City Life – Chowk Mohalla Qabristan, Old Delhi
Life of an intersection.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Ignore the power cables, the crowd, the rickshaws. Gradually, this derelict many-windowed mansion reveals its raw beauty.
The elegant edifice commands Chowk Mohalla Qabristan as regally as Maharani Victoria must had her durbar. Although a nearby qabristan—full of graves but no longer in use—gives its name to the three-way intersection, it is this mansion with three floors, six apartments and 15 windows that shapes and consecrates every point of perspective here. The property belongs to a family living many streets away in Ballimaran, and most of tits dwellers continue to be the descendants of original tenants. Gossipy locals tell stories of the mansion’s first inhabitants—such as Muhammed Muzammil, aka Bangali, who was a labourer with a jewellery manufacturer in Dariba Kalan, Bhai Shafique, who used to make glass frames in Gali Garraya, and Shehzad Qawwal who sang in Delhi’s numerous Sufi shrines.
In the old days, says elderly raconteur Bhai Wali (he has a biting sense of humour—seen sitting in the photo!), the mansion was called just the “building.” It was the tallest in this part of the Walled City (newer structures are taller but don’t look half as imposing). Another raconteur, the middle-aged Ghaffar (also a crooner-cum-mimicker-cum-handyman), recalls seeing the distant Qutub Minar from the building’s roof back in the time when no multi-storey stood in the sprawling miles between Old Delhi and the distant Mehrauli. “Qutub looked like a lapat (flame),” he recalls.
Sone of the Chowk’s contemporary bashinde refer to the mansion as Minu Building. This is an evocation of the legendary Minu Pehelwan, the wrestler who operated a chai shop in the area, and who used to fly pigeons on the mansion’s roof. He later moved to Pakistan, and was believed to have started a similar tea establishment in Lahore’s Anarkali Bazar. His shop in the Chowk passed to a construction material trader.
Indeed, the many similarly small businesses here best reflect the changes in the Chowk. Saleem General Store stands on the site of Bhai Syeda’s Milk Shop. Basheeruddin’s barber salon is lying shuttered for years. Mullaji Ice Merchant still thrives—run by his three sons Jawed, Gulrez, Parvez. Bhai Azmat’s “pansari” store has evolved into Munna Roti Wale’s bakery. Amerrudin Makhan Wale (aka Diwan Dairy), which manually churned out fresh butter, has become Anmol Meat Shop.
The Chowk’s oldest surviving shop sells “building material,” and is run by the genteel Mirza Brothers, Saeed and Fareed. It was founded 80 years ago as Mirzaji Ghee Wale by their grandfather Mustafa Beg. (The intersection’s only other longstanding building, a much smaller mansion, houses a dozen labourers employed with these Mirza brothers.).
Then there’s another souvenir tucked right into the heart of the Chowk—an electric pole more than a hundred years old. It began as a lamppost, replenished every night with mustard oil.
Every evening around 5, the slanting shaft of the sun’s departing light rams into the Chowk, illuminating the air’s dust into gold, transforming the place into something close to a painting.