City Neighbourhood – Gali Bhootni Wali, Old Delhi
Lane of ghosts.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Bitter cold. Not a mouse stirring. All is silent and dark.
Gali Bhootni Wali in Old Delhi gets its name from ghosts, but no such bhoot is to be seen or sensed tonight. As the third lane off the neighbourhood of Kucha Mir Hashim, the gali is narrow and straight, punctuated by a sharp turn, and at one point it passes through protruding walls, before climaxing into a doorway.
Two men surface in this dark silence—Nadeem and Ubair (see photo). Speaking fearlessly in a bold voice, Nadeem confesses of never having personally seen a bhoot, but has heard his elders talk of the long-ago days when the ghosts would be commonly sighted along the gali. “The children would be playing kanche or chupan chupai, and suddenly a bhoot would appear, the kids would scatter away, screaming, “bhootni aayi, bhootni aayi.”
As he chats, a woman soundlessly appears from behind, and stands still with arms crossed. Draped in a long shawl, she declines to give her name, but says she has been living in this street for many years, gesturing towards a door (two silhouetted figures are standing behind the curtain). The woman says she has had personal experience of the street’s bhoots. “They look exactly like humans, and sometimes they are lurking around us without being visible… they might be here even now.” She assures that the bhoots of this street desist from inflicting harm on the residents. At best they wander around purposelessly—she says—after which they quietly go back to their home. Their home, according to the woman, happens to be the drains flowing under Gali Bhootni Wali.
Earlier in the day, a middle-aged shopkeeper nearby recalled his memories of the Walled City’s ghost-ridden galis. When he was a child, the Purani Dilli streets would be emptied immediately after the sunset. The only businesses that stayed open till the midnight used to be the “ikka-dukka” shops selling milk. Besides, only main streets had shops back then, and very few among those had lamps. It would be “ghupp andhera.” Some of these darkened streets were believed to be inhabited by bhoots and pichhal pairi, the ghosts with ulta (inverted) feet.
Moments later, at Gali Bhootni Wali, the woman in the long shawl retreats. The two men too walk away. The gali is again empty. Or so it seems.