Wither, the walled city


AN international survey has recently pronounced New Delhi to be among the worst cities in the world to live in. That may well be. But in my childhood, Old Delhi was a glorious city, full of charm, vitality and a vibrant culture, a city that fully lived up to a Persian poet’s description as ‘paradise on earth’. The happiest days of my childhood during the 1950s were spent in the walled city (or Shahjahanabad) where I was born and my memories of paradise are still vivid, particularly of kite flying and pigeon racing and the distinctive culture that permeated our lives.

On Eid, the skies above Old Delhi would be full of purple, blue, green, black, orange and red kites, plain and patterned, small and big, flying high and low. Children’s hearts would thrill when two kites got entangled in a ‘painch’ or dog fight, a struggle that would be cut short by the sudden cry of ‘woh kaata’ when the string of one of the kites was cut and it fluttered down in defeat. I was too small to fly kites myself but I watched teams engage in contests on the Ram Lila grounds and had a field day with my friends catching the vanquished kites as they descended. The best time was during the monsoon when the dark grey of the sky and whirling white clouds provided a dramatic backdrop.

I also remember the pigeon racing that happened in the mornings and evenings. No matter what the weather – burning hot winds, lashing rains or the chill of winter – the kabutar wallahs never failed to fly their pigeons from the rooftops while the whole area resounded to their cries of ‘ha..koo.. aao’. Hundreds of them would stud the sky, racing along, wings closed, moving like arrows across the sky.



Pigeon racing was an expensive hobby generally indulged in only by the rich and upper middle classes. Every Thursday, the Muslim sabbath, the who’s who of Old Delhi came to the big square in front of Jama Masjid to buy prized pigeons from Iran and Afghanistan. A good pair would fetch as much as five rupees, a small fortune when you consider that a clerk’s salary was about Rs 100 on which, moreover, he could lead a decent life with at least two servants and a comfortable house. One rupee would buy 40 kilos of wheat or four kilos of desi ghee and two paise could buy you a sumptuous meal of paranthas and meat curry. The level of comfort was high, so too was a feeling of abundance, which is why roadside stalls never charged anything for dal. It was served free with the meal.

It was possible to maintain a lifestyle befitting a nawab on a small income. Servants, whole squadrons of them, used to work for a household without any emoluments. They were regarded as part of the family and it was understood that the master of the house would take care of all their needs, including the marriage of their children. At the heart of the household stood the institution of the mughlani (senior housekeeper). She was traditionally a woman of high birth and, though technically an employee, held in high esteem by the entire family. A formidable presence in the house, she was governess, teacher and manager rolled into one. One of her tasks was to prepare the daughters of the family for their future role as wives by teaching them how to sew, cook, make lace and embroider. The khansama or cook also played a crucial role because people in Old Delhi loved to entertain and serve tenderly prepared delicacies to please the discerning palate of their gourmand friends. Even my father, who was not a nawab, held dinner parties at least twice a month and the preparations were both elaborate and painstaking.

The walled city was full of havelis. There are, of course, hardly any left now. The havelis abandoned by the Muslim aristocracy when it migrated to Pakistan were taken over either by Hindu refugees who had lost their homes in West Punjab or by the government. As a child I remember being struck by how vast they were; I do not exaggerate when I say that some had courtyards as big as football fields. In fact, as young boys, we regularly played cricket in the courtyard of a haveli owned by a family of hakims in Ballimaran.



The haveli where Zeenat Mahal, the favourite queen of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, lived, is now being used as a big iron market; some families have also built their homes there. The old opulence has gone. The haveli belonging to the Englishman, James Skinner, in Gali Qasim Jaan had a courtyard in which he kept elephants and horses. Mirza Ghalib lived in Gali Qasim Jaan and so did Shamsuddin Khan, the Nawab of Loharu, who was hanged at the age of 25 for the murder of William Fraser, the Resident of Delhi, the virtual ruler of the city. Shamsuddin hired an assassin who waylaid Fraser one winter evening when he was returning to his kothi outside Kashmere Gate. Shamsuddin was later hanged at Kashmere Gate, watched by hundreds of people. It is said that he went to the gallows with great dignity and composure. Mirza Ghalib’s reputation, however, did not fare so well. He was criticised for choosing to testify against Shamsuddin even though his wife was a Loharu.



All the havelis of the well-to-do had a similar layout. A massive gate and a high boundary wall were two obvious external features. Inside, the walls were so deep that niches cut into them were large enough to be used as rooms by the servants or palanquin bearers. The inner courtyard invariably had a small garden with fountains. Lining the four sides of the courtyard were rooms, arches and colonades. This was the men’s area, known as the diwan khana or mardana. The mardana was connected with the zenana by a small door and corridor which too had its own garden and courtyard. A diwan khana and zenana were indications of a man’s position in society, however modest in size and accoutrements they may have been. Certain trappings, such as palanquins – the traditional mode of transport for the women of illustrious families – and the kahars who carried them, were also essential.

Before the 1930s, men travelled in bullock carts or in horsedrawn carriages known as ikkas that were really a kind of rath covered with a canopy. Rickshaws, bicycles, tongas and trams came later in the 1940s. I remember travelling with my father in a tonga to see a movie at the nearest cinema house. There were about seven or eight cinema houses in Old Delhi. People called them ‘bioscope’. The more proletarian members of society called them mandwa. For some reason, the old picture halls were hardly ever called by their proper names – the Ritz, the Novelty or Kumar Talkies (which incidentally still stands in Chandni Chowk and has recently been renovated). Instead, they were known by the area in which they were situated. So Kumar Talkies was patharwala and Jagat was machliwala. And the movies were advertised by hoardings on wheels pushed by two men around the busy streets of Chandni Chowk, Khari Baoli, Urdu Bazaar, Nai Sadak, Dariba, Matia Mahal and Hauz Qazi. Unknown in those days, M.F. Husain could be seen painting movie hoardings on Esplanade Road. Gramophone players and radios were introduced around the same time. Those who were the first to see the heavy black discs called them tawas and the name stuck.



The only wide roads in Old Delhi were in Chandni Chowk, Hauz Qazi, Khari Baoli and Daryaganj. Perhaps the passage of time expands the sense of space experienced in childhood but certainly during the hot afternoons when we played cricket in the small streets in front of our homes, the alleys and narrow lanes of the neighbourhood appeared perfectly wide to us. We had seen nothing else, after all. And perhaps they felt spacious because the population in 1947 was little more than 150,000. In fact, walking home from school during winter evenings was quite scary because there were hardly any people on the streets. Street lights were virtually non existent and few people had electricity.

In earlier decades, before the advent of electricity, the streets were illuminated with huge torches known as mashals. The well-to-do also lit up their havelis with mashals; the poor made do with diyas or earthen lamps. I remember the streets being quiet and deserted (except for the days when mehfils or literary gatherings were organised) as I walked home after an evening at a friend’s place. Yet, most people felt safe walking on the roads at night because crime was rare.

Summer was glorious, filled with bliss. Families went for picnics to places as far as Qutub and Okhla but my friends and I were quite happy pursuing adventures nearer home. We’d go in groups for a swim in the Jamuna and then gorge on the melons and kakris we stole from the fields near the river. The countryside outside the walled city was full of orchards and gardens. Further away, Punjabi Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Gulabi Bagh and even Jor Bagh enjoyed an abundance of trees. We would feast on loquat, jamun, mangoes, mulberries and ber and most of the time the good-natured gardeners did not mind our plunders. The banks of the Jamuna were surrounded by fields that were our favourite hunting grounds because of the antelopes and wild boar that roamed the area in hundreds. It was such a complete and self-enclosed universe for those who lived there that everyone referred to the parts of Delhi outside the walled city as jungle bar.

We would also stroll in groups to Nizamuddin to hear the qawwalis at the annual urs marking a saint’s death or birth anniversary. The urs were great occasions for hearing the best qawwals in the country. I had the good fortune to hear Habib Painter sing at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin.



The tradition of urs and mushairas were the vestiges of a more spectacular and stupendous past – Mughal civilisation at its zenith. If I loved the Old Delhi I grew up in, the people around me made it clear that it was nothing compared to the splendours they either recalled, or had read about, of the city’s earlier imperial glory. If the old families of Old Delhi preserved the cultural traditions by continuing to hold urs and mushairas in their homes, it was as much a homage to Mughal culture and refinement. But unlike the mushairas in homes, the emperor and nobles held them on a much larger scale at the Red Fort or in their mansions. These were great social occasions, talked about for weeks and graced by the presence of some of the best Urdu poets of the times such as Mir, Momin, Ghalib, Zauq and Dard.



The mahaul during Mughal times was the exact antithesis of the decay and decline that characterise Old Delhi today. The streets and alleys pulsated with life, beauty, grace and a refinement that overwhelmed visitors. This was a culture that knew it was splendid and proud of its achievements. The tea houses in the walled city were frequented by intellectuals, poets, royal courtiers and scholars who would spend hours discussing the topics of the day. It was not just Indians who were enchanted by the street life, culture and shops; the city’s fame spread far and wide. Chandni Chowk, for example, came to be regarded as one of the greatest trading centres and bazaars of the Orient, particularly for jewellery, a place where merchants from China, Arabia and Persia would congregate to buy and sell precious stones, perfumes and fabulous brocades.

After the Mutiny, of course, many prominent Muslim families fell on bad times as the British wreaked their terrible retribution on perceived collaborators or sympathisers. The fortunes of many plummeted; the fall in social status was often greater. The members of some former Mughal families resorted to earning a living from selling racing pigeons. Some princesses ended up marrying commoners or begging on the streets because their entire families had been wiped out in the bloodbath that followed the Mutiny and the families and acquaintances that remained were simply too frightened to take them in for fear of British retaliation.

Today’s mad congestion was unknown then, naturally enough, but it was also unknown when I was growing up. Of course, areas such as the one where Old Delhi railway station is now located and the area between Company Garden and Kashmere Gate were quite heavily populated. But somehow the canals and the foliage of the tree-lined roads imparted a sense of peace and order. For example, there was a big pond between the Town Hall and Nai Sadak in Chandni Chowk where, later on, the Clock Tower was built. And a canal flowed from the Red Fort to Fatehpuri Mosque with gigantic mango and jamun trees lining the way. In the hot summer, bamboo poles would be fixed on both sides of the pavements in Chandni Chowk with vast swathes of brightly coloured cloth stretched across them to provide shade for pedestrians.



But the sights, sounds and smells of this colourful outdoor life were shrouded in mystery for the women of the zenana where life went on, month after month, year after year, with a relentless monotony relieved only by the occasional visit from an aunt, cousin or some relative. Women rarely went out anywhere. Since the city was predominantly Muslim, purdah was observed by all women. Somehow, women devised their own entertainment, joking and gossiping among themselves or with the servants and looking forward to festivals, parties and weddings. The boredom was so phenomenal that some women would organise weddings of their dolls and host parties for the families of the ‘bride’ and ‘bridegroom’. If nothing else, it gave these cloistered women a chance to dress up and look forward to something. Sometimes nautch girls would be invited to sing and dance on special occasions.

Unable to participate in the external world, women relied on their own elaborate intelligence networks to find out what was happening in the city – who was marrying whom, whose child was misbehaving, whose parents were being neglected or whose husband was philandering. Since respectable women rarely went shopping in the market, merchants took their wares to them. So, apart from bringing fruit, sweetmeats, bangles and clothes to the women inside their havelis, the female merchandise sellers would also convey to them gossip and news from the wider society otherwise inaccessible.



This lack of education and knowledge meant most women were markedly superstitious. They tended to blame evil spirits for virtually every ailment and would call mendicants or holy men, asking for amulets and charms to keep the evil spirits away. It was common for people in the walled city to describe dust storms during the summer as ‘the marriage’ of djinns or evil spirits. Old women would quickly put a broom under the leg of a bed in the hope that it would keep the djinns away. Women were gullible victims of quacks and their cures. I remember some who visited my neighbourhood claiming that burying the blood of a cockerel was a wonderful way of exorcising ghosts.

Despite the dependence on holy men and traditional forms of medicine, western-style education had nevertheless started making inroads towards the end of the 19th century. St. Stephen’s College was started in 1881 and Hindu College a few years later. Both Muslims and Hindus needed much cajoling to persuade them to send their daughters to school or college. Queen Mary School, set up by Christian missionaries in 1911, was one of the first school for girls to be established in northern India. Initially located near the Jama Masjid (it was later moved to Tis Hazari when more space was required), its exceptionally high walls were built out of deference to Muslim parental anxiety that no prying eyes should get a glimpse of the young girls who were, in any case, accompanied by chaperones who waited in one part of the building until school was over.



The daughters of the Muslim aristocracy and the upper middle classes began attending school, arriving in elegant horse-drawn carriages. Their attendance marked a revolution in social customs, a radical break with the tradition of keeping girls at home and in a state of ignorance. For boys too, education became more popular as parents realised that it could help their sons find secure government jobs and improve their matrimonial prospects. Those families who refused to embrace education and stuck to feudal attitudes gradually but inexorably fell behind the times.

The onset of western education also brought about changes in lifestyle: men began to wear western clothes; European-style furniture was introduced in homes; eating out in restaurants and hotels became acceptable; the cigarette pushed the hookah into obscurity; sherbet and falooda gave way to soda lemonade; horse-drawn carriages were forced to give right of way to motor cars; and instead of buying havelis, affluent people bought houses in the new residential areas of Civil Lines and New Delhi. The walled city began to change. People increasingly began to seek jobs in government offices and commercial establishments. Traders became important and respectable citizens, as did factory owners. In direct proportion to their earlier social ascendancy, the former nobility now fell into decline and was relegated to the fringes.



Almost all senior officials were British in the decades before independence. Some Indians held them in great awe. My father would tell me, without irony, that any Indian summoned by a British officer would instinctively feel nervous and half-guilty as though he were a schoolboy being hauled up by a policeman; he would adjust his cap, button up his coat and look anxiously at the sahib’s face to decipher what exactly lay in store. It came as no surprise, therefore, that a newspaper in the 1930s offered the following advice to Indians on how to conduct themselves when called to the home or office of an Englishman:

‘Do not go to visit an Englishman before 10 a.m. and after 1 p.m. If another visitor comes then leave. Take permission to leave. The British do not have the custom of telling you to go, so do not wait for him to say something, just leave. If the lady of the house is present then wish her respectfully. If the lady extends her hand to shake yours, only then shake hands with her. Do not comment on her looks. Do not tell her your problems or of any other persons, only if she asks may you tell her. Very often Indians say things that annoy the British, so be careful.

Dress properly, do not wear a cap or loose pyjama... do not under any circumstances talk of personal and family matters. Sometimes elderly people ask questions as to how many rooms there are in the kothi or what is the person’s salary or if he knows so and so. This is considered extremely improper. Apart from this Indians have the habit of asking sahibs for letters of recommendation for friends or acquaintances – this is the reason they do not want to meet Indians.’

The glorious heritage of Old Delhi makes the decline of the past 50 years all the more distressing for people like me who lived and grew up in this enchanted, gentle and civilised city. The power never failed. Running water was available 24 hours a day. The air was clean. The streets of the bazaars were sprinkled with water during the summer afternoons to keep the dust levels down. That Old Delhi is now a distant dream. It could not have survived unchanged; it had to meet the challenges of the modern world and adopt, but it failed to emerge from this enterprise successfully because it was let down by the bankruptcy of political leadership and administration.



Yet, it hasn’t been for lack of administration or management. Ironically, until the late 1950s, only a deputy commissioner administered Delhi. Now there is a lieutenant governor, chief minister, state assembly, mayor, municipal corporation, and a Delhi Development Authority. But everywhere corruption and chaos prevail. Everything, from roads to sewers, is choking. Old Delhi is dying. Mir Taqi Mir once said, ‘Dilli jo ek shahr tha aalam mein intikhaab/Hum rehne wale hain usi ujre dayar ke – There was a city, famed throughout the world/Where dwelt the chosen spirits of the age/Delhi its name, fairest among the fair/Fate looted it and laid it desolate/And to that ravaged city I belong.’

If the equally great poet Zauq were to see what has become of Old Delhi now, he would not have asked, as he once did in a famous couplet, ‘Kaun jaye Zauq Dilli ki galiyan chor ke’ – Who would wish to leave the lanes of Delhi and live elsewhere? Instead, he would ask: who could bear to stay?