Of people and places


LIVING in Delhi has been for me a rich experience and despite all its drawbacks, I have come to love this city. Even today I love it as one can only love an impossible lover.

I see Delhi as a microcosm of greater India, for I can experience all the different cultures in my own locality, the MIG apartments at Saket. As I walk my dog I see rangoli from South India and hear the strains of nadaswaram floating down the road. On festive days there is the Bengali alpana and voices singing Rabindra sangeet. The call of the azan is heard every day. On Guru Nanak’s birthday one is unceremoniously woken by firecrackers and prabhat pheri at the crack of dawn. I curse this religiosity, but a part of me is happy that old traditions survive. On Diwali all the houses are lit, with twinkling oil lamps, candles and the new, tiny electric lights. My heart fills with joy as I share in the joyful celebration of the festival. Holi involves visits to neighbours, with thalis full of gulal and sweets. We converge at a neighbour’s to sing the rather risqué songs, imbibing the kanji and pakoris made by the Kayasth women, and the stronger brew made by the men.

I came from a small mountain town, Abbotabad, in the North Western Frontier Province, which nestled in a cup-shaped valley surrounded by mountains. From my bedroom we could see the snow-clad mountains. In winter when it snowed the school closed and we would play in the snow. It was in 1940 that I was suddenly transported to this big town, Delhi. I saw my first telephone. We had the old fashioned standing telephone with a trumpet shaped earphone and I shrank back everytime I heard the disembodied voice echoing in my ear. There were the big red public buses known as Gwalior Transport, which frightened me. I saw my first peacock, proud and beautiful. It had flown across the road from the Ridge on to our terrace leaving me enchanted. Till then I had only seen it on my mother’s jewellery.

We lived in Civil Lines, at Khyber Pass, in an old family house built during the time of the Raj when the Old Secretariat was the seat of the colonial government. Across from the house was the Ridge, with the flag staff, the scene of the simian Altu Faltu’s romance. Mall Road was towards its right and Rajpur Road to its left, running parallel to the Ridge. Beyond was the Old Secretariat, the terminal for Bus No.9, which travelled from the New Secretariat and carried many of the lovers of Delhi University.

The Ridge had equestrian paths where the English rode their horses and we went for our evening walks. I often took my dog, a dachshund, for walks on Rajpur Road, where Biren De, the painter lived. He referred to me as ‘the long sentence with a semicolon at the end of it.’



We would travel by bus to New Delhi to visit my uncle who lived on Hailey Road. The journey was always exciting. One went past the fashionable Maidens Hotel, under Kashmiri Gate and then the upmarket Ritz cinema which showed English movies. When we returned home at night, the bus passed through G.B. Road, the red light district, invariably lit up with throngs of dressed up women standing on the terraces and calling out to the men below. Mother would tell me not to look up but I usually sneaked a peek at the scene, wondering what those strangely dressed women were doing under so many lamps.

Our neighbour was the Registrar at Delhi University and he had a plump little wife. They had no children and no one came to visit them. In the evenings we heard mellifluous music coming from their house and I heard the elders whisper that he had married a singing girl, deserting his family and grown up children. No one mixed with them. Once when we met on the stairs she smiled and asked me to come over. She would dress me up in beautiful clothes, sing to me and I danced for her. She gave me chocolates and cooked delicacies. We had a wonderful time until my father spotted me all dressed up one day and I was forbidden to go to their house any more.

School was Presentation Convent near the old railway station and run by Irish nuns. Girls from old Kayasth families attended the school, as did Muslim girls from the old city. They came in purdah cars, but once in the purdah was abandoned and we were all the same – playing together, studying, sharing our tiffin and giggling over silly jokes. The school had an English and an Indian section. In my second year at school I was transferred to the English section. I wept, refused to go to school and made my father request my transfer back to the Indian section. The Mother Superior scolded my father and told him how absurd his request was, for every parent was asking for his or her child to be transferred to the English section. It was not for my academic brilliance, but because of my light skin that I was given this privilege.



The year 1942 saw the Quit India movement and my brother, who was at Hindu College and enthused by the freedom struggle, suggested that I write ‘Quit India’ on the school blackboard on the day we were expecting the Vicerine. He, of course, practised writing ‘Quit India’ on our back stairs, little realising that it was used only by the sweeper when he came to clean the lavatories.

Our second home in Delhi was No.8 Hailey Road, where my uncle lived. Next door lived the dashingly handsome pilot, Biju Patnaik. From the windows we would watch figures flitting in and out of their kitchen and sometimes into uncle’s house. I heard my brother whisper, ‘That is Aruna Asaf Ali’. Sometimes, there were other minor leaders of the freedom struggle, who were all underground.

I still remember the picnics on Vasant Panchami. The most memorable were the big family picnics at Okhla, occasions when young men met the girls and the elders flew kites. We all played kolrda chipaki and the boys got the opportunity to talk to girls, to fleetingly hold a hand or the end of a dupatta. It was at one of these picnics that my brother-in-law saw my sister and fell in love with her. Pitaji reluctantly agreed though he felt ‘they are business people,’ who were frowned upon. Our families preferred grooms from professional backgrounds, though they did not mind brides from business families as they brought good dowries.



One year we went in a tonga for a picnic all the way to the Qutub. The journey took us nearly two hours. Father promised to take us for the Phul-walo-ki-Sair in Mehrauli at the culmination of the tonga race, run from the walled city to Mehrauli. We never were able to make it, but I listened avidly to descriptions of the young Muslim men with their decorated tongas and ikkas, racing down the road. Mehrauli decorated itself to receive them. Then came the procession of the local elite and Delhi society going to the shrine of Pir Kaki to offer flower fans created by the flower merchants. There were also groups of qawwali singers, who sang at the mazar.

Connaught Place, which had large restaurants with dance floors, was the most fashionable shopping centre. I remember going for tea into Wengers and sitting at the tables by the side of the dance floor to watch the English and American soldiers dance with the Anglo-Indian girls. We had tea and chocolate pastries, but my heart was fixated at the sight of the dancing couples. I remember romanticizing that I was one of the girls dancing in the arms of a tall white mustachioed man, instead of with a girl, as we did during school socials.



Those were the days of innocence, when our pleasures were simple: celebrations of festivals, family picnics, and weddings when we got new clothes. On Sundays, school friends came over and we walked to the Jamuna. Every summer we bought large watermelons for one rupee, which we floated down the river, chasing them into the shallows and then eating them with great gusto. A few rupees were all that the picnic cost. Our friendships were based on shared interests without awareness of caste, creed or status. We celebrated all the festivals together. At Eid we looked forward to the kebabs and the biryani; at Christmas to Santa Claus and the plum pudding. All our friends came to us for Gurpurab and Baisakhi and we trooped off with thousands of pilgrims to celebrate at Majnu-ka-Tilla and join the devotees to offer sewa at the free kitchen, to roll out the chapatis and sit in a line together with the others to share in the langar of dal, subzi, kachumbar and roti.

Then came independence. I remember going with my father to Parliament House to listen to a debate on the national flag. I was thrilled to see Jawaharlal Nehru, who had visited our ancestral home in Abbotabad, as he had been at the University in England with Vade Chachaji. We visited Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House and I was so proud that he recognized my sister, who had sung for him every day for over a month when Gandhiji stayed with us at Abbotabad.

Independence was marred by the partition of the country. Relatives from Lahore, Rawalpindi, Abbotabad poured in with the few belongings they had salvaged. There was fear in their eyes and despair on their faces. Alongside the horror were the uplifting stories of Muslim friends, who had risked their own lives to save their neighbours. We were fortunate not to lose any relatives. They however, lost everything.



Our home became a dormitory. Beds were spread on the floor and people sat in shifts to eat their meals. There was a threat to us from a nearby Press where a large number of people had gathered, fleeing the killing and looting in the old city. From our terrace we saw fires burning all around us. We heard threatening voices shouting ‘Har Har Mahadev’, ‘Bole So Nihal’, and ‘Allah Hu Akbar’. I witnessed the senseless stabbing of a young boy on the road in front of our house. I knew fear and it took me years to get over my paranoia of any religious celebration. We were witness to the sad sight of a large group of Meo families marching with their cattle. They looked fierce and the streets emptied. We watched them from behind barred doors, tall and handsome, walking firm and proud towards Pakistan, their meagre belongings balanced on their animals. They were our people and it was sad to see them go.

When school reopened, my Muslim friends were no longer there. They never came back. The telephones went unanswered and I wept for my beautiful friend Nasreen, who was lost to me.

Our many guests found temporary places. Some hoped that this was a crazy period and they would go back. Others knew better and began to rebuild their lives in an unknown territory. Slowly life came back to normal. But echoes of the tragedy were felt when father would meet people, his old accountant for example, who had lost all members of his family. Or an old acquaintance from Lahore, who had been a rich man and was now back to where he started, a kabariwala. A mother came begging, pleading with father to intervene with her husband to take back their young daughter who had been recovered from Pakistan. For my parents’ generation, separation from their homeland was a great loss. Even today you hear, from those who are still around, how everything in Abbotabad was the best. The water was sweet, the fruit was the juiciest, people were wonderful and the air clean, pure and healthy. My grandmother whose name was Tooti, ‘lady parrot’, would sigh and say ‘Bhardea Abbotabada kadi bhulda nahi.’ Wicked Abbotabad, I cannot forget you.



In 1949 I joined Miranda House, the new college on the Delhi University campus. We were the hip girl students and our batch had Sagari Chengappa, who was the heartthrob of the university. Natwar Singh, the ace debator of St. Stephen’s College, was forever offering his non-existent kingdom for her. Sagari played hostess for her uncle, General Cariappa, and would sneak in goodies for us when she returned to the hostel. Madhur Bahadur, later Jaffrey of Merchant Ivory films and the wonderful cookbooks, known even then as a consummate actress, was wooed by Saeed Jaffrey. There was Sujatha Mathai, petite and beautiful, who became a well-known poet, the Saraswat Brahmin beauty Sunanda Surkund, who attracted a lot of attention. Among the seniors there was the oomphy Uma Vasudev and Malati Bhatia, the attractive tennis player. Bright Indu Chatterjee, who married and went away to Pakistan. Romila Thapar, who even then stood head and shoulders above everyone and of course the unforgettable Sheila Bahadur, with her brilliance, beautiful voice and witty conversation.

Our teachers too were characters. The neurotic principal Mrs. Thakurdas, Kamala Acheya with her face painted like a Kathakali mask who later married Professor V.K.R.V. Rao. There was Krishna Essuloff, who was always voluptuously wrapped in brilliant Kanjeevrams and of course the two friends Kapila Mallick (Vatsyayan) and Sita Chari, who tried to enlighten their callow students about English literature. There were college romances and scandals. Kadambari Viswanathan eloped with Krishan Rasgotra of External Affairs, old enough to be her father. There was my romance with the revolutionary Santosh Chatterjee and Asha Atal’s with Harish Chandra, the Communist student leader. There was the delightful Shaila Umbegaonkar, who drove around in a mini Fiat which always had to be pushed up a slope, who ran off with her best friend Jayshree’s boyfriend, the maverick Tilak Nijowne. He was supposedly brilliant, but never managed to get through his BA.



Delhi University was a hotbed of student politics, romance, scandal and intrigue. It was here that we acquired our skills for the big world. It was while looking after the leftist relief committee for students that I honed my organisational skills and later, as president of Miranda House, helped organise events.

Delhi was slowly losing the refinement of the old inhabitants. Punjabi entrepreneurship was burgeoning and a new way of life emerging. Food habits were changing. Fruit shops were coming up. The sweet shops, which originally sold their goods in mud pots and palm leaf baskets and banana leaves, were now selling them in cardboard boxes similar to western style pastry shops. The new restaurants and dhabas served in metal thalis or ceramic plates instead of the disposable pattal, leaf plates and cups. Bottled drinks began to be sold and fruit juice stalls, as well as egg and meat shops, sprouted in all the neighbourhoods. In some localities which had a lot of refugees, the tandoor became an integral part of the local scene. Women would send dough made into round balls and for two annas or one eighth of a rupee, ten chapatis would be made. For another two annas you could get a bowl of cooked dal. For many homes that was a meal in itself, accompanied by raw onions and some pickle.



Eating places came up and Moti Mahal, the true Indian restaurant, opened in Darya Ganj, the dividing line between Old and New Delhi. It served tandoori chicken, makhani dal and nan. The nouveau riche Punjabis came in their cars to feast. The restaurant added floors, bought up next door houses and transformed itself into an open-air restaurant creating new genre of Indo-European eatery. Here the emphasis was not on ambience, but on food, and the newly emerging middle class felt more at ease. The Pathan waiters with their starched white salwars and shirts, large upturned moustaches and kohl in their eyes, greeted customers heartily with folded hands, with jiyo ji, bhapi ji, sat bachan ji, as they placed generous bowls of pickled onions to be munched while waiting for the crisply done tandoori chicken.



The pre-partition Punjabi families, mostly Sikhs, part of the construction mafia that built New Delhi and who had made it rich, were very much part of the richie-rich scene. Gossip had it that five of them colluded together, not allowing others to bid for the contracts as they shared the pickings. Others who sub-contracted from the big five or were related also made their millions; one started a furniture shop in Connaught Place and later the Coca Cola agency. Another, who had earlier been a clerk at Clarks Simla, rented a part of the Imperial hotel, subsequently bought the Maidens Hotel and then went on to start the Oberoi chain of hotels. They also helped a number of their relatives who came from West Punjab and absorbed them into their business or helped set them up. Some Punjabis, who had been part of the army, the Imperial Civil Service, had a base in Delhi and constituted the elite in Delhi Punjabi society.

They began storming the colonial bastions, the Imperial Gymkhana Club, the Golf Club, while others regularly went to the Chelmsford Club, which had been set up by the Indians on the lines of the imperial clubs. Chelmsford club was very similar to Gymkhana, but a little showy. They began to Indianise by adding tables for rummy and introducing qawwalis on special occasions and tambola, which was more a part of the Anglo-Indian club culture during the colonial times.

In Connaught Place the Indian Coffee House was a hangout for unemployed intellectuals, journalists and insurance agents. There were family cabins where the girls sat with their men friends, whereas in the main hall the men sat the entire morning over a single cup of coffee. Every Sunday my friend Sunanda Surkund and I used to take the No. 9 bus from the Old Secretariat to Connaught Place and join the very popular family cabin, where Trevi Sen, the universal aunty, reigned supreme and a number of lively young men, Som Benegal, Richard Bartholomew, the poet and art critic, Baij Nath Malan, the intellectual bureaucrat and many others would join us. Trevi’s naughty sense of humour, scintillating conversation and warm generosity, as well as the bevy of young girls around her, attracted all the young men. A number of romances budded in the Indian Coffee House.



The Constitution House, a set of barracks, was another meeting place in the ’50s and ’60s. It was later demolished and the External Ministry’s hostel built in its place. It was a residence for artists, writers, bachelors and single women, who lived their own lives fully. The eccentric Vijay Tunga, writer and poet, carried on a battle with his waspish next door neighbour by speaking loudly to the wall. Suff and Elizabeth Brunner, the Hungarian mother and daughter painters, lived out their own fantasies under the patronage of Nehru. Satish Gujral and his beautiful wife, Kiran, started their romantic life and he began his portrait of Nehru and later Mrs. Gandhi, while residing there.

The government drumboy and photographer, Ram Dhamija, his neighbour, carried on his love affair with the extraordinary Mme Simki, Uday Shankar’s partner. Ram Dhamija won me over by inviting me to private recitals of Balasaraswathy and the Dagar brothers at his stark bachelor digs. To see Bala imitate other dancers or interpret her favourite padams was for me a revelation. Mira Mallick, the brilliant young Indian Foreign Office debutante, had a host of admirers, who, one heard, fought over her. Nilima Sanyal, the sexy announcer at All India Radio, held court here and had a pick of admirers from all walks of life.



In the late ’50s and mid ’60s three personalities dominated the official cultural and intellectual scene. There was Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s hostess with her own coterie – Romesh and Raj Thapar, Inder Gujral, the leftist student leader from Lahore, the Bachchans and others, who discussed Oscar Wilde at the dinner table. There was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya with her large circle of political friends, young acolytes L.C. Jain, Raj Krishna, Som Benegal, as well as a number of friends from abroad, who came to visit her. She was committed to nurturing the living cultural traditions and was deeply involved with classical dance, the performing arts, theatre and crafts. She ran an open house for artists. Many of us worked with her in the movement for revival of craft traditions. Octavio Paz, the Mexican ambassador, was a frequent visitor to her house.

On the other hand there was Pupul Jayakar, a devotee of Krishnamurti. She had her own acolytes who listened avidly to her rather precious, intense conversations. She looked after the Handloom Board and appointed well-known artists to run the weaver service centres. Later, as head of Handicrafts Handloom Export Corporation and cultural advisor to Indira Gandhi, she organised the Festivals of India, letting loose on the world a dazzling display of arts, crafts, performing artists and snake charmers alongside minor royalty, who charmed the foreign public at a huge cost to the exchequer. The only person, who ever took her on was Mala Singh; she once did an extraordinary take off on her in her presence.

Sir Shankar Lal, a true representative of old Delhi family with his fondness for poetry, mushaira and nurturing Delhi’s cultural life, encouraged the two bahus of the family, Sumitra Charat Ram and Sheila Bharat Ram to participate in Delhi’s cultural scene. They set up two rival organisations. Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Sumitra’s organisation, enticed the Dagar brothers to Delhi and dhrupad came into its own. They organised ballets with Birju Maharaj and Kumudani Lakhia as the dancers and the Dagars providing the music. The Punjabi theatre of IPTA fame with Sheila Bhatia and Sneh Sanyal gave us the Punjabi opera, Heer Ranjha. Delhi was slowly emerging as a cultural centre.



The new all-knowing soothsayers during the ’60s were the senior journalists. They had their own coteries. Sham Lal, the great intellectual, edited The Times of India and wrote his reviews as personal open letters. Girilal Jain worked with him and agreed with all that he said, until he took over from Sham Lal. There was Romesh Thapar of Seminar with his booming voice, his massive presence and his bright wife. They were all part of the armchair leftist group. Then there was Frank Moraes with his American friend Marilyn Silverstone, a brilliant photographer. Together with the young impetuous Nandan Kagal, they formed another group, which was very much part of the establishment. Nandan, of course, flitted from one group to another. Mulgaonkar of the Hindustan Times with his young attractive wife, Krishna Kaul and Mankekar of PTI and later The Times of India, were the other pillars of the print world. They all prophesied doom and doled out free advice to the government falling just short of advising God. Ajit Bhattacharjea belonged to everyone and no one, and took the Presidential protocol office to task for seating him at the bottom of the table with other journalists.

On the eve of my departure for Iran, Nandan Kagal organised a goodbye dinner with Sham Lal, the Thapars, Girlal Jain and R.K. Laxman, who was visiting from Bombay. Halfway through the evening they all got entangled in a heated discussion on the current situation in India. R.K. Laxman said to me, ‘You see, Jasleen, they are not Indians. They are the new Olympians sitting at the Khyber Pass, condemning all that is happening in the Gangetic plain.’



Till the ’70s, New Delhi remained a quiet capital town dominated by the civil servants. Bombay and Calcutta were the hubs of the commercial world and far more cosmopolitan. By the end of the decade, India began to open up to outside stimuli, influence peddling became a way of life and the presence of black money began to dominate all spheres. Business houses began to shift their offices nearer the corridors of power. PRO men and women and power brokers began mushrooming everywhere. The cocktail circuit became an important part of Delhi life, with politicians hobnobbing with government officials, diplomats and heads of the corporate world. Gone were the days when government officials had to get permission to attend a party thrown by an embassy or a business house with which their departments had dealings. The NRIs, with their foreign exchange, for which we were all starved, began peddling their influence. Delhi lost its innocence. It took on the appearance of a gaudy woman who lived to the hilt at all costs.

There were a few exceptions, among them the jovial, cigar smoking and encyclopedic Krishna Chaitanya, who refused to use the official car, except strictly on official business. He rode his motorcycle all over Delhi attending concerts, art exhibitions and plays. He was a prolific writer and wrote many books and reviewed art exhibitions as well as Indian and western music concerts.

Delhi attracted all the talented artists and the elite flocked to the theatre, music concerts and art galleries to flaunt their jewellery and designer clothes. A new class came up – young affluent kids, the children of businessmen and senior civil servants, with plenty of money to throw around at discos, five star hotels and cultural events. Standing apart were the jhola walas, who frowned on this hedonist lifestyle and became the conscience keepers of the society. They set up NGOs, held study circles and countered in a small way the carefree lifestyle of the nouveau riche. The jhola walas mingled with the jetset at the art and culture happenings and often enjoyed the good things of life with great condescension.



However, the cultural life of Delhi flowered. The season from October to March offered a rich selection of dance, music, theatre, art shows, installations, events and happenings. There were coteries, which surrounded the cultural gurus. Gita Kapur and Vivan Sundaram had their favourite artists who they promoted unrelentingly. Alkazi through Art Heritage Gallery did so in a subtler manner, even as Manjeet Bawa helped Renu Modi to develop her stable of artists at Espace Gallery, whom she marketed through her Marwari and corporate contacts. Chandralekha, Dashrath Patel and Sadanand Menon dominated the dance scene, and were soon challenged by the classicist, Sonal Mansingh, who fought her lonely battles.

The grand dirty old man, Khushwant Singh, maintained his image of a sharp tongue and a robust libidinous sense of humour, successfully hiding the serious man whose best work is on the gurbani and who secretly spends the early morning hours listening to religious music.

In the folk art and craft scene, Martand Singh, with the support of the cultural czarina Pupul Jayakar and his group of talented gay designers, carved out a place for himself, challenging Rajeev Sethi, the great showman. Martand Singh dominated the Festivals of India and Intach at home and in England.



A number of people vied for the title of the cultural czarina and czar. Ashok Vajpeyi of Bharat Lok Kala Bhavan of Bhopal was one such aspirant. Unfortunately the Bhavan went into decline post Swaminathan. Kapila Vatsyayan of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, evolved an ambitious programme to rescue the art and culture of India. Unfortunately, Ignca was run as a one woman show with sycophants surrounding her. She did manage to put up some excellent seminars and exhibitions. However, they were not monumental, as the first edition of the Ignca Journal claimed. Mala Singh of India Magazine, Seminar and Business India TV, too had ambitions, but no funds. She was another minor czarina with her own coterie.

The ’80s saw a new cultural czar begin his rise. O.P. Jain, who built his millions from the paper trade had made a tentative entrance into the cultural world in the ’60s by supplying paper for Mulk Raj Anand’s plush edition of Kama Sutra, known best for Mulk’s failure to put inverted commas at the beginning and end of the text. Later, with the help of Jyotindra Jain, who came from Ahmedabad to build up a remarkable Crafts Museum from the bureaucratic mess of the handloom and handicrafts organisations, he set up a Museum of Everyday Art in the basement of his Safdarjung Enclave house. His cultural and political contacts helped him expand his empire by acquiring prime land in Mehrauli-Gurgaon. Shared with others, it became the location for Anandgram, a beautifully maintained cultural centre. His Sanskriti Trust, known for recognising young artists and Anandgram consolidated his presence in the cultural, social and political orbit of Delhi. Today some of the finest functions are organised by O.P. and people vie with one another to be invited.

Lone voices were raised to challenge these Goliaths, like Ram Dhamija, who investigated and wrote about Pupal Jayakar’s misdemeanors and the authoritarian attitude of Kapila Vatsyayan in the flimsy magazine, Arts and Crafts Monthly. Everyone who read his column encouraged him to continue, for he said what no one else dared to say but would like to. Soon even that magazine was closed by the owner, who came under pressure.

The cultural world now constituted big money because of government, corporate and international patronage. Cut throat competition became the order of the day. The media also became involved, recklessly promoting artists, never mind the talent or involvement in creative expression.

Despite all this, Delhi provided for those of us, who lived our lives far away from the corridors of power, a rich and varied cultural scene. Talented young artists in all fields and some extraordinary minds continue to enrich our lives as we laugh our way into the sunset. Today we curse Delhi, moan about the lack of values and rampant corruption and yet we can never leave the city until our dying day, refusing to believe that even our last rites may be held up because of a power failure.