It is odd to mourn the loss of a building one has never seen, the significance of which one does not know, the absence of which one will never feel. And yet that's precisely where I found myself yesterday, as BBC correspondent Sam Miller's voice interrupted my treadmill reverie:
Most evenings, just before sunset, I walk or run in a huge secret park in the heart of modern Delhi. It is really a jungle with footpaths, known only to those who live close by. . . . Two summers ago, back in my local jungle park, I found another ruin, in an area of wilderness so thick with undergrowth that I had to beat my way through it with a stick. There, long-forgotten, was half a mosque, a tree growing out of one of its walls, but the perfect rosettes and squinches created by artisans 700 years ago still intact. I tried to interest my friends and fellow journalists in my discovery of an unlisted ancient mosque in the heart of modern Delhi. I told people about it at Delhi parties and they yawned. I telephoned a leading historian of the medieval Sultanate period, who promised he would get back to me. A guide book writer did come to see and she told me it will be mentioned in the next edition. But I failed to get anyone else half as excited as me.
Miller's pleasure (the photograph he took is enclosed above) would soon be tinged with more than melancholy at the indifference of those around him:
On my return I went back to the mosque and discovered that my co-ordinates were correct. . . . The mosque had gone.
It had been bulldozed and there was no sign it had ever existed. The wilderness had become a building site and squash and badminton courts were being built for - yes - the Commonwealth Games. No-one made a fuss and I have found it hard to make the case that this archaeologically super-rich city is much poorer without one old tumbledown mosque. And though I have been able to immortalise it in photos and text in a book I wrote about my adoptive city, I am also aware that it is just one of dozens of minor ruins that have disappeared in recent years. And more will almost certainly go as the pace of development continues to accelerate. Delhi is a city that is more proud of its future than its past.
Miller's own monument is unlikely to last as long as the mosque did, but I couldn't help but feel grateful at his determination to preserve the trace as best he could. Of such cussed and quixotic sentimentality is memory made. I was reminded of my own visit to Firozabad in 2006, the remains of one of Delhi's medieval capitals, but not one of the modern city's busy tourist sites. Perhaps it was just as well I had the place to myself: the ghosts would have abhorred a crowd, although they do tolerate the occasional prying tourist, and the school children (from cramped houses they share with far too many people for any quiet corners) studying for their exams: