City Neighborhood – Sarai Kale Khan, On the Other Side of the Tracks
A world, so close, yet so far.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Someone drifting in here with no prior knowledge can tell that this place has been transformed—it looks smart, it has been spruced up, like a star dressed up by stylists for an awards night.
Just as a star touches the rich and the poor alike, this place too touches two contrasting worlds.
In April 2016, Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station played proud host to India’s fastest train, the Gatimaan Express, which reached Agra in 100 minutes. The country’s “first semi high-speed train” was flagged off from the station’s platform No.1 by Union railway minister Suresh Prabhu. He also inaugurated the station’s spacious porch. The outer walls are covered with ceramic artworks. One shows a bullet train that looks like France’s famous TGV train.
Though freshly kitted out to match the aspirations of a new India, Hazrat Nizamuddin remains a small station—it has only nine platforms, compared to 16 each at the New Delhi railway station and Old Delhi railway station.
The station’s façade is now decked with a series of glass panels. It looks like one of those modern grey-and-glass structures that are springing up across metro cities. Who would believe that this station gets its name from a centuries-old Sufi shrine in the vicinity? The Mughal-era site of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana tomb is just a 5-minute walk away. The two areas of Delhi that flank this railway station also speak of the different strata of wealth, culture and history that make this city so fascinating.
The station stands next to one of Delhi’s most upscale neighbourhoods. Nizamuddin East is a world of gardens and bungalows. It is the address of novelist Vikram Seth and former chief minister Sheila Dikshit. The daughter of the last nawab of Rampur lives here. At night, “Niz East” residents fall asleep in their book-lined bedrooms to the sound of trains.
That is one side of the story.
For many Delhiwallas, Hazrat Nizamuddin station is the place to go to when they have to board the Mumbai-bound August Kranti Rajdhani Express. Or, when midnight hunger pangs drive them to the Comesum multi-speciality restaurant, a glorified food court and one of the few round-the-clock eating junctions in this part of town. A social anthropologist, however, might be attracted for a different reason. For these rail tracks divide the elite of Nizamuddin East from the working class of Sarai Kale Khan.
Indeed, the long airy balcony of the station’s shiny new first floor frames a panoramic view of this other side. Sarai Kale Khan lies beyond the station’s blue tin roofs. Pink, green and grey buildings of varying heights stand in raucous disorder. Unlike the tree-lined Nizamuddin East, this is a concrete jungle. Get the 10 rupees platform ticket, walk along the railway station’s footbridge to the other side and you land in a different world. You’d know that with your eyes closed; the air smells of sewage.
Now the vista. Dusty streets branch out into dustier alleys. Meat shops stand cheek-by-jowl with travel-agent cabins. Footpath vendors sell ice sticks dipped in green and orange syrups. There is only one park, and it has neither grass nor flowers. The buildings consist of single-room tenements. Shared toilets face the streets.
Every day, a part of this world goes to that world, crossing the Hazrat Nizamuddin station.
“Sarai Kale Khan has labourers, plumbers, drivers, artisans, block printers, rickshaw pullers, embroidery workers, and they are the workforce for the people living in nearby colonies,” says author Sadia Dehlvi, a Nizamuddin East resident. “My tailor Shamim, my embroiderer Ifthikar, my block- printer Sabir… they all live in Sarai Kale Khan.”
Two boys are standing outside the office of the Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station’s electric loco trip shed. Muhammed Akhtar has his arms around Sumit Kumar, and they are both looking at the latter’s mobile phone screen. “We’re checking Facebook,” says Kumar. They are students of class XII at a New Delhi Municipal Council senior secondary school in leafy Lodhi Estate, which is home to VIPs such as Priyanka Gandhi. The boys commute to school by bus No.181. Mr Kumar’s father sells burgers from a cart in the Lajpat Nagar market while Mr Akhtar’s father works in one of the many small embroidery factories that dot Sarai Kale Khan.
Not all the young men here can afford the luxury of an education. At 17, Muhammed Siraj has given up his dream of becoming “some sort of an engineer.” He is an embroidery worker. The so-called factory where he works in Sarai Kale Khan is basically a basement, not larger than an average Nizamuddin East bedroom. The floor is littered with scraps of cloth and lace. Each table has a white sewing machine. The workers are of varying ages. Some are dressed in shirts and lungis, others in trousers and white vests. (They did not allow me to take photos.)
Mr Siraj arrived in Delhi two years ago from his village in Bihar. “My family has six brothers and five sisters, and my father was the only earning member in the house. I had a mama (uncle) already working in Sarai Kale Khan. He called me here.”
Mr Siraj shares a single-room apartment with two colleagues. The monthly rent is 3,000 rupees. “I make about 7,000 rupees each month,” he says. “Of that, 1,000 rupees goes for the room rent, 2,000 rupees is spent on the meals that we cook on our small gas stove, and I send the remaining amount to my family.”
Thousands of migrants have made Sarai Kale Khan their home, but most Delhiwallas know it only for its inter-state bus terminus—buses for Rajasthan leave from here. It is also a tortuous bottleneck on Ring Road that must be suffered.
But Sarai Kale Khan has its own history. It used to be a village of Gujjar farmers. In the book Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857, they get an unflattering mention in a letter to the last Mughal king, written by the resident of a nearby village: “Taking advantage of the turbulence… the Gujjars of Sarai Kale Khan and Taimur Nagar (another modern-day Delhi locality) have collected their kinsmen and for the last two days have been constantly attacking all the residents… and have destroyed our houses… and all the crops.”
Those rioting farmers of Sarai Kale Khan have transmuted into modern-day landlords of workers such as Mr Siraj, who are trying to get a foothold in the city. Some landlords still double as farmers; their fields lie nearby, on the banks of the Yamuna, where they grow vegetables and fruits.
Sarai Kale Khan was, most probably, a sarai, an inn. “The sarai was built by a late Mughal-era nobleman called Kale Khan,” says RV Smith. The author of many books on Delhi’s past, Mr Smith says confidently: “Though little is known about Kale Khan, I’m sure his original name was something else and he came to be known as ‘Kale’ because of his dark complexion… Travellers coming to Delhi from places as far apart as Agra and Kabul would stay in the sarai.”
It is difficult to ascertain Mr Smith’s claim. Some say Kale Khan was a Sufi saint in the Lodhi-era Delhi.
There is no monument left from that era in Sarai Kale Khan. But there are a few grand bungalows. One such house is that of Chowdhury Vijendra Bashisht, a landlord. A large “Om” sign is painted on the front. Hyundai and Maruti Suzuki cars are parked inside the giant gate. The foyer has massive columns painted in gold and silver. There is no one in the bungalow except for a young man in shorts and a T-shirt. Introducing himself as Bashisht’s son, Deepak casually points to an adjacent building and says, “Our tenants are there.”
The tenement’s stairs are splattered with paan stains. It is afternoon. In one room, a woman in a blue sari is sleeping. In another room, a man is asleep on a wooden cot, a mosquito net over his legs. The ceiling has no fan. It is utterly silent. Suddenly, a train engine sends out a long wail. The man doesn’t stir.
This same sound must be hurtling across the renovated station towards the air-conditioned bungalows of Nizamuddin East. Somebody there too may be sleeping undisturbed.
The other land