Mission Delhi – Satnam Singh Juneja, Pratap Street

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

In a neighbourhood where most houses are small and over-crowded, Satnam Singh Juneja is the master of an eight-room address. All his walls are painted blue. But the home is unkempt. The bed sheet is crumpled. The dining table is dusty. In the courtyard, a Bajaj scooter stands rusting and an ancient spinbike looks defunct. “Being alone, I don’t take much interest in cleaning and upkeep,” the 69-year-old Sikh says. “For instance, I don’t mind going to bed even if I’m in a pant-shirt.”

Mr Juneja has been living in Pratap Street, a narrow lane in Daryaganj, for more than 40 years. A retired official of the Delhi government, he spends his day with newspapers and a black & white television. “I feel very lonely,” he says. “But I’ve no choice. I’m a divorcee.”

In the bedroom, a dog is taking a nap. “He is not a pet,” says Mr Juneja. The dog lives in the street but when sleepy, enters his home and climbs onto the bed, next to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. Mr Juneja does not mind. “I feel good each time this dog comes and takes possession of my bed. He is like my custodian. When I’m asleep, he sneaks in to see if I’m safe.” There is also a cat somewhere. “I leave a bowl of milk for her on the stairs,” he says. “She knows and so always comes for it.”

Mr Juneja’s wife was a schoolteacher. When they separated in 1984, she moved to Model Town in north Delhi, and he was left with his mother. The old woman died three years ago. “I should have cared more for ma,” he says. “I miss her the most.”

Does he miss the ex-wife, too?

He searches for an answer before replying, “With time, memories fade.” He meets her on rare occasions, though. “She came to my mother’s funeral, and I attended her mother’s.”

Mr Juneja had a senior post in the government, retiring as an assistant director. “As chief entertainment tax inspector of Golcha and Delite, these cinemas could not sell a single ticket without my permission.” Both film theaters are within walking distance from his house. “Sometimes I watch films at Golcha,” he says. “But I don’t meet the authorities; instead, I stand in the queue and purchase a ticket secretly.”

Apart from occasional visits to the cinema, Mr Juneja rarely ventures beyond Daryaganj. “I avoid going out due to my financial constraint,” he says. “I never had much to save and pensions can only cover your hand-to-mouth existence. I have no hard cash.”

During the Indian Partition in 1947, Mr Juneja was very young but well-off. His father owned a petrol pump. When they migrated from what is now Pakistan, his kite was brought to Delhi by an aeroplane. Today, he cannot afford a cook. “It is all a game of life,” he says, laughing. “You either gets a boy, or a girl.”

Mr Juneja has a handsome portrait of his father by the beside. The old man looks livelier than his son. “I have no children but I have five sisters and one brother and they keep in touch,” he says.

Other than his sisters or nieces, he never allows any woman to enter the house. “Since I live alone, I do not want people to speculate on my character,” he says. Occasional pleasures mean a glass of beer or whiskey.

Hasn’t he got tired of living in this street?

Jo sukh chajju ke chaubare,” Mr Juneja shoots back a Punjabi saying, “woh naa Ballakh, naa Bukhare (The joy that a poor man has in his own courtyard could never be his even in the fabled cities of Balkh or Bukhara).”

If only the adage was as true as life. “On the whole,” Mr Juneja says, “I don’t think I’m happy.”

[This is the fourth portrait of the Mission Delhi project]