Capital Neighbourhood — A Booklover's Life in Ballimaran

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A Booklover's Life in Ballimaran

All he want is some quiet.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

How is it like to live in Ballimaran, an Old Delhi neighbourhood?

The dominantly Muslim mohalla boasts winding alleys, decaying havelis, crumbling balustrades, half-lit carom-board clubs, and chatty chai stalls. It is most famous for being the final address of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. More recently, film star Aishwarya Rai shook her buttocks to the chartbuster Kajra re song whose lyrics included the word BALLIMARAN.

Be it morning, noon, evening or midnight, Ballimaran is always toasting up in hyper energy. Madrassa children skating down the street, bakeries sending out fumes of fresh breads, Bihari laborers hobbling ahead with load on their head, stunningly beautiful girls shopping along with their sharp-eyed mothers and on every street, shop, corner, lamppost – a cluster of flat-stomached, broad chested, testerone-powered, clean shaven boys. Swearwords on their lips, lust in their eyes. While the background prop is made up by stores selling stylish goggles, silver chains, leather sandals and multi-coloured glass bangles.

Such are the scenes of Ballimaran. An outsider may mistake it for a carefree 24/7 club where no one struggles with James Joyce, no one has a mean day job; where most know their Ghalib and everyone glows in a halo of good sex life.

Not true.

“There’s no peace here,” says 25-year-old Muhammad Asim Khan who lives in Ballimaran and has a…day job. I met him one late evening in the courtyard of Fatehpuri Masjid, a 17th century mosque. He was performing ablutions in the mosque’s pool. A cold wind was blowing and it had already grown dark.

“Those who live in suburban apartments harbor romantic vision of Old Delhi,” he says. “But here is much noise, less romance.” Asim’s house, as it happens, is in Gali Qasim Jaan, just 200 meter from Ghalib’s haveli.

And he knows his Ghalib.

“I’m fond of Ghalib’s verses,” he says. Methinks that young people like Asim are perhaps rare in Ballimaran. I’ve talked to quite a lot of them during my earlier strolls here and have always put the same question – “Do you read Ghalib?” Most shook their head.

It’s understandable. In these times when Urdu language has been left to rot in Muslim ghettos, when a bastardized form of Hindi (Hinglish) is celebrated in Bollywood films and when English is looked upon as the tongue of the successful, Ghalib has been justifiably exiled into the musty drawing rooms of old world fuddy-duddies.

Blame Ghalib, too.

“Ghalib’s language is difficult and there are too many Persian words,” says Asim. “It’s not just the vocabulary but also the way he presents his ideas.” Asim then gave me an example which, according to him, is a classic example of Urdu-Persian mishmash:

Harife matlabe mushkil nahin phusune niyaz,
Dua kubool ho ya rab ke umre khizra daraz.

[Sorry, no translation; Asim himself didn’t knew the meaning!]

However, what honked me out of my Ballimaran>Muslim>Urdu>Ghalib stereotype was when Asim confessed his attachment to Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison! Fancy someone walking down a Ballimaran alley carrying a Toni Morrison. “I read her Beloved in my college,”. Asim remembers. “It was difficult to get a copy since there’s no bookshop here selling English novels.”

In fact, Asim, who speaks a flawless Urdu and an almost-flawless English, is the only one in his family who reads English language books. His cousins read “only a bit of Ghalib and lot of Urdu magazines” while he has a library of around 600 books.

Asim was recently thrilled when he spotted Arundhati Roy at the Indian Social Institute, in Lodhi Institutional Area. “She had poured all of herself into The God of Small Things,” he says.

But the author closest to Asim’s heart is Joseph Conrad.

“Isn’t the mood of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness very far from the kind of place you’re living in?”, I ask. After giving a deep thought, Asim answers: “I don’t desire the terrifying loneliness that Conrad evoked in that novel but I’ll be happier with some solitude. We have a joint family of 12 people living in a house of five rooms. Even if I shut off my room, the noise and the intrusion never stop. I’m unable to read in peace. Whether I’m inside the house or outside, there’s always a little too much of life when what I seek is a little bit of quiet.”

A long pause follows. We fall silent. Soon the muzzezzin’s call fill the empty courtyard.

As we get ready to perform the namaz, Asim tells me: “When I go to other parts of Delhi like Connaught Place or the Citywalk mall in Saket, I get thunderstruck by their cosmopolitan glamour. But these places shut down by late evening and they have no inner life. That nightlife and soul can, however, be always found in Old Delhi, in Ballimaran.”

Give me peace, Asim in Fatehpuri Masjid

A Booklover's Life in Ballimaran

But where’s the peace, Gali Qasim Jan

Ballimaran Lites