City Walk – Shah Abul Khair, Old Delhi
World of a street.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Sometimes a lone man might be sitting by the grand doorway, watching the passerby go along the street. Sometimes, there’s a crowd of idle men. From 1 pm to 5pm daily, cook Danish parks his paya cart by the doorway.
Facing the Big Boss Saloon, this arched portal is the social focus of Shah Abul Khair Marg, which lies between the Walled City’s Turkman Gate and Chitli Qabar Chowk. The commonness of the street is drastically uplifted by this light green gateway. It is the area’s Tiananmen Square, where local telltales gather to exchange news and gossip.
The street takes its name from a Sufi saint whose grave lies in the shrine behind the gateway. “Shah Abul Khair was a mystic of 18th century Delhi… he lived through 11 Mughal emperors,” says A. Anas Farooqi, the shrine’s impeccably mannered sajjada nashin, its hereditary head. The dargah is separated from the street by the aforementioned gateway and its accompanying long wall. Full of space and air, the courtyard has a mosque, some private residences and eight graves, including that of Shah Abul Khair.
“Building material merchant” Fareed Mirza, who lives in an elegant old mansion in the area, recalls his late father’s childhood memories of the street. “The neighbourhood wasn’t as crowded and cramped. All houses were limited to the ground floor. Nobody had AC or cooler, and in summer nights residents spread out their beds on the street to sleep.”
He also mentions that in those days, the whole street would stay deserted for long snatches of time. “Children would wait for someone to appear before venturing out, so as not to be totally alone.”
Emerging out of his shop and standing on the street, Fareed Mirza looks up at the multistories and comments that “these buildings started coming up in the 1980s, with the arrival of new people in Shah Abul Khair.”
Some minutes later, grocer Muhammed Yusuf comes out of his shop. A woman from the balcony of a top floor, just above, drops down a shopping bag tied to a rope. The grocer fills the bag with milk packets. The woman lifts up the bag, the way a villager draws water from a well.
This way to Shah Abul Khair