City Home – The Courtyard, Hameed Manzil
The last sehen.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Old houses in Old Delhi were made of onion-like peels. There would be kamra, the room, often called the mehman khana to receive the guests. It would open into dalan, an intermediary space between the interiors and exteriors of the house. It, in turn, would open into sehen, or aangan, the courtyard.
Only a few such residences survive in the Walled City. Hameed Manzil in Gali Nal Wali is one of them. The long departed Hameeduddin, a merchant of gold laces, built it in 1910. This afternoon, his grandson Fazle Haque, and this venerable gent’s two sisters and a nephew, are huddled quietly around the dining table, having finished with their lunch. The dining table colonises a part of the dalan (until 1969, the family sat traditionally on the floor for meals).
Dressed in hand-sewn white kurta-pajamas, Fazle Haque slowly walks out into the sehen. A businessman in his 70s, he talks of what he remembers of the sehen from his childhood. “The floor was of lal pathar (red stone), the same stone that was used to build the Red Fort. There was a kyari (hedge), an amrood ka darakht (guava tree), and a bel (vine) of sadabahar (flowers). A takhat (wooden cot) lay on that corner. The women would sometimes peel the vegetables sitting on the takhat.”
He switches into a later era. “The red stone was replaced by marble chips in 1969, which were replaced by marble stones in 2018. We brought two potted money-plants a decade ago. When the children were still children, they would play football, cricket and badminton in the sehen.”
Until the 1980s, Hameed Manzil was among a handful of two-storey structures standing between Turkman Gate and Chitli Qabar—it could be spotted from as far as Ramlila Maidan. Now the vicinity is crammed with multi-storeys. The recent construction of a tall building next door has put an end to the sehen’s share of the precious winter sun.
That said, the interiors of the house continue to be unique. The green tiles (adorned with a design of red roses) in the mehman khana date from 1910. The regal almari (carved almirah) and the graceful singhar-mez (dressing mirror) in the dalan, and the stately masehri (bed with roof) in the mehman khana, are of sagwan wood. They arrived in Hameed Manzil in 1942, as part of the dowry brought by Fazle Haque’s mother. Mumtaz Begum passed during the last Ramzan, aged 94.
Even though it provides aesthetic beauty to the house, the sehen risks being rendered irrelevant to the household. Delhi’s worsening pollution makes the open-air yard unbreathable; the summer’s extreme heat anyway obliges the family to ward it off with thick brown curtains. As a portend of things lying in wait, the sehen no longer has its takhat on which the “ghar wale” would pass the empty hours.
This moment though the courtyard is filled with shanti and silence. It feels thousands of miles away from Old Delhi’s maddening chaos, lurking outside Hameed Manzil’s blue door.