The last days of the avenue.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Speeding cars are making gentle breezy sounds. Somewhere a peacock is crying out. While the soft sun of the August evening is filling Aurangzeb Road with golden light. The Delhi Walla is walking on this tree-lined avenue with a gathering sense of loss. These are the last days of Aurangzeb Road.
The New Delhi Municipal Council has decided to change the name of this Central Delhi road in honor of APJ Kalam, the former Indian president who died a few weeks ago. The demand to rename the road was made by a Delhi MP who was reported by the media to have said that “Whenever we remember [Mughal emperor] Aurangzeb, we think about cruelty and torture. We do not want to be reminded of that. A P J Abdul Kalam, on the other hand, is known for his love for the nation, his loyalty to the country, his generosity and kindness. We need to correct the mistakes made in our history.”
In the old days, Aurangzeb Road was the address of historically important figures such as Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the ‘Iron Man’ Vallabhbhai Patel. Today, it is peopled by industrialists and ambassadors. The 17th century monarch after whom the avenue was named was said to be brutal but we are perhaps missing the point. Aurangzeb Road is (was?) now no longer about Aurangzeb. In our present-day Delhi, it is a state of mind.
Sit alone in a dark room, close your eyes and utter the word ‘Aurangzeb Road’.
What do you see?
I see images of dainty sandwiches, Anglicized accents, uniformed servants–a world inhabited by aristocratic people whom we would never get to meet. But at least we could always walk down the pavements of Aurangzeb Road, and gaze at the bungalows, and fantasize the life unfolding elegantly inside those fortified walls.
One of the most revealing descriptions of an insider’s life in Aurangzeb Road appears in the political memoirs of venerable journalist Tavleen Singh. A member of Delhi’s high society, she wrote in her 2012 book, Durbar:
“My parents lived in what used to be called Southend Lane, a narrow lane between Aurangzeb Road and Prithviraj Road, in a house my mother inherited from my father. The Indian contractors who worked with [architect] Edwin Lutyens to build New Delhi were given different sections of the new city to develop and my grandfather ended up owning several houses on Aurangzeb Road, including number 10, which he sold to Mohammed Ali Jinnah when my grandmother threatened to move into it after he secretly married again. My grandmother had been unable to give him a son and an heir.”
We do not necessarily need to be a highborn to savor the vine-covered gentility of Aurangzeb Road. Just a walk may give you a sense of its exclusivity.
The residence of the Canadian high commissioner faces the highly-secured Israeli embassy. The ambassador of Brazil lives close in a white bungalow; the garden is visited by peacocks. Further down is house number 10. It is the home of the ambassador of the Netherlands. This was Jinnah’s house. It was here that he held his last press conference before leaving for Pakistan in 1947. Jinnah sold this house to industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia, who sold it to the Dutch embassy.
Elsewhere, a rusting notice board on a red-painted brick wall says:
GATE NO. 4
EMBASSY OF HASHEMITE
KINGDOM OF JORDAN
TEMPORARILY CLOSED DUE TO
A little slice of Paris, too, is on Aurangzeb Road. The French Cultural Center is situated on this avenue.
The address plates on all these landmarks still bore the name of Aurangzeb Road. Soon they will become just one more invisible layer of Delhi’s history.
Bye Aurangzeb, hello Kalam
1. (Jinnah’s former house)