A woman called Krishna Sobti, the 93 year old winner of the 53rd Gyanpeeth Award 2017! In the last two days media has called her Hindi ki sashakt hastakshar (powerful signature of Hindi).

For us she rides the Chariots of all languages. Because she does not belong to any one language or culture. Her ethos is universal. We found this out in our very personal interaction with her. It had to do what we consider her finest book, her novel Dil o Danish (Heart and Wisdom) published by Rajkamal Prakashan.

There was no greater tribute we could pay to her than to render her book as durational reading. This form of reading was performed in London to a packed house. The entire scene was a single actor who sat at a desk, opened a book, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and began to read. He read for 7 hours solid, with two intervals enthralling an audience who sat spellbound with the magic of words.

We decided to keep our reading shorter; 2.5 hours because our audience has unlearnt the patience of yore when people sat for six hours on the steps of Jama Masjid listening to Daastaango’s.

Krishna Sobti’s Dil-o-Danish is set in the Delhi of the 1920s. It weaves a web of relationships that lay out the Ganga-Jamni tehzib of the city. Languages, tastes and loves interlace in complex ways and give us a sort of life history of the city as also the life history of two families within it.

It is about interplay between two households, one Kayasth one Muslim, both integral to the ethos of Purani Dilli. The protagonist is Kirpa Narayan of Chitli Qabar, householder, married to Kutumb Pyari, father of three sons, head of an extended family. His ‘other’ is Mehak Bano living in Farash Khana from who he has a son and daughter. Ganga and Jamni that is what Kirpa lives and breathes; the author flows flows with her characters, no hero no villain no judgement; it is just a mirror held up to life as it was when the city’s heart Hindu and Muslim throbbed in one beat in those precincts of Jama Masjid.

The decision to do a durational reading of three hours or more of the novel was for two reasons. We wanted to keep intact the language of the novel - Hindustani, Urdu Hindi. We wanted to enunciate the subtly inflected speech patterns written up by Krishna ji so that they brought to mind the various vocalities of north India. And we hoped to retain these cadences without any editorial intervention and without any ‘characterisation’ by the actors so that the audience might have the opportunity to immerse itself in a world created principally by listening.

We did not want this world to bustle with acting because we thought that would come in the way of listening pleasure. The actors sit on a takht with their books in their hands. They read rather than act.

Listening not acting creates a world; and listening channels the atmosphere of the novel towards the eyes, like images in a dream.

Durational readings elongate time out of the current default mode, that standard unit of experience dictated not just by clocks but by the now of the city -- work, leisure, commuting, breakfast , lunch, dinner, bus, metro, auto rickshaw, Ola -- into another rhythm.

They prepare us to hear a moment when Delhi lived slow, quite different from Delhi NCR as we know it now. By stretching time, durational readings also test the stamina of both reader and listener and together we shed the hectic beat of today. We enter the rooms, the havelis, the streets and the shops of old Delhi. The atmospheres that form them seep into us.

Atmospheres as we know are concerned with the inter-relation between environmental qualities and human emotional states. Atmospheres tangibly propel us into an act of remembering, as if what we experience is our own felt memory of the city that has just passed.

The listeners were given copies of the book to read should they want to listen while reading; takhts and takiyas to rest and food to eat recalling the dawats and nashtas of old “old” Delhi.

We read our parts during a delicious December evening under a green net enclosure. The light filtered on the form of Krishna Sobti sitting swathed in a shawl her face glowing under the aanchal around her head. She listened to our each word and the reason our articulation touched heights, which we had not thought possible, was because she was our listener.

(Syeda Hameed is a writer, activist; Anuradha Kapur is former Director, National School of Drama)