A house in Delhi.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
There are as many staircases in the big house as there are sights of the Walled City from the roof.
The Delhi Walla is in the Old Delhi home of Arshad Ali Fehmi and his wife, Sheeba Aslam. He, in his words, is an activist “trying to revive the pristine glory of the Jama Masjid with the help of like-minded people”. She is pursuing a PhD thesis on the “Absence of Protest among Indian Muslim Women Post-Shah Bano.”
The couple lives with their son, Omaiyer, a political science student in Delhi University. Their home in Chhatta Sheikh Mangloo offers a half-view of the grand Jama Masjid. Spread over 500 square yards, it has 25 rooms, two courtyards and a glorious Neem tree. Starting in the ground-floor study, the solitary tree makes its way up through the ceiling and spreads out luxuriously over a terrace. It lurks in every corner of the sprawling mansion, and shows up unexpectedly as you walk from one staircase to another–the way the Jama Masjid shows up as you stroll along the Old Quarter’s quiet alleys.
The house was built by the Nawab of Bhopal, and was acquired in 1921 by Mr Fehmi’s father. A scholar, Mufti Shaukat Ali wrote more than 50 books on Islamic and Mughal history; he lies buried in the Sufi shrine of Sheikh Kaleemullah Jehanabdi near the Red Fort.
Nothing survives of the house’s original structure except for a room on the ground floor. It opens into an old-style dalaan (courtyard) with fluted columns.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the home is its intimate bond with the sky. To go from one room to another, you have to walk at least a part of the distance under the sun–if it’s day– and beneath the moon–if it’s night. The dining room window looks out to balconies, staircases and to puffs of clouds above. In the monsoon months, the Fehmis watch the rain over chai and buttered toast. In the winter, the cold mist wafts through their house’s galleries and corridors.
A few years ago, the Fehmis converted a part of the the ground floor into a hotel. Most guests happen to be pilgrims to Delhi’s many Sufi shrines. Very soon, the entire house is to make way for a new building. It will then become a much larger hotel.
The Neem tree will stay.
Stuff dreams are made of