City Life – Amir Dehlavi’s Radio Ritual, Haji Hotel
The ultimate radio star.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Over the years many of us have established a deep bond with our smart phones. Many of us have an emotional connection with our TV too, and some of us even get sentimental about our favourite radio jockeys spread across various FM channels.
And then there is an elderly poet in the Walled City of Delhi, who has built an extraordinarily meaningful and lasting relationship with a small hand-held radio. For 40 years, Amir Dehlavi has been following the same routine day after day. From two in the afternoon to half-past-five in the evening, he remains in the company of his radio and nobody is permitted to disturb his schedule.
The Delhi Walla met the Urdu poet the other day at Old Delhi’s Haji Hotel. As always, Mr Dehlavi was dressed in a grey salwar kameez and was sitting behind a huge reception desk. In his 70s, the frail verse writer, is also the hotel’s manager. This historic property — known to be the favourite hotel of legendary singer Begum Akhtar — is owned by Mr Dehlavi’s brother, Haji Faiyazuddin.
The Haji Hotel faces Jama Masjid and its balcony offers a panoramic view of the great Mughal-era mosque — parts of Mira Nair’s film The Reluctant Fundamentalist were shot here. Mr Dehlavi has a small pink-walled room in the hotel; the room’s only window faces the monument. Here the bearded poet spends his radio hours. He has always followed the channels that beam old Hindi film songs; these days he patronizes FM Gold, an AIR (All India Radio) service.
Explaining his radio routine, Mr Dehlavi says in his customary courteous voice, “I switch on the radio sharp at 2pm for news in Hindi, after which come songs from the films of a select actor. On Sundays, they focus on an actor’s biography and talk about his life and his films, apart from playing the songs from those movies. I switch off the radio at 5.30pm.”
Mr Dehlavi’s room greatly resembles painter Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles: there’s a bed, a writing table and a chair. The room’s most precious object is Mr Dehlavi’s untitled book, a collection of his verses that were published by his brother. The second-most precious object, of course, is his radio. The poet is not romantic about old objects and this Sony transistor is merely three years old. It was a gift from a friend who had purchased it in Singapore.
“I like old (Hindi) films songs because I’m a poet,” Mr Dehlavi says. “Every day you listen to lines by shaayars (poets) like Shakeel Badayuni who used to compose lyrics for those films.”
After a brief pause, as if he is trying to think of the right words to express the depth of his feelings, Mr Dehlavi, whose Kashmiri wife lies buried in a Srinagar graveyard, says, “Radio is my dost (friend).”
My most memorable moment with Mr Dehlavi, however, took place a few years ago. It was a hot dusty summer afternoon. We quietly tiptoed into the Haji hotel’s balcony. There was no one sitting behind the reception desk. The whole world seemed quiet save for the soft sound of a song coming from Dehlavi’s room. We gingery pushed the door. The poet, dressed in white, was sleeping; at least his eyes were closed. His radio was placed beside his pillow (see the last picture below). It seemed a happy world.