Mission Delhi – Bhai Wali, Mohalla Qabristan Chowk
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
When does Bhai Wali sleep? The tall, slim, elderly insomniac is always seen sitting fully alert on a battered chair, at all times of the day and night, here at a corner of Mohalla Qabristan Chowk in Old Delhi, beside Munna Roti Wale, in front of the locked entrance to a dusty cobwebbed room that once was Maulana Aagan Chai Khana.
Bhai Wali’s smouldering Gopal beedi is as much an extension of him as his long white beard. “I was married to Gold Flake. Then my fate stepped in and I could no longer afford cigarettes.” The broody talk is deceptive. Bhai Wali has a biting sense of humour. A skilled raconteur, he has something juicy to say about every passer-by on the street. His own past is far juicer, he candidly admits, but “those days are gone… I now ask myself, ‘Yaar Wali, why did you let your life waste away?’”
The man’s spoken Urdu is impeccable. His gupshup with fellow gossipers (Raj the roti wale, Sharif the compressor pheri wale, Ghaffar the mimicker of film actors) tends to be threaded with poetic phrases, as well as with colourful Walled City slangs. “I talk and talk and talk to pass the time.” The man never took up steady work. He didn’t learn the profession of his late father, who made combs out of bulls’ horns. He also didn’t care to be a handicraft artisan like his brother, in whose house he has his meals everyday. But he did fell in love as a young man. “She would daily go to Dada Peer,” he recalls, referring to a nearby sufi shrine whose courtyard is wrinkled with dozens of old graves. “I would sit amid the tombstones, and watch her pray from a distance.” He sent a “paigam” for a wedding proposal to the woman’s home through a common acquaintance. “Her father said, ‘Wali has no house of his own, so where would he keep my daughter?’”
Bhai Wali flicks out a new beedi from his kurta pocket, rolls down the lighter’s sparkwheel, cupping his palm around the weak flame. Some time later, he says, “That woman is still unmarried.” A long pause follows, after which he mutters: “Waqt zindagi ka pura karna hai (Must clock the time allotted to life).”
[This is the 560th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
Man with the smoke