City Walk – Tolstoy’s Country, Connaught Place
Stroll in lit world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
No Natasha. No Pierre. No Vronsky. No Anna Karenina. Not one of them is here.
Some might suggest to rather look for them in the pages of Leo Tolstoy’s novels. But this is Delhi’s Connaught Place, entrenched with the spirit of the Russian novelist—and it’s September 9, and is his birthday today (194th).
Here, Tolstoy Lane merges into the statelier Tolstoy Marg, and at the point where Tolstoy Marg starts you can see a tall bronze statue of the bearded Tolstoy.
Oh, and a multi-storey complex on Tolstoy Marg is called Tolstoy House.
This is a rare thing for a writer to have given his name to so many landmarks in one of the most exclusive zones of the national capital.
Being a back alley, Tolstoy Lane is more intimate than the busier Tolstoy Marg. Sonu, the shoe repairer, sits by the lane’s signage that bears the writer’s name in Hindi, English, Punjabi, Urdu, but not in Russian. Sonu has been running this stall for more than a decade. Pointing to the Jamun tree above, he says “their season ended some days ago… the jamuns would keep falling on me, they were delicious.”
As for ice-cram hawker Ram Dular Pandey, he has been manning his cart in the Tolstoy land for 30 years. Looking seriously towards the lane, he talks of the old days, when it would get as deserted as a jungle by 5pm. “Now there are two beer bars.” He talks of the nearby Savarna Bhawan restaurant, which draws a great crowd during the lunch, and remembers the time when Sona Rupa restaurant was on the spot. A car repair workshop stood there, he says, pointing to the McDonald’s.
Tolstoy Lane has vestiges of its past in the form of cobwebbed windows that don’t seem to have been opened for years. A few longtime car repair workshops survive. Mechanic Muhammed Shakir points to a tall office building that has come up on the lane. It’s so new that it still hasn’t got a name, he says. “Two bungalows used to stood here. I knew the families living in those houses, I have seen the houses being demolished, and I have also seen this new building being built.” The edifice looks very modern, with a pipe running along the middle of its walls, faintly evocative of the colourful pipes that speckle the exterior of Paris’s Pompidou museum.
And now a stylish woman appears in a white dress, seeming to bring the glamour of a ballroom with her. OK sorry, this line is pure fiction, being the entry scene of Princess Hélène in War and Peace.