City Walk – Kucha Lal Man, Old Delhi
A cozy refuge
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A packed bus finds itself unable to move; a cab is blowing a brain-splitting horn; a bike suddenly shoots through the narrow gap between two cars. Only a daredevil will step into this insane traffic.
But utmost tranquility exists, here in Daryaganj, a few steps away from the busy Netaji Subhash Marg, on a side alley. Two girls are having an adventure with a bicycle. “Ready? 1, 2, 3,” shouts one. Sharp at “3”, the other one on the cycle pedals down the lane, heading straight towards the busy road described above. But don’t be afraid. The lane they’re playing in is totally safe. No big vehicle can enter the alley. A metal barrier preempts such intrusion.
This afternoon, the prominent sounds in the little locality of Kucha Lal Man are of these girls, chatting and screaming. Most of the houses here look several decades old, but a new building is in progress, its brick exterior is partly cloaked in green nets. A teenaged labourer is sitting on the building’s staircase, listening to Bhojpuri songs on his mobile. Nearby, sits an elderly gent. Nem Singh expounds on the kucha: “Long before setalis (1947), the area had two wealthy brothers, Nanak Chand and Kishen Chand… the kucha gets its name from the latter, who was known as Lal Man.” A traditional Purani Dilli kucha is a locality of people sharing the same occupation, but Nem Singh asserts that is no longer the case. The mild-mannered man used to live in this same kucha, but shifted to a suburb a few years ago. He so greatly misses his old “galliyan” that he comes here daily, by bus, to pass time. “You’ll usually see me on that spot,” he says, pointing to a peepal with a monumental trunk. This tree is in fact the kucha’s throbbing heart. Watching the occasional people pop up around the peepal is like viewing some biennale artist’s slow motion experimental video. This afternoon, the pace of kucha life is so laid-back that it is difficult to believe you are only steps away from a horrible traffic situation. A woman in sari unhurriedly walks by, followed unhurriedly by a girl in jeans. The Pracheen Shiv Mandir next to the tree is locked at the moment (the evening arti will start about 6), but labourers, hauling up beds, tables and sofas from somebody’s home to a vehicle outside, are frequently stopping by to drink water from a tap beside the temple’s door.
The walls of the kucha’s main alley are smeared with fliers: one is promising guaranteed treatment for piles. And now a man silently stands outside a house door. He keeps gazing at it, as if the door would flip open simply by the force of his gaze. The sight is surreal.
This way to Kucha Lal Man