City Landmark – The Walled City Café & Lounge, Chhatta Sheikh Mangloo
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
This has to be the most liberal place in the Muslim quarter of Old Delhi. Period.
The Delhi Walla has not discovered a new Sufi shrine but a new coffee place. The Walled City Café & Lounge stands like a happy defiance to the jaded idea of the Walled City. In this claustrophobic universe of neighborhood mosques, windowless homes and dilapidated monuments where every self-conscious landmark pretends to be founded at least a hundred years ago, this airy café proudly proclaims at its entrance that it was established way back in 2016.
Make no mistake. This first-floor island of serenity is firmly confined within the traditional elements of a typical Old Delhi mansion–it is actually housed in an old haveli. The tables are laid out across an array of terraces and balconies, and the sky teems with pigeons. The routine calls for the mandatory Islamic prayers emanate faithfully from Jama Masjid, the grand mosque that lurks within a breathing distance. These sacred interruptions are held in check by the cafe’s secular house music, mostly English pop. (The music is put on mute during the prayers, though.)
The menu, too, tries to be free of the local oppression. In a gourmand destination where every eatery threatens to drown you in ethnic curries, this café opts for sandwiches, burgers and pizzas. While there is nothing post-modern about these choices, the idea of eating a sandwich rather than a kebab under the shadow of Jama Masjid is an act of dare.
The best way to savor the café’s atmosphere is to spend an entire day here and watch the sky change its color as it travels from noon to evening.
The café was started by Omaiyer Fehmi, a political science student in Delhi University, and his parents Sheeba Aslam and Arshad Ali Fehmi. I’m acquainted with the family and have written about them here.
The young founder’s mother is a remarkable person and a feminist. Ms Aslam is the only Muslim woman in Old Delhi whom I have seen walking in the Mughal-era by-lanes in jeans and without the hijab. On a recent visit to the restaurant, I found her deeply engrossed in Men in Charge: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition (see photo 5a below).
The café has a small artifact in one of its two rooms. It shows a black man kissing a white woman. This sight alone makes The Walled City Café & Lounge precious in these times.
Modern man’s Old Delhi
2. (Omaiyer Fehmi)
5a. (Sheeba Aslam)