The old man who lost his way home.
[Text and photos by Saon Bhattacharya]
I have been accused of many vices in my time, but never have I been known to have mistaken the lane leading up to my own door! Yet that is what must have happened:
Granted that my modest home is tucked within a particularly serpentine alley off the street of Ballimaran, and granted that I’m an old soul long past my expiry date—and yet I seem to have completely missed the dark and twisted Gali Qasim Jaan, as dank and dreary as a mud-spattered crow on a rainy day…. Oh for the monsoons of Dilli! The kohl-lined, pregnant clouds, the urgent peacock calls, and the earthen cups of steaming chai and jalebis at Mehboob Mian’s hole-in-the-wall establishment…but I digress. Forgive the meandering mind of an old man, dear reader.
I’m quite mystified by this new ability of mine, forgetting the way to my own hearth and home. I need to reason this out logically. My navigation skills continue to be fairly adequate, in my own estimates, so let me begin by counting out all that I do remember of my way back to the secure bosom of my household.
I know that I live on Gali Qasim Jaan on Ballimaran, which is a street closer to the Fatehpuri Masjid-end of Chandni Chowk than to the Lal Qila-end of it. That established, I also know that Ballimaran is closer to the fragrant spice market of Khari Baoli than to its more glamorous cousin, Dariba Kalan. Lastly, and very importantly, I know that I live in Dilli. Although the streets of Agra were mine too, when they called me “Asad”, but not anymore—today my heart is enamoured of Dilli, as my good friend, Zouk, would have appreciated just as well. Aah! The bitter-sweet ties that bound us to each other…. Even though I felt closer in spirit to Mir, who came before my time, it was with Zouk that I shared the evening lamp at Dilli’s last mushaira—and an old man digresses again.
So tell me, dear reader, if I’ve managed to remember all this correctly, how is it that I’m unmindful of the well-trodden path to my own door? Is it that I’m mistaken or is it that my alley and home have become unrecognizable? That the trick being played here is not that of my memory or even of my intentions of returning, but that of a different time with different manners? It is not then that I do not remember, dear reader, but that I cannot recognize… anything anymore.
To begin with: oh the unbearable crowd! This part of town was never expansive, and neither were these streets ever luxuriously wide, but never did it swamp me out either. Never was I constantly jostled and tossed about like flotsam and jetsam by men and machine alike! And then these endless shoe shops, lined up all next to each other in unending similarity.
What exactly are they doing on my street? Chappals, jootis, Angrezi boots for men, women and children, for all seasons and occasions—when did these mushroom along Ballimaran? A single ittar shop is all that my Persian inheritance of a nose can sniff out. Of my beloved bookstore, not a sign do I detect. Tell me, did they all have to emigrate to Nai Sarak en masse? Neither Mehboob Mian or any of his progeny can I find; although truth be told, a local baker still seems to be around, along with an old kebabwala or two.
In a nutshell then, my beloved Ballimaran stands blemished and scarred by more than Company cannon balls from 1857. These ravages appear harsher still. Time has been an acid test that melted all the sweet charm out of everything that I once held dear. I can hardly recognize a brick down my street, except maybe for the odd archways. Crumbling and derelict structures with their column bases coated thick with darkly vermillion paan stains and the dust of ages.
I finally decide to leave it to my old pair of patent leather jootis to trudge down their old familiar route to our very own alley—yes, the Gali Qasim Jaan.
But hark! What a crowd gathers about the place, moving as if in procession with fat, ugly green candles and masses of marigold garlands towards my doors, or what used to be them. Ya Allah, did we lack for more crowds here, weren’t there enough already? Whatever happened to the elegant oil lamps with their intricately carved crystal shades? And marigold? Is that all they could manage? Have all the mogra, juhi, chameli and gulaab withered from the gardens of Dilli?
From their urgent conversations I can make out that the procession is headed by ministers of some sort, by chairmen of sundry associations, director generals and artists in general. Here to celebrate my birth anniversary in this ridiculously propped up skeleton of my old house, recently refurbished by these same city authorities in barely less than half a dozen years ago. When my mortal remains have lain buried within this city’s soil for the last 150 years. I smirk in disbelief, and my own verses echo back at me:
“bazicha-e-atfal hai duniya mire aage
hota hai shab o roz tamasha mire aag…”
[just like a child’s playground this world appears to me
every single night and day, this spectacle I see–translation courtesy: Rekhta.org]
Note: The author lives in Gurgaon.
Through Ghalib’s feelings