterior crown’s coexistence with the post-British high-rises.

Depending on your destination – the cinemas scattered here and there, or the overcrowded subway – Connaught becomes many “Conaughts”. At every step, you experience society’s strata and generations. That is obvious. But what is less intuitive is that everyone moves in a circle, each revolving around itself and around the others. The circular rhythm is only partially an effect of modern technological rhythm, for, here, the epochs solidify, each in its own space in the circle. In Connaught, you are in a perpetual relation with the circle. The double-ringed space is different from the “square-quad” or the hub of a central edifice. The axis of your pivot in Connaught is not important. The center of the circle is meaningless. It eludes you as soon as you notice it. Sometimes it does not look like a square, but a roundabout. Memory pushes you to move around in a circle. You are in a square that forbids you to look into its heart, its middle, and into the center of the place. If it is imperative that you fabricate such a center, you can enter into Palika Bazar, in the middle of the supposed square ringed by the road. The marketplace was built in the 1970s and offers nothing exceptional. You pass it if you want to cross the street.

In Connaught, you feel a greater freedom to construct, or even contrive, your account with the place. Maybe it is due to this white chalky color, whether pallid or tanned by the sun. The buildings are white enough – their whiteness twisting with remains of possible tales – to allow you to write your own story. In the colonial neighborhoods of Mumbai – in Colaba, the Fort, Churchgate, and Victoria Station – one’s attention can be drawn to one or two buildings, an etching, decoration, or a statue. Here, however, there is nothing of the sort. The architecture is so white that it can only entice you in its sum. It eludes an air of momentousness, a sense of center. However, Connaught is not the center of Delhi. Even if New Delhi was once a capital and a major Indian city, one cannot say it was the center of India. Mumbai is bigger, but it is not the center either. Delhi has many centers. There are also a number of megapoles that generate a feeling of center in India. All of those centers are unique, in both senses, in making you feel that you just stepped into the "core" of the place. What distinguishes Connaught, in this sense, is that it is a center of many centers, a passage that links and separates the other Delhi centers. It is neither downtown nor a commercial center. It is the center of a city with no middle, a city not fully detached from the countryside. The monolithic blocks, twisted by the experience of circumambulation, are transformed into a collection of villages.

It is true that the square is circular and that the architecture is hijacked by geometric forms. It is definitely a totalizing imperial architecture, but it is also deconstructed, dilapidated, and degraded. To an extent, one can say it is an effaced square, but not due to the passage of time or the heavy impact of its passing. Maybe it is due to the severity of its confinement, and its coagulation from all that spinning under the sun.

Wissam Saade is a Lebanese author and journalist. He studied political science at the Université Saint-Joseph and philosophy in the Lebanese University. He graduated with a Diplôme D’Etudes Approfondies in political sciences with an emphasis on political thought. His philosophical articles have been published in various periodicals, including Al Fikr al Arabi Al Muaser (Journal of Contemporary Arab Thought).
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