It is rare to come across a person like Ronald Vivian Smith these days. The message of his ill timed demise during a state of widespread anxiety and impoverishment has come like a jolt of thunder. It feels as if a close family member has passed away into oblivion with all the precious stories still buried deep inside his youthful heart full of many secrets about his beloved city of Dilli with whom he had a lovely and long stint of sixty years.

RV Smith was a chronicler of tales of past that he would craft with utmost beauty. One would feel delight after reading his long running column; Down Memory Lane, often interspersed with poetry in The Hindu’s Metroplus. Many of us would eagerly wait for his piece and would sense immense content after going through the annals of history from his point of view. It would take a while to come out of his charm. He meticulously recorded precise dates and spoke of historical events with a remarkable style and distinctive ability to recapture moments of beauty and terror alike. I fondly recall cutting his articles from the paper and saving them by pasting in a file along with having a list of all his books with me, at all times. I once almost laughed so hard upon reading his particularly fascinating description of ball gowns that the British women wore in parties. After hearing of his demise I desperately try to search for this lost voice and feel immensely overwhelmed with a sense of loss that cannot be substituted by any amount of words. His modest persona was a pleasant change from the usual people we read about and want to meet. I would spend a large part of my evenings trying to think of a world as he imagined with ghosts and perfume sellers and lay persons all having a say in how Delhi has come to be shaped reeking of a story in every narrow turn. I learnt how to delicately preserve the tradition of oral history from him. I wanted to meet him and have long conversations just on the very subtlety of life and the intricacy of it all. I wished I had been a part of his daily walks in the by-lanes of the city looking for the ordinary. I often imagined him weaving carefully crafted anecdotes on his typewriter in a room in Mayapuri full of books and yellowed papers with the sun light filtering in through cracks.

RV Smith and his sagas become even more relevant in these times of subversion of history and erasure of memory. His painstaking details of presenting forth a world as it would have been was not simply a matter of profession rather a deep calling of his passion to elaborate and construct with benevolence and insight. The knowledge he produced for so many years is astounding and assertive. He wrote with no bias but a beauty that comes out of clarity and magnanimity. His rare attribute of responding to his readers and making friends with them make him one of a kind. His collection of intriguing tapestry about the city and its inhabitants is a museum like eternal collection in an age of flicker like reminiscence. He ensured that the pages of the past remember even the forgotten and the lowly and everyone gets an equal share in their city of love and loss, unlike most of his contemporaries who had formal training and therefore rigid parameters of documentation of heritage and history. Situated in Shahdara I would remark at his choice of words for humble places and people. I used to feel validated by his mere inclusion of characters from relatively unknown parts of the city. However this ode shall remain wholly incomplete till I visit the Burari Christian cemetery as the first thing after the lockdown is lifted and read out the tales of the unfolding of the city to him.

Till then I feel his presence like the sound of the sea waves on a moonlit night. His precious and intellectual contribution to the city shall remain marked with indelible ink on the firmament of memory. Most of us readers will still perhaps open the Monday Metroplus in the hope of an audience with him trying to gather whatever little is left of the genius of a master storyteller and more importantly, a humane presence amongst all. May deep, sweet sleep weave another tale of enchantment for you, Ronnie. As you remarked in your self written obituary, “Such a historiographer, journalist, poet, novelist and raconteur….should live in memory for years as a modern-day Omar Khayyam of a purloined garden that is Delhi”.

Aatika Singh an artist working on issues of Caste.


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