City Life – Rajbir & Joseph Stein, Around Town
A tale of two citizens.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A chilly afternoon briefly brings two citizens into close vicinity. He is a street vendor. He was an architect. Rajbir. Joseph Stein.
Rajbir is standing beside a central Delhi lane named after Stein. See photo.
A ram laddu hawker, Rajbir is launching into his working day. It has been half an hour since he started to walk from his home in Kotla Mubarakpur, carrying the tirona (tripod stand) under his shoulder, and a container of ram laddus on his head. It will take him 15 more minutes to reach the India Gate grounds where he daily sells the moong dal fries.
Born in the US, Stein arrived in Kolkata in 1952 as a professor of architecture. Four years later, he moved to Delhi, which he made his karma bhoomi, giving the city some of its greatest buildings.
Born in zila Budaun, Rajbir has inherited a few acres of agricultural land in the village. Certain unavoidable circumstances obliged him to make a career in Delhi as a street food vendor.
In Delhi, Stein—who successively resided in Chanakyapuri, Sunder Nagar and New Friends Colony—envisioned two-to four-storey structures that would fuse with the surrounding trees, gardens and pools. While modern, the designs took their cue from India’s past.
After all these years of working in India Gate, Rajbir has firmly set his roots in Delhi, but without detaching his ancestral roots in the village, where his wife and son continues to live. And where he frequently returns to work as a farmer.
Stein’s last major work was the India Habitat Centre, circa 1980s— a series of blocks, linked by shaded courtyards, stairs and walkways.
In his rented accommodation in Kotla, Rajbir gets up daily at six in the morning to prepare the ram laddus, as well as their garnishing, comprising the grated radish and the mint-coriander-green chilli chutney.
Devoted to Shakespeare and Arthur Koestler, Stein knew only two Hindi words: accha and bas. On weekends he dined at the India International Centre—one of his creations—where he always had seekh kebab and naan. He died in 2001, aged 89.
Rajbir walks out of India Gate at ten in the night.