City Home – Qaiser Manzil, Old Delhi
A citizen’s inheritance.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The tangled malti vines are cascading down the high wall like a long waterfall. Scores of eensy-weensy birds are popping out of their dense foliage, looking like bubbles in the water—sparrows! Delhi’s rarely sighted state bird.
Framing the dead-end of the minuscule Gali Salim Muhammed Shah, the 170-year-old haveli is nestled in one of the most cramped and chaotic parts of the Walled City. But Qaiser Manzil itself is marooned in space and silence. This afternoon, the porch inside the street-facing gateway is alive with the soft melodious gossiping of these restless sparrows. The drawing room within is calmer, a sanctuary of unostentatious chandeliers, slender lamps, and closets filled with vases so delicate you fear they might shatter on touch. The books in the shelves are wrapped in plastic as a protection from dust and moisture, explains the host.
MM Bakht, or Aali Bhai, known in the locality as Nawab Sahib, is a retired geologist and the haveli’s patriarch. A handwoven shawl is draped about his shoulders. May be it is something to do with the measured tone of his articulation, or with his unhurried movements, he evokes the mood of an old-world Shamsur Rahman Faruqi novel. “This haveli was gifted to my nani, Qaiser Jehan Begum, in her dowry,” he says. “I’m the youngest of five brothers and sisters, all of whom are gone.” The house is inhabited by his
family, plus scores of his granddaughter’s cats.
The venerable gent wades deeper into the mansion, emerging out into its sprawling courtyard packed with trees and potted plants. The air is pulsating with the twittering of bulbuls (both lesser bulbul and greater bulbul, he points out), doves, sunbirds and shyamas, who appears only in winter.
“These birds, these butterflies… I’m attached to this home, I never want to leave it.”
He languidly walks through the haveli’s extraordinary exteriors, pointing out the many fruit-yielding trees: sharifa, guava, chakotara, cheeku, as well as the grapevines. He gestures towards the niched taaks, the disappearing element in domestic architecture. He climbs the stairs, first to a roof garden, then to a terrace full of flowering cactuses. He returns to the courtyard, and stand by the stately molsiri—“This tree was planted by my great-grandfather; he must have touched it often, now I touch it.”
Glancing towards the high-rise flats towering over his roof, he talks of not surrendering the haveli to the compulsions of the real estate. “I feel I have no right to dispose off the traditions I inherited; the structure of this house hasn’t been altered.”
Returning to the drawing room, he notes that the pre-independent sofa have been sat upon by historic figures such as Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. His late mother was a freedom fighter, he explains.
Out in the porch, songster sparrows are streaming out of the malti vines.
The world of Qaiser Manzil