City Life – Family Album, Old Delhi
The new Old Delhi.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
In a house on Pahari Rajaan hill, stairs lead to a courtyard. Here a new flight of stairs passes a kitchen and leads to another courtyard. More stairs, another room, stairs—and then you reach the roof and get a view of Purani Dilli or Old Delhi. These low hills and flatlands are carpeted with rooftops. Your view is framed by the domes of the Jama Masjid, the ramparts of Red Fort, and the high-rises of Connaught Place.
The Walled City that Shahjahan built in the 17th century has undergone many transformations. And this labyrinthine house and its occupants reflect the changes.
The seven-room mansion is at Chitli Qabar Chowk, Old Delhi’s only traffic intersection with four streets. Dating back to the latter half of the 19th century, it is home to a family of 11. The Jhinjhanvis, originally from western Uttar Pradesh, settled in the area in the 1950s. Muneer-ul-Hassan, 51, and Naseer-ul-Hassan, 47, are brothers. Their wives are daily readers of the Quran, and Delhi Times, a supplement of The Times of India. One of the five sons in the family works in a medical transcription firm in Noida. The family’s printing and binding factory shut down in 2009 but there’s enough money to have meat at every meal, they say. The house has an Internet connection and everyone is on Facebook.
Yumna, one of the two daughters, is a student of political science (honours) at Maitreyi College in Delhi University’s south campus. She says she is the only Muslim girl from Old Delhi in her class.
“After she completed her 12th standard exams, my daughter started receiving marriage proposals,” says Naseer, whose visiting card describes him as an “Ex-Stephanian” (a 1986 alumnus, he was admitted to St Stephen’s College through the sports quota). “I said ‘no way, not even if the offer comes from the Prime Minister’s family. First comes the career’.”
Yumna stepped out of Old Delhi alone for the first time in 2010. “Once I joined the college, I got my freedom and also my first cellphone.” The 19-year-old hangs out in the cafés and malls of south Delhi. “I no longer want to be in Purani Dilli,” she says. “I’ll prefer to live in Malviya Nagar or Saket, where I can dress up in anything I like.”
After Yumna started wearing jeans to college, some boys in Turkman Gate nicknamed her “Jeans ki pant”. “I ignore them,” she says.
The Metro, which reached Old Delhi in 2005, has made its contribution to women’s liberation. One resident says she has often sighted jeans-clad girls pulling off their burqas at Chawri Bazar station as they walk down the escalators.
The house’s courtyard—sehen in Urdu—has a balustrade overlooking Chitli Qabar Chowk, named after the grave of a saint of whom not much is known. Huge electric cables hang across the streets like art installations. A dahi-vada vendor is stationed at the centre. The alleys are lined with pavement traders. Pointing to a man pulling a loaded trolley, Naseer says, “Old Delhi has been taken over by labourers from Bihar.”
The migrants began arriving in the 1980s and took up jobs in households and in small karkhanas—or factories—of handicrafts, printing, bookbinding and masonry. “Instead of focusing on their businesses, the owners, all Old Delhi gentry, wasted their time in sleeping, gossiping and eating,” says Naseer, who has rented out the premises of his closed factory to Bihari labourers. “The migrants worked hard. Now, they are our owners and we are their servants.”
There are signs of change everywhere. Facing Red Fort, Meena Bazaar specializes in scooter parts, water pumps and machine tools. Biharis run most of the shops here. The bazaar’s street food vendors too are from Bihar. “Biharis work on low wages,” says Haji Mian Faiyaz Uddin, the owner of Haji Hotel, Matia Mahal. His staff is made up of Bihari migrants. “First, they worked in the eateries owned by Old Delhi people, learned how to make nihari, kebab, haleem and biryani; then they started their own stalls. Once they established themselves, they called relatives and friends from their villages. Educated Biharis also followed. Most reporters on our local Urdu dailies are from Bihar,” says Faiyaz Uddin.
The migrants have made the place a little cosmopolitan. The Excelsior Cinema in Hauz Quazi screens Bhojpuri films. The Rooh Afza sellers at Turkman Gate sit alongside the vendors of sattu ka ghol, the traditional drink of Bihar.
The new arrivals are settling in an overpopulated area. Shahjahanabad was built over 569 hectares to house 60,000 people. According to the 2001 census, its population is 235,160. There are no empty spaces save a few gardens, and these are taken over by the homeless. For morning walks, Old Delhi residents cross the Walled City’s limits to Shantivan, the memorial of India’s first prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru. There are no playgrounds, so Naseer’s two younger boys, Kabeer and Nameer, play cricket in the house’s second-floor courtyard. Occasionally a stray ball splashes into the yogurt of the dahi-vada vendor below.
Decorated with sadabahar flowers and money-plant vines, the courtyard has other purposes too. “In winters, we enjoy the sun here,” says Shaheena, Muneer’s wife. Since the kitchen is small, the courtyard is used for peeling vegetables and making chutneys. In a neighbourhood without open spaces, these private courtyards are precious. And they are disappearing.
Over 30 years, many Old Delhi residents have sold ancestral homes to builders and moved to localities such as Okhla, Preet Vihar and Jafrabad. The aesthetics of traditional architecture have given way to the needs of commerce, and a courtyard is a costly indulgence. The Walled City has been reduced to multi-storeyed apartments; the sun and air barely reach the congested streets.
To see this degradation, take the short walk from Naseer’s home to the tomb of Razia Sultan, India’s first woman ruler, in Bulbuli Khana. The two stone mounds are hemmed in, surrounded by the walls of shabby-looking buildings. According to a 2004 paper by A.K. Jain, then a commissioner with the Delhi Development Authority, Old Delhi has more than 400 historical monuments, sites and buildings. “Most havelis that I chronicled in my book have been destroyed, altered, modified or mutilated,” says Pavan Varma, the author of Mansions at Dusk: The Havelis of Old Delhi, which was first published in 1991.
A century ago, the modest-sized havelis were confined to a single floor. Each courtyard had flowerbeds and a well. Houses had two sections: the mardana for men, and zenana for women. The kitchen was in the mardana section and the lady of the house would interact with the khansama (cook) through her maid. Today, families crowd into tiny apartments, and privacy is one of the first victims of economic survival.
Meals at the Jhinjhanvi household are prepared by Shaheena and her sister-in-law Sabiha. Both women experiment with different cuisines; it is not unusual for the family to break the Ramzan fast with homemade pasta. After explaining the difference between pulao and biryani, Sabiha says, “We read the Quran in our spare time but we also like reading Delhi Times to catch up with film gossip.” Both women scan the paper to find out which showroom in which market is giving hefty discounts. As they prepare dinner, Muneer says, “We don’t know how long our unity will last but my and my brother’s families dine daily on the same dastarkhan (the food spread).”
Old Delhi owes its bustling nightlife, in part, to a shortage of space. Large families live in one-room homes. Everyone cannot fit on the floor at one time, so members sleep in shifts. Waiting for their turn, people keep the streets crowded until 2am.
Close to the Jhinjhanvi house, Haveli Azam Khan was once the residence of a Mughal-era general. It has 10 rooms, each of which is occupied by a different family. Measuring 13 sq. ft, one room is home to 11—mother, father, three sons, three daughters and three grandchildren. There is a goat, a parrot, a refrigerator, a washing machine and a kerosene stove. The air is musty and walls damp. Outside, in the courtyard, an old woman, stark naked, takes a bucket bath.
In the Jhinjhanvi household, fish are enjoying the illusion of being in the sea. “That’s flowerhorn, and that’s upside down catfish,” says Shaheer, Muneer’s 24-year-old son. Working as a medical transcriptor with a firm in Noida, Shaheer bought the aquarium from Matia Mahal bazaar. An aspiring model, he returns from the office at 6 in the evening and heads straight to the gym for an hour. He is dating a Hindu girl he met on the social networking website Orkut. “There’s nothing to do in Old Delhi except eat and sleep,” he says. “If you want to make something of your life, you have to leave this place.” Earning a monthly salary of Rs 12,000, Shaheer wants to double the figure within a year. “My next stop is the IT sector.”
More and more parents in the Walled City are now forcing their children, both boys and girls, to give time to their studies. “After the economic reforms, employment is not limited to difficult-to-get government jobs,” says Naseer. “Now, most of us understand that decent schooling can land our children jobs in private companies.”
Immediately below the Jhinjhanvi house is Chitli Qabar Bazaar, displaying the contrasts of the changing neighbourhood. Burqa-clad women walk past men wearing T-shirts sporting slogans such as, “I’m still a virgin, please give me a chance”. Chicken-flavoured Maggi noodle packets are sold alongside chicken stalls, where a customer chooses a live bird that is killed on the spot. Half-naked beggars follow foreign tourists.
In his white salwar-kurta, Naseer is heading to his sister’s home in Kucha Challan. Having undergone kidney transplant surgery, he says: “I don’t like hanging outside long. I have to protect myself from infections.” The street is lined on both sides with open drains. Flies are buzzing; swarms flying between the roadside muck and meat at a butcher’s stall. During the British era, bullock carts fitted with water sprinklers washed the streets twice a day.
The accepted wisdom is that the cream of Old Delhi society chose to flee to Pakistan after it was created in 1947. But there is at least one living exception. At 102, Mian Naseem Changhezi, a friend of Naseer’s father, spends most of the day with his 2,000 books at his haveli on Pahari Imli hill. His elegance is the work of generations. His conversational Urdu is as pure as that of any 19th century Old Delhi poet. His pronunciation is perfect. His manner is gentle. His voice is never loud. His beard is snow-white. The architecture of his house is close to that of an original haveli. There is a raised courtyard, leading to an arched veranda that opens into a room, with small storerooms on both sides.
“I did not go to Pakistan,” says Changhezi—one of his two sons is settled in that country. The other lives with him. “Does Dariya-e-Jamuna flow in Karachi? Does Lahore have a Jama Masjid built by Shahjahan? How could I ever leave my Purani Dilli?”
However, the grandchildren of his late friend are itching to leave the area. Every morning Naseer’s daughter Yumna puts on a top and jeans, covers herself in a stole and boards a rickshaw for Turkman Gate. Her father says: “Those girls who are confined within the walls of their homes lose their personality. To succeed in life, a woman has to walk like a man.” On bus No. 729, as it leaves the Walled City, Yumna removes her stole and enters the other world.