City Walk – Sir Syed Road, Old Delhi
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Our Dilli has no dearth of books for those who have a taste for old buildings. Published in 1846, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s illustrated Urdu classic Asar-al-Sanadid (Relics of Past Things) was the first comprehensive archaeological appraisal of the capital’s monuments. An affluent Shahjahanabad resident whose grandson (Syed Ross Masood) inspired the principal character (Dr. Aziz) of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, the scholarly Khan personally visited each monument, where he would diligently take notes as his aides helped him measure every column and dome.
The wider world knows Sir Syed more for his connections to another city—he was the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, and lies buried in Aligarh. But Sir Syed was first a Delhiwalla. He was born (1817) in this city, and grew up in a gali later named after him.
Sir Syed Ahmad Road, close to the extinct Golcha Cinema, starts with a bike showroom, which was formerly a post office. It streams along the tiny stores of Faiz Bazar, past a municipal-run school for girls with a wall listing “free facilities” for the students. A new multistorey soars up ahead—shops on the ground level, a gynaecologist’s huge clinic on the first, and apartments on the upper levels. The bulky concrete is like a fragment of suburbia airdropped into an old quarter.
Otherwise, behind the dense layers of shop hoardings, street poles and dangling power cables are walls grimed out of a lifetime of heat waves, sandstorms and monsoons. One cobwebbed edifice has locked windows as tall as Amitabh Bachchan. Two mosques and a temple too mark the lane. Durga Mandir’s doorway arch is sculpted into marble leaves; next to which sits Jagdamba Prasad, a seller of marigold flowers. Opposite is Munna Bhai’s remarkable stall for fresh tamarinds, one of the few places in the Walled City that also stocks mulberries during their brief season. The hand-painted banner has the assuring words:
Doosre ki cheez ko dekhkar pareshan na hona,
Khuda tumhe bhi dega, hairan na hona.
(Don’t be disheartened by seeing the plenty of others,
Don’t be surprised, God will give you too.)
The true poetry of the street though is extracted by reading aloud the names of its disparate businesses: Daily Essentials, Suhag Bangles, Karma Footwear, Kohli Bros Dry Cleaners, New Kohli Bros Dry Cleaners, Alvi Dental Clinic, Blue Ribbon Bakery, Hemraj Namkeens, Fashion Star Boutique, God’s Glory Public School, IFC (Indian Fried Chicken) Pizzatreat—the last stands at the last point of the gali. Its owner, Muin, walks to the lane, pointing to the facing side. “This was Sir Syed’s house.” Having undergone many alterations, it looks like an assortment of miscellaneous structures, one of which is Beauty Bonanza Makeup Store. See photo.