Home Sweet Home – Moongey Wali Kothi, Katra Khushal Rai
A whole world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It is easy to identify a haveli in Old Delhi. The tell-tale sign is an archway that usually hosts a half-awake stray dog. Within, a passage leads to a forecourt filled with clothes drying or alive with potted plants. In one corner, there could be a person lying supine on a charpoy. Most of all, it’s a labyrinth of courtyards, staircases, roofs and balconies.
What would the great Urdu poet Ghalib have felt knowing that his haveli in Ballimaran had become a coal yard? Next to nothing survives of the Haksar Haveli in Sitaram Bazaar, where Jawaharlal Nehru, who would go on to become India’s first prime minister, married Kamala Kaul. These two havelis now seem almost as fictional as the one in Mohalla Niyaryan, the locale of Ahmed Ali’s melancholy novel Twilight In Delhi.
Old Delhi’s havelis were once the palatial residences of Mughal-era nobles. If the Red Fort, home of the emperor, dominated Shahjahanabad, each haveli dominated its immediate vicinity within the Walled City. Today, few havelis survive in their original state, though a handful have managed to hang on to their wooden balconies and delicate lattice screens. One of the remaining survivors is Moongey Wali Kothi in Katra Khushal Rai.
It is so elaborate that it gives the illusion of a self-contained world. You could even call it an Old Delhi in miniature. The house has a long alley, as well as a side gali (lane), and two courtyards. There were more than 80 households here until a decade ago; now the number stands at just 22. In spite of this, the mansion looks crowded. The larger courtyard almost resembles an exhibition gallery, with packed clothes lines on all sides.
One of these doors opens into the two-room dwelling of Praveen Kumar Chaturvedi (see photo 2 below), who works in the administration department of the Union ministry of agriculture. A year ago, three snakes had been discovered in the house. “Snakes are a problem in all Old Delhi havelis,” he says. “They come up from the tehkana (basement). But not to worry, these are not poisonous snakes.”
Mr Chaturvedi’s Honda scooter is parked in the alley. He rides it to his office in central Delhi every day. The home is a world apart. He inhabits two rooms in the mansion with his wife and son. The kitchen is nestled between the drawing room and the bedroom. There are no windows.
Mr Chaturvedi’s son Saurabh, who manages the Gayatri Metal hardware shop in Ajmeri Gate, is watching a film on YouTube. The father says: “Life in a haveli used to be very different from other places. Nobody cared for TV. There would be charpoys lying out in the courtyard and people would sit there and talk. Now there is no interaction.”
This might not be completely true, for soon enough, a neighbour enters the drawing room and sits down on the sofa with the informality of a household member.
Praveen Kumar Dave, a journalist, occupies one of the rooms on the top floor. He says, “Mukesh (the late Hindi film singer) was born in a street very close to our house.”
The haveli has another smaller courtyard. It is empty and utterly quiet and seems to look like as it must have looked a hundred years ago.
A vanishing world