City Landmark – Sonu Kalai Wale, Lambi Walli Gali
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The empty haveli has lost its grandeur. A part of its wall collapsed some months ago during a night of lightning, here in Lambi Walli Gali, a few steps away from the long-closed Excelsior Cinema in Chawri Bazar. Like many Walled City galis and kuchas, the locality is punctuated with remnants of old edifices, but most structures betray a more recent appearance. Many of these modern-day multi-storeys are residential, each floor boasting a small balcony.
In this crowd of new and newer, at least one long-time sight is prospering — that of coppersmith Sonu. In his mid-30s, he has been working as a “kalai wale” for 20 years. “I bring shine to copper or brass utensils by coating them with a layer of tin.” Sonu sits on the pavement, beside the aforementioned haveli. His establishment is five or six steps away from the spot where the wall collapsed. The rubble is still piled up on the street, with pedestrians going past it as if it were just another novelty to adjust to. “Walid Saheb was a kalai wale, too, he would sit on this same spot,” Sonu says of his father, Muhammed Saleem, who lies buried in the Dilli Gate graveyard. Sonu’s grandfather, Nawab Ali, was a weaver and worked in a “mill” in Bara Hindu Rao.
The coppersmith’s stall is modest, and consists of a set of basic tools (such as punkha machine, bhatti, sandasi, pan, tin), and a few stacks of cotton wool. But one thing is standing out immodestly in its exquisite beauty — a copper bucket, embossed with flowers. “It’s a customer’s balti.” Sonu looks unimpressed with the object. “It’s part of a would-be bride’s dowry.”
During the course of this brief chat, Sonu reveals that his name was given to him by his customers “because my real name, Ashqeen Ansari, can be difficult to pronounce”.
It’s nearly evening. Two of Sonu’s three daughters run up to his stall; his house is just around the corner. Afifa is too shy to speak in the presence of a stranger, but Sumaiya, a 7th standard student, graciously agrees to pose with her father for a portrait. Sonu now starts to work on the sculpted bucket. The stall is open daily from 11am to 7pm.
A living landmark