The Delhi Walla’s Visions of a Possibly Vanishing India

On his blog and elsewhere, Mayank Austen Soofi is assembling a portrait of the megacity in a volatile age.

By Karan Mahajan 11 August 2019 New Yorker Magazine

An elderly homeless man sleeps on a lane that leads to the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, in central Delhi.Photograph by Mayank Austen Soofi

Acouple of years ago, the Indian blogger Mayank Austen Soofi took me, in an auto-rickshaw, to his favorite brothel. It was in Delhi’s illegal and infamous red-light district, on Garstin Bastion Road, or G.B. Road, a crumbling commercial thoroughfare that I had encountered only in the lewd imaginings of school friends years before. Soofi had a firmer grasp of the place. He had spent two years regularly visiting the brothel, first as an English teacher for the proprietor’s sons and, later, as a journalist. He published a sensitive, book-length account of the brothel’s workers, in 2012, titled “Nobody Can Love You More,” and he had stayed in touch with the people who live there.

After being accosted on the twilit G.B. Road by pimps in T-shirts who asked “Jana hai?” (“Want to go?”), we climbed a flight of steep, uneven, betel-stained stairs and entered a large pistachio-green waiting room with a low ceiling. A single light bulb cast a bleary gleam on framed pictures of the Hindu god Krishna, the Sikh saint Guru Nanak, and a Muslim Sufi shrine—a menu of sin absolvers to choose from. A tall woman in a sari shook our hands and led us into the next room, where we were greeted by a domestic scene: two men sprawled on the ground drinking tea in front of an industrial fan; a five-year-old boy in a skullcap, praying on a mat; two young men loafing before a PC; and two sacrificial goats, straining into the room from their tether on the balcony. This was the one-room living space of the proprietor’s family. At night, the adults slept on the floor of the pistachio-green waiting room; when customers arrived, later in the evening, they would step over and around the adults’ supine bodies.

“So, Soofi, when are you going to get married?” the woman in the sari asked, playfully.

Soofi laughed. “Could we get some tea?”

Soon, we were sitting barefoot on the floor, listening to one of the men—the fiftysomething owner, who wore gold-rimmed glasses, a lungi, and a white vest—as he offered a practiced lament about the dying brothel business. The boy and the two young men—the three sons—had gathered round, too; Soofi introduced them fondly. “This one almost became a fundamentalist but now writes a blog called Red Light Insider,” he told me, gesturing to a bespectacled man in his twenties. The next oldest son was a bodybuilder. “You like Eminem, right?” Soofi asked him. The young man shook his head, muttering his new enthusiasm for an artist whose name I’d never heard. The youngest child, the one who had been praying, attended an élite private school—although, Soofi said, the boy never told his classmates where he lived or what his father did for a living.

“How did he get admission?” I asked the owner, knowing the scarcity of seats in such schools.

“This man who’s laid down on the ground,” the owner said, pointing to Soofi and smiling. “He’s the one who got him into private.”

Soofi is a waifish man with glittering eyes and a tumultuous mop of prematurely graying hair. His head was resting on a pillow by this point, and the top buttons of his slim-fitting blue shirt were undone, revealing two pendants. “Why am I not coming here more often?” he said. “It’s like home.”

For the past thirteen years, Soofi, now thirty-nine, has made it his business to get to know the most neglected corners of India’s capital and to develop an intimacy with them that he transmits through various print and online franchises: a feverishly updated blog, called the Delhi Walla; a swollen Instagram feed; a biweekly column for a leading newspaper; and four guidebooks, in addition to his book about the brothel. His pieces range from quick sketches of the down-and-out in Delhi to bitchy reports of literary parties and on-the-go shots of treesmonumentsdoorways, and the gorgeously polluted sky. His blog and his Instagram feed have a dreamy, in-medias-res feel to them. “They are like migratory birds who make permanent, if makeshift, nests in a faraway land,” one post, about a group of forty Kashmiri men whom Soofi saw living in Old Delhi’s Turkman Gate Bazaar, begins. In another, he explains that the traditional “goatskin waterbags,” once used to sell cold water, are called “mashaks.” Occasionally, his voice rises to complaint: “Outrageous. No other word to describe it. A new garish pink building, still splotched with cement stains, now stands right beside what is probably the last important Mughal monument in India—Zafar Mahal.”

A waste picker and her daughter, on a street in Gurgaon, near Delhi.Photograph by Mayank Austen Soofi

These are details about the city where I grew up that I would not have known were it not for Soofi. There are other Delhi enthusiasts online, but no one can match Soofi for volume: he has published nearly three thousand blog posts and about thirty thousand Instagrams; he uploads fifty photos a day and is trying to profile one per cent of Delhi’s population. He’s up to only two hundred and twenty-three so far. Still, it’s impossible to doubt the sincerity of his crazy goal. He is so devoted to the idea of the city that he has refused to establish a permanent residence in any neighborhood, preferring instead to sleep at the houses of various friends or at his parents’ place—or in the homes of readers, whom he promises to profile in exchange for a bed. All of his work together may add up to one of the most eccentric and encyclopedic ground-level portraits of a megacity in the Internet age.

When Soofi came to Delhi, in 2003, at the age of twenty-three, from the corruption-riddled state of Uttar Pradesh, he was intimidated by the city’s cosmopolitanism. “For the first few years in Delhi, I couldn’t stop inside McDonald’s,” he told me. “I would think, Could I coherently place my order in English?” He was poor and depressed, performing odd jobs at a major hotel. Living in a slum, he began venturing out to Delhi’s book bazaars, where he discovered Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Marcel Proust, Arundhati Roy. After enrolling in a Web-design course at the behest of his parents, he started a blog called Ruined by Reading.

Then, one fateful night, as Soofi tells it—he loves to indulge in the large, breathless gestures of an art promoter—he found himself in Nizamuddin, the shantytown that surrounds the eponymous Sufi tomb where individuals of different faiths congregate to make wishes and receive blessings. The site’s domed mausoleum, built in the fourteenth century, is an oasis of marble, and devotees recline quietly on its ample platforms. One reaches the tomb via narrow alleys that are contrapuntally chaotic. When I visited Nizamuddin with Soofi, after tea at the brothel, the alleys were dense with diners thronging food stalls; parked scooters, with live goats tied to them, in preparation for Ramadan; bent beggars, asking for alms; and a group of skullcapped men, from the evangelical group Tablighi Jamaat, solemnly sitting at a long table. “It sounds crude,” Soofi told me, of his first visit to Nizamuddin, “but, at that point, I saw the meat shops and crowds, and I felt I was in West Asia”—“Arabian Nights” territory. He also glimpsed the secular and pluralistic India that he had previously only read about in books and seen in movies.

Secularism is enshrined in the Indian Constitution and was, before the ascendance of Hindu nationalism, in the nineteen-nineties, a dominant strain of political thought in India, an antidote to theocratic Pakistan, across the border. But secularism in India never involved the absence of religion. Rather, it idealized the kind of syncretic practice embodied by Sufism, which is an osmotic form of Islam and has Muslim and even some Hindu adherents. Soon after his epiphany at Nizamuddin, Mayank, who grew up Hindu, adopted the last name Soofi, adding Austen as a middle name, in tribute to Jane. (A pendant bearing her face in profile hung from a thread around his neck until he lost it, last year; the necklace was sent by an admirer from England.) The blog about reading gave way to a blog about Delhi, one that has never stopped growing.

He returns to the Sufi tomb every night. The shopkeepers and beggars all know him; a man at the entrance to the shantytown said, “I follow you!” when he spotted Soofi on our visit. Until a year ago, Soofi was never without his Canon 6D camera, which hung prominently from a leather strap around his neck and did for him what the white suit did for Tom Wolfe: marking him as an eccentric, licensed to do eccentric things. These days, he primarily uses his iPhone to shoot, brandishing the camera only occasionally. During our visit, Soofi spied a handsome Muslim man in a black kurta and an elaborate yellow shawl sitting on the marble floor outside the shrine. “Can I take your picture?” Soofi asked him. Bemused and on his cell phone, the man shook his head. “Please?” Soofi said. The man shook his head again, and Soofi glanced longingly at him as we walked away, comparing the experience to romantic rejection. “It’s like when a person turns you down, you really want to have sex with them,” he said.

Usually, after a little coaxing, even Delhi’s hard-bitten inhabitants melt. Soofi takes their pictures with his camera or with his iPhone, jots down a quick profile or caption on his phone, and uploads the photos. I asked if he feels a kinship with Humans of New York, the popular online project created by Brandon Stanton, a bond trader turned photographer from Georgia. Soofi bristled. “I started before Humans of New York,” he said. “Just because you’re in New York, which is considered a real place, he’s getting noticed.” When Stanton visited Delhi in 2014, as part of a global trip to document places that he said generated “the most extreme headlines,” Soofi penned a deliciously comic account of the “handsome New Yorker” being mobbed by frenzied selfie-seeking fans. (Stanton had to flee the meet-and-greet.) Soofi’s own aesthetic is much less slick, and more antiquarian, than Stanton’s, and Soofi’s captions have a more idiosyncratic voice—they often employ silly and pretentious literary references that seek to elevate the subject, however nonsensically. A well-groomed bearded man bending over a broad-lipped cup mysteriously represents “The Edward Said Way of Drinking Hot Milk #food #orient.” A woman’s foot poking out of a sari is “A Rare Glimpse of Poetess Emily Dickinson’s Dayjob Feet #feet.” Soofi is sensitive and elegiac in his treatment of poverty; in one moving photograph, a homeless Muslim man with a white beard and a sun-darkened complexion nods off outside the bright-blue tarpaulin folds of a makeshift tent. The caption reads “Imperial Chamber of the Present Mughal.” In the comments, a reader sheds emoji tears.

Soofi likes to maintain an air of mystery about himself and his past. His blog and Instagram account convey a sense that he is in constant motion, surveilling the entire city. Many posts begin, “One evening The Delhi Wallacame across,” and pictures are often captioned “Seen somewhere in Delhi,” as though he had happened upon something by accident, when, in fact, the sighting may have been orchestrated. (When we met for lunch one day, he took a photo of me, which he later labelled as an “Author Spotting.”) Inspired by roving photographers like Eugène Atget and Bill Cunningham, he has turned himself into a character—the restless, dreamy flâneur, at peace only in the streets.

But, these days, the streets are not often peaceful: the news is afire with stories of Muslims being lynched for supposedly carrying beef. Just last month, a Muslim man accused of stealing a motorcycle in the state of Jharkhand was tied to a post and beaten for twelve hours while being forced to chant the names of Hindu gods. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was reëlected in May, by an even larger margin than expected, expressed “sadness” over the incident but did little to quell the rising anti-Muslim hysteria that helped bring him to power. Soofi is drawn primarily to the marginalized and to the literary; he rarely photographs Delhi’s Punjabi residents, who are roughly thirty-five per cent of the city’s population. He also avoids politics. In his photographs, Muslim men and women lounge picturesquely in the narrow streets of their neighborhoods, but we get little sense that these are the people whose lives are threatened by the rise of Modi and of Hindu nationalism. Soofi’s work, which once felt to me like an extension of reality, now increasingly feels like an escape from it.

Don’t his wanderings take him to the doors of Hindu nationalists? I asked Soofi recently. After all, they make up a majority of Delhi’s electorate. (Modi’s B.J.P., or Indian People’s Party, won all seven of the city’s seats in the Indian parliament.) “I don’t talk about politics now, because, no matter what you say, you’re walking on eggshells,” he said. “In my kind of work, I don’t want distractions. I just want to work, to find beauty and sadness and express it.” He went on to say that, of course, he wanted “to write about people who I don’t agree with, because they are part of my world.” But he said that he didn’t “need to go to their houses and tell them I don’t agree with them. I’ll do it indirectly. What are their pursuits, what they wear, what are the gods in their drawing rooms? They’re not foreigners.”

Occasionally, however, Soofi makes oblique political gestures. In May, after Modi took a dig at Delhi’s liberal élites by terming them the Khan Market Gang, a reference to the upscale shopping district that Soofi visits daily, Soofi posted photos, on Instagram and Twitter, of the working-class people in the market who often go unseen: the tea sellers, sweepers, and day laborers. He captioned one of the photos “To Honest Hardworking Khan Market Jobs That Pay the Bills.” More recently, when Modi’s government took a series of alarming steps to assert control over the disputed territory of Kashmir, India’s only state with a Muslim majority, Soofi posted a photo of an elegant man draped in textiles next to the caption “Lost in Thoughts… a Hawker from Kashmir.” But otherwise, since Modi’s reëlection, Soofi has kept to his usual routines. He visits a new neighborhood in the morning, for his newspaper column, and ends up in Khan Market, where he stops by Bahrisons Booksellers, before departing for Nizamuddin. This is not a panoptic vision of the full variety of Delhi; like a novelist who creates an illusion of comprehensiveness from a sliver of metropolitan life, Soofi wants us to inhabit his version of the city.

Soofi says that Proust is his favorite writer, and his project has, over the years, taken on an increasingly Proustian quality. He has been passing in and out of the same neighborhoods for more than a decade, documenting the minutest social and cultural changes, ones that might not be evident to a viewer unless she clicked a hashtag on Instagram and scrolled through reams of old photos of one place or another. How did a tea stall on a particular corner change as the surrounding city swelled past sixteen million inhabitants? What clothes came into fashion? What once familiar items began to vanish? Did the brothels of G.B. Road fall, unnoticed, into disrepair? Years from now, one might answer questions like these by rummaging through the archive of the Delhi Walla, even if the secular Delhi he so fondly chronicles has ceased, once and for all, to exist.

  • Karan Mahajan is the author of “The Association of Small Bombs,” a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.Read more »

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