Growing up in CP

LALIT NIRULA

back to issue

Dilliwallahs was a term used for people whose families had been living in Old Delhi – or Purani Dilli – for generations. My family migrated to Delhi in the 1920s and settled in a brand new, still-under-construction, 20,000 inhabitant-strong, New Delhi. And that, I guess, would technically make us Nai Dilliwalas! My folks were one of the few Punjabi families who lived in Delhi in the ’20s and I, the Nai Dilliwala or CP wallah, was born at Lady Hardinge Hospital, just a stone’s throw from Connaught Place. The first four years of my life were spent at Hanuman Road, right next to CP and from then on, for the next 58 years, I lived and worked in CP.

My father remembered seeing a train track passing through the not-yet-completed Connaught Place complex, en-route to Raisina Hill, carrying building material for the under-construction Rashtrapati Bhavan, North and South Blocks and Parliament House. While the whole complex of the inner and outer circle is popularly known as Connaught Place, or CP, the outer ring of buildings was called Connaught Circus and the inner ring was called Connaught Place. Most of the buildings came up in the ’20s and ’30s and the last buildings to come up were as late as the ’50s.

There was a big divide between the old parts of Delhi and the new, culturally and physically. I remember an aunt telling me how in the late ’20s, she returned to Delhi by train with her brother and got off at the main Delhi station which was in Old Delhi. As her husband lived and worked in New Delhi, she wanted to go there immediately. However, it was winter and dark when she alighted from the train, and she was advised not to venture towards New Delhi until the next morning, as in the area between the walls of Old Delhi (where Asaf Ali Road and Ramlila grounds are now located) and Connaught Place, there was a jungle and it was not safe to travel at night!

CP was not a favoured shopping centre in the early days and there were very few people who wanted to open retail outlets there. While the ground and mezzanine floors were commercial space, the upper floors were residential and till the ’70s, continued to be primarily residential.

My father and uncle were young bachelors running a photo studio in D-Block and, being fond of good food, had to travel to Chandni Chowk or Kashmiri Gate in Old Delhi to get a proper meal. So was born the idea of starting a small hotel with a restaurant on half the upper floor of D-Block so they could be assured of good food! Encouraged by their neighbour, Mr Beaty of S.M.G. Beaty, they opened Hotel India in 1934. Hotel India became popular, as the only other hotel that existed in New Delhi at that time was a luxury hotel, The Imperial. Marina Hotel in G-Block came up a little later.

While CP was still developing, my father and uncle discovered a large ground floor location being used for charpai storage on the corner of L-Block in the outer circle. They negotiated with the four owners and took it on rent and opened a first class restaurant and bar serving continental and Indian food and named it Nirulas Corner House in early 1942.

 

During the War years, business improved substantially and the restaurant became well-known for its food and entertainment which included cabarets, flamenco dancers, magicians, and performance ballroom dancing. A friend’s father told me that as a young cavalry officer in the early ’40s, posted in Delhi Cantonment during the war, he would motorcycle down to our restaurant once a week to have ‘desi khana’, as all he got in his very pukka British Army Mess was insipid British food!

An Englishman who met me in the ’90s showed me one of our table d’hote menus from the early ’40s that offered two 5 course meals, for two rupees each! His father had picked up the menu when he was posted in India.

Gol Dakhana (GPO), New Delhi.

I remember being told of a legendary gourmand, a very eminent tall and rotund lawyer who was a regular at our restaurant for lunch. He would sit at his favourite table and ask the butler, Jameel, what was being offered. He would select one of the full meals and many times, after finishing it, would proceed to enquire about what else was available as he was still a little hungry. He would then order the second meal and proceed to finish that as well.

 

Christmas and New Year’s eve were magical times for me. The restaurant would be decorated for the festive season on the evening of 22 December, the eve of my birthday. I would go there on the 23rd and be delighted to see all the decorations which I thought had been done specially for me! Imagine my delight at seeing a sparkly, brightly festooned Connaught Place done up just to wish me a happy birthday.

Besides our establishment, there were two other restaurants in CP by then, both owned and run by foreigners – Davico’s, the present Standard Restaurant in Regal Building and Wengers. In the ’40s and ’50s many more restaurants opened – Kwality, Gaylord, Volga, Alps, United Coffee House, York, and more.

 

Post 1947, my family realized that with the British leaving, market requirements had changed. They closed down the existing restaurant and in 1950 started three new restaurants in the same space.

The first one was a 150-seat modern cafeteria which catered to the large new middle class, and soon became very popular. It introduced into India – what is now commonplace – clean hygienic food cooked to order in front of the customer, with payment at the end of the cafeteria line. It also introduced the long milk shake spoon which would often be in short supply as it became a great souvenir item!

The second restaurant was a ‘brasserie’ modelled on the ones in France, but the concept was 50 years before its time and not very successful. The third restaurant, the Chinese Room, was the first de luxe Chinese restaurant in India owned by non-Chinese people. It ran successfully for over 55 years.

The Chinese Room’s first chef, Li Wo Po, was introduced to us by the interior designer, Edwin Chan. Li Wo Po had come to India in ’42 with Chiang Kai Shek and decided to stay on. He was very happily married to a South Indian lady. They had an ideal relationship , as he did not speak English or any Indian language and she only spoke her mother tongue! How they communicated remains a mystery.

He came to work wearing a suit, but without a tie and was a great chef in the classical sense of the word. While communicating with him was difficult without an interpreter, he did manage to get his requirements across. I remember being in the office when he arrived all upset about something and started going red in the face as he tried explaining something he wanted and which my father was not able to understand. He then rushed off and returned with an egg which he placed on a chair, half sat on it and then said ‘no no’! It subsequently transpired that for his soup stock, he was getting hens while he wanted old male chickens.

In the ’40s and early ’50s, it was quite common for the well-off to go out for dinner and dance as all restaurants had a live band, many with crooners. As the ’50s and ’60s progressed, this became more and more expensive and by the early ’70s few restaurants had a band.

 

In 1958, we had opened the first modern fully air conditioned 3-star hotel in India at L-Block, above the restaurant complex. By the late ’50s, my family had seen the trend and in 1960, shut down the cafeteria and brasserie and opened two speciality restaurants without any live music. One was for Indian food and was called Gufa, with the interiors done by a close family friend, the artist, M.R. Acharekar, who had won Filmfare’s best art director award three times. He got his team of set designers from Bombay to do the work, and the restaurant was unique in its presentation. Created like the Ajanta Ellora caves, the entire service was silver and the waiters were dressed in white and red with high pugdees. The restaurant had three different chefs – one for vegetarian cuisine, one for meat, chicken and fish curries, and one for tandoori dishes.

I had by then started working part-time in the restaurants and was present in the office when the meat chef was being interviewed. He was a burly Sikh who had worked with the Maharaja of Patiala and when asked what his food was like, his reply was that it was of such good quality that our customers would taste it in their burp’s 24 hours later! He was hired but his rich food was toned down substantially to meet the digestive requirements of mere mortals.

 

The second restaurant was called ‘La Boheme’ and was designed by Luc Durant, a Swiss architect based in Delhi. La Boheme was avant garde and set a trend in food, concept and design. It had a wood beamed ceiling with the beams set at different heights. Jute fabric runners in black and white ran over and under these beams and lights in cylindrical lampshades with a switch, hung low over every table. Specializing in Austro-Hungarian cuisine, La Boheme served continental food. It was the first restaurant to serve a large variety of coffee and boasted of the second espresso machine in India, a chrome beauty by Gaggia. Heading the kitchen was the Hungarian Mrs. Messinger, a professional chef who made the best apple strudel I have ever eaten.

The restaurant was a novel concept and became popular with artists and writers and the regular business and shopping crowd who visited CP. It also became a favourite haunt of young couples as at that time there was a dearth of places for the young to hang out. After a few months we had to remove the light switches from the lamps that hung on top of the tables, so that the lights were always on, particularly in the quiet corners that had become very popular with them!

In the ’50s and ’60s, Sunday noon saw the college going trendsetters at jam sessions hosted by restaurants. These sessions served two purposes; first, the crowd got to hang out and meet new people and second, the dancing was considered quite trendy. These were times that saw the birth of the chacha cha and the twist.

Most of the corporate offices in Delhi in the ’50s and ’60s were located either at CP or Asaf Ali Road. It was the done thing among the managerial class, the shop owners and the local politicians to go to a restaurant for a mid-morning and early evening break. In the early 1960s, a very popular large India Coffee House was started by the Coffee Board in the area where the underground Palika parking is today, opening onto the inner circle. It soon became a favourite among politicians, the press and the ‘intellectuals’. When Palika Bazaar was planned in the late ’70s, it was removed to an upper floor of a building on Baba Kharak Singh Marg where it currently languishes.

 

By the time my generation reached college, we started visiting restaurants to listen to the music, and there were some good bands playing jazz. Of course, we could not afford to eat anything and had to make do with a coffee or a cold drink. As we wanted to spend the maximum time possible in the restaurant, and there were free coffee refills, this was not an issue. However, if one did not like coffee, bottles of coke were ordered and drunk with a paper straw pinched in the middle to reduce the flow of the cola to make it last for at least an hour.

Nirulas Corner House, L-Block, Connaught Circus.

By the mid ’60s, restaurants in CP wised-up to our money saving techniques and put a limit of two cups of coffee per person. They had discovered that even with a full house in the evenings, their sales were minimal and constituted primarily of coke and coffee.

In the early ’70s, with maximum income tax levels being 97.5 per cent along with managerial salary restrictions, the CP restaurants, including ours, found business dwindling. This prompted our experiment in ’71 with a new style of restaurant in CP, where food offered was very reasonably priced, cooked to order and picked up from counters. It had a variety of Indian and Anglo-Indian food items as well as soft drinks, soft ice cream and selected bakery products. It became very popular, with both maharajah’s and taxi drivers visiting it and even ending up sharing tables, where they ate the food standing.

 

In ’48, our residence moved to D-Block in the inner circle of buildings from Gokul Niwas in M-Block where we had lived for a couple of years. It was one of the few upper floors in CP which had an entrance from the inner circle verandah while most others had their entrance from the back of the building. As our building had only one upper floor, the ceilings were almost 18 feet high and we had internal courtyards for air and light besides a huge 12 foot wide verandah running the full length of the building and facing the park. We slept in it during the summer or on the roof with mosquito netting and it was magical in summer at night watching the stars and seeing the clouds move over the moon. Of course, any rain would cause much scrambling to remove the beds to safety. One of summer’s compensations was the fragrant motia (jasmine) strung into a small mala (necklace), available from the vendors roaming the corridors. Women would wear these malas in their hair or on their wrists. The men would buy them for the women and I would wrap one in a wet handkerchief to keep it fresh, and go to sleep with it next to my pillow.

 

The road on which D-Block was located abutted the building with a narrow pavement and cars (the few that were there) parked perpendicular to the building. The central park was much larger in those days as it included the area which is now the road, whilst the road was where today’s parking lots are located. During summer, a water tanker with a spray at the back would make a round of the CP roads in the morning, spraying water to keep the dust down. This continued until the ’60s.

The Central Park was divided into four parts with a small circular raised section in the middle like a bandstand where the Police Band would play every Friday. In the ’60s, a fountain was unsuccessfully installed in its place and the pavement surrounding it sometimes had impromptu art shows and other such happenings. This area now houses the metro station.

The park primarily had gulmohar trees and beds of canna lilies while the circumference was lined with jamun trees. As children we would throw stones at the trees to bring the fruit down, albeit unsuccessfully! And during the jamun season, fruit contractors would lay down large sheets onto which they harvested the ripe fruit by vigorously shaking the branches. We played cricket in the park in the 1950s using a gulmohar tree as the wicket. Its end came only recently when the Metro station was built.

 

I distinctly remember August 1947. We were not allowed to go outside after sundown. Late evenings were pitch dark, the shops were closed and one could clearly hear the sound of sirens. Sleeping on the roof, I remember looking towards Old Delhi and seeing a reddish glow in the sky and being told that there were fires burning in that area.

What I remember most distinctly after that was probably the second half of ’47 and ’48 when the inner circle was more crowded than it had ever been. The verandahs were full of people and walking space was limited as the refugees had opened little stalls with gas lanterns on the covered corridor floor. These people were initially shifted to Irwin Road (Baba Kharak Singh Marg) and Panchkuian Road where they opened kiosks and then some were later shifted to what became Mohan Singh Market. Many other pavement vendors were also shifted to Queensway (Janpath), as well as across the outer circle near Shankar Market, and are still there. Though Oriental Fruit Mart in E-Block was supposed to be the best fruit shop in New Delhi, the new Irwin Road fruit shops, opposite Rivoli cinema, soon became popular as they sold the best in terms of quality and price.

 

One of the most frequented dhabas in New Delhi in the ’50s and ’60s, Kake da Hotel, opened across the road from our restaurants and continues to be popular. It was then run by two brothers, each one doing either lunch or dinner with their own raw material and freshly cooked meals. Hence the food served was always freshly cooked and not leftover from the previous meal.

We were also taken for dinner to Moti Mahal in Daryaganj by the parents for tandoori food which was still a rare treat in the Delhi of that era. Kundan Lal, the owner of Moti Mahal, introduced Delhi to the delights of tandoori chicken as normally meats were cooked on horizontal skewers on a charcoal grill and the tandoor was used for cooking rotis and naans. I remember him as a large, smiling man with a large moustache, wearing a pathan suit with a pathani topi, who always greeted his regular customers at the entrance. I think he was also the inventor of ‘butter chicken’ which I was told came about when his chicken curry finished and to provide a gravy chicken dish, he took a half-done tandoori chicken, added butter, tomatoes and spices and cooked it in a frying pan. It has now become so popular that it has replaced the traditional chicken curry in popularity and is synonymous with Delhi cuisine!

CP was a very quiet place at night in the ’40s and early ’50s and I remember going for a family picnic in the inner park as it was absolutely deserted by 8 pm. I learned to cycle in the Central Park in the solitude of the early mornings. We often went for picnics to Qutab Minar and Okhla, which really seemed to be in the countryside, a long way away from CP. And the long distance made a visit to them into day trips. The area around Qutab Minar, including Mehrauli, had mango orchards and had some bungalows, and I remember hearing that the ‘Dilliwala Seth’s’ who lived in the walled city, had country homes here to house their mistresses! India Gate lawns with King George V at one end and Rashtrapati Bhavan at the other was also a favourite place in the summer evenings and for lunch during winter months up to the early ’60s as there were few people there. A favourite activity for us kids was rowing at the Boat Club.

 

I think most people in Delhi do not realize how the city has grown and that too, relatively recently. One day in 1962, my father and chacha brought me to an area full of fields, just beyond Moti Bagh, and showed a hillock they had bought. From the top of the hillock we could see people farming. This entire area now comprises R.K. Puram, Vasant Vihar, Anand Niketan, Shanti Niketan and West End!

Going for a picnic with college friends to Hauz Khas in ’61 is vivid in my memory and the monuments were then surrounded by a forest! I also remember a small village there, with no other habitation.

Very few cars were seen in the late ’40s and ’50s. The public transport system was not able to cope with the population growth post-1947. With the spread of Delhi, most people resorted to travel by bicycle. At 9.30 am, we could see hordes of bicycles interspersed with a few cars in CP. The most unusual bicyclist I saw from our first floor wore a dressing gown and was armed with a toothbrush in one hand. I have still not been able to fathom what this person was up to!

As we lived in D-Block, the Republic Day Parade would pass by on the street in front of us every other year and next to us on alternate years. As a matter of routine, this event would see many people visiting us who discovered that they had not met us for a long time and would, coincidentally, lean over the verandah railings to watch the parade pass by!

 

My schooling started at the age of four in a tent at Delhi Public School (DPS), a new school started by Reverend J.D. Tytler, a big (to me as a little child), smiling and very red-faced bearded man. It was located in the grounds of Cathedral Church of the Redemption in Church Lane near Rashtrapati Bhavan. DPS then moved to its present Mathura Road location and still operated from tents till I left the school in January 1954 to join a boarding school. Tents made for interesting classrooms and, as children, we did not find them unusual at all. In fact, whenever it rained, I had dreams of using my table as a raft and floating home on it!

Rains were a delightful and exciting time as CP roads were sure to get flooded at least once, with sometimes even the shops getting flooded. The flooding at Minto Bridge was a yearly event. I would look forward to going with someone older after the rain stopped to walk around CP, as water on the roads would be thigh deep for a 11 year old child. Minto Bridge would always be a great place to visit as normally there would be a bus or two roof deep in water! Ah, the excitement of those days!

Connaught Place in the evenings was exotic. There were peacock feather sellers, and people selling caged parrots which were also seen flying around CP in large numbers. Many times the bhaluwallah, the sapera with his ‘been’ and the bandarwallah would be seen on the open pavements and in the park.

 

The one person I have never forgotten was a dignified elderly white turbaned man who probably moved to Delhi after partition and who would walk with his bicycle in the verandahs of CP selling chooran of two varieties – ‘lakkad hazam’ and ‘patthar hazam’. He would ring his cycle bell to advertise his presence as he walked the corridors. As a child, I did not appreciate the the digestive properties of the choorans, but they were delicious and I would buy a small ‘purria’ for two annas or if we had more money, a small glass vial of chooran.

Edwin Chan lived in CP and was an interior designer who specialized in wood furniture and interiors and as a very young man had worked with his father on the woodwork of the Viceroy’s House (Rashtrapati Bhavan). His passion was to invent and develop a perpetual motion machine and till he died sometime in the early ’90s, when asked how the project was going, he would optimistically proclaim that it was just a step away from completion.

Another interesting and talented individual was Nishi Nakra, whom I got to know in 1960 when he did the music system for our new restaurant, La Boheme. He was a good engineer and passionate about sound. He developed speakers and amplifiers under the brand name, Enbee, in an era when such items could not be imported. Besides being an inventive engineer, he was also a very talented singer and I would often visit him at his shop in Shankar Market which was just a few minutes from my home and office. There one would often meet or see many of the people who were to become well-known in public life and business.

Looking at it today, it may be difficult to believe that CP was a great place to grow up. For a child and a teenager, it had everything. As children, we were sent to the central park every evening where we had a lot of space to run around and play games. There were vendors selling balloons, toys and sweets, ice-lolly chuskis which were made of shaved ice particles fixed on a stick with a choice of lovely coloured syrups poured onto them! Despite the scolding we knew we would get (the water was not ‘safe’), we loved them.

 

There was also the seller of buddi mai ke baal (candyfloss) who would sell his goods from a glassed in trolley. Delicious aam papad (beaten and dried mango) and soft imli (tamarind) was available at a bania’s shop in the middle circle behind M-Block and was another favourite. The aam papad was sour and leathery in feel but was utterly delicious, especially with a sprinkling of kala namak (black salt). The imli was soft, gooey and sour and much appreciated. When we had saved some money, we would go to J.B. Mangaram on the side of F-Block, facing E-Block, which had a great collection of sweets in glass jars on top of the counters which were the same height as we were.

D-Block, Connaught Place, located in the inner circle was a fascinating place to grow up in. Our neighbours included Odeon cinema, Snowhite dry cleaners, S.M.G. Beaty, Ramchander & Sons and Bata, among other well-known shops of the time.

One of our favourite treats was to go to Bengali Market to Bhim Sain’s shop and stand next to a opening on the side to eat gol gappa’s, except during the monsoon when we were forbidden to have any street food. After Shankar Market came up, the best alu tikki’s were available from a vendor who made them fresh, sitting in the verandah.

 

From a very young age, Hanuman Mandir was a popular place to go on Tuesdays when there was also a weekly bazaar there. My elder sister would buy bangles and parandis and I would look at the interesting shops and people, including the fortune-teller who used sparrows to select cards which answered your questions. The market had no electric lighting and all the luminescence came from smoky kerosene lamps. It was a magical place with hustle and bustle, lot of colour and textures and glittering products. Another popular place to visit was Jantar Mantar with its astronomy instruments made out of large brick structures set in a park which provided great places for playing hide and seek!

My elder sister and I would visit ‘Panditji’s’ bookshop on Irwin Road in the early ’50s to borrow books. Later on the shop moved to Shankar Market where it still operates from. The rate was four annas a book, returnable in a week! Panditji’s real name was Ram Gopal Sharma and he was a short rotund man who wore a Gandhi topi. He had a quick turn of phrase and would suffer no fools! I continued borrowing books from him till the early ’60s and my younger siblings followed the tradition.

The three main bookshops in CP that I visited were B.D. Galgotia, Rama Krishna and Sons and New Book Depot, located next to each other in B-Block. Rama Krishna had books not only on shelves but in stacks on the floor. It dealt with more serious stuff which at the time I was not interested in. I had little money and preferred the other two shops as I could read their hard bound comics till I was shooed away by the staff. In my college days, I started visiting another interesting bookshop in Shankar Market called Piccadilly which had fascinating books on sociology, religion and spiritual subjects and was, in the late ’60s and ’70s, frequented by hippies who were looking to give a new meaning to their lives.

 

The best movie halls in Delhi were in CP and the favourite recreational activity of many at a time when there was no TV and very few options for entertainment. There were four movie halls – Odeon (right around the corner from my home), Plaza, Regal and Rivoli. As a teenager, my desired quota was one movie a week and that depended on my pocket money. Tickets ranged from a low 12 annas to a high of three rupees and 12 annas. One of the earliest movies I remember seeing was ‘Bud Abbot and Lou Costello meet Frankenstein’. All I remember of it is that I spent half the time (which was whenever Frankenstein appeared on the screen) hiding my face on the seat!

The best dance schools in New Delhi were in the CP area, including one for ballroom dancing. As a little child, I would reluctantly accompany my sister to her school, Sangeet Bharati on the first floor of G-Block, where she learned kathak and I vividly remember the sound of bells on the anklets of the girls.

There were three well-known shops for haircare in the CP area – Roy and James, Tawar and Susan, and A.N. John & Co. where people got their hair cut in individual cubicles. Tawar, known as ‘Chuttan’ to us, came to our home once a fortnight since the late ’30s. It was only after he died in the 1960s that I started going to a haircutting salon.

 

The best shops in Delhi were located in the CP area, such as Empire Stores, Hamiltons, Trevelyan and Clark, Enid’s (for western dresses), Cooke and Kelvey, Kanji Mull & Sons, and the two large sports goods shops – Uberoi and Pioneer Sports. Harnarain Gopinath on the side of B-Block sold a large variety of good quality achars (pickles) and morabba’s (preserves). Next to it was Keventer’s which sold sweet bottled milk and other dairy products, including butter. M.R. Stores on the corner of G-Block was an unusual shop as it sold two very different items – hardware and knitting wool.

Shops selling musical instruments were located on the outer circle on G-Block below Marina Hotel as well as on Parliament Street (Godin & Co). The Cottage Industries Emporium opened in a temporary barracks sort of building on Queensway (Janpath) in the early ’50s and became very popular because of its large variety of well-designed and crafted handicrafts and handloom clothing available under one roof for the first time in India. Bata at D-Block and Baluja’s at B-Block were there even when I was a child and that’s where we went to buy shoes almost every year for school. The biggest toy shop in New Delhi, Ram Chander & Sons, was just about 40 feet away from Bata.

By the time the ’50s and ’60s came around, CP was the best commercial and retail centre of Delhi with all the new offices of the multinationals and airlines. Later on, when the new high-rise buildings on the connecting roads like Barakhamba Road and Curzon Road (now Kasturba Gandhi Marg) came up, its position as the commercial centre strengthened. In those days, most senior managers working in the CP area who had personal transport, would generally go back home for lunch and a quick siesta and CP would be empty with no one walking around as all shops closed for lunch.

 

Walking in Connaught Place recently was a strange feeling as I have rarely visited it after I stopped working there just over five years ago. CP now is so changed from the magical world of my childhood and youth, it is like stepping into unknown territory. Instead of the relaxed shopping centre it was until the ’70s, it has changed as has Delhi. By the 1980s, a large number of multistorey office buildings had come up both on Barakhamba Road and Curzon Road (K.G. Marg) and as life had got more competitive, all shops now remain open in the afternoons. The state emporiums have been given their own section on Baba Kharak Singh Marg (Irwin Road) and are popular with tourists. With the coming of the metro, CP is now charged with a very different energy and like the city of Delhi, not very sure of what the future holds.

Many old restaurants have disappeared, even as more new ones have opened. Most of the movie houses have long gone and the best shops are no longer in CP. The traffic is horrendous as it has become a transit point for people travelling to different parts of Delhi. The metro has also contributed to the crowds and eventually I see CP becoming the biggest and best market for the growing middle class in India, compared to my childhood years when it was the exclusive shopping ground of the affluent cognoscenti.

top