City Hangout – Pandemic-Era Symbols, Chatta Sheikh Mangloo
Signs of the times.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
In one famous scene of the Arabian Nights, a thief paints a mark on Ali Baba’s door so that his companions can later come and put him to death. But Ali Baba’s wise maid notices the mark, and paints similar ones on each and every door of the neighbourhood to confuse the robbers.
It is this scene that one feels transported to while walking in Old Delhi’s Chatta Sheikh Mangloo. Each door on the long winding street is marked with a yellow O or E. A closer observation reveals that the two letters are alternating.
“O stands for Odd and E stands for Even,” explains a chai stall owner, across the lane from a guesthouse named Just For You.
While easing up the coronavirus-triggered lockdown, Delhi government had announced that shops could finally open for business on an “odd-even basis”, meaning that no adjacent shops could function at the same time in order to avoid crowds. “Our market’s pradhan got these signs painted,” says the tea seller.
That was in May. It is now August and all the shops are free to open even as the corona remains a part of daily life. The hand-drawn signs have remained.
This early morning the street is empty. Many of the neighbourhood shops deal with spare motor parts and most of them shall open only by 11 am. Here and there you can actually see some car parts, like dismantled doors, steering wheels and rear view mirrors, hanging down from the top of the shuttered fronts. They make for a sight as fascinating as the Mughal-era Jama Masjid, just a few steps away, though you can’t see it from this cramped locality. The lane is full of other distractions—beautiful or ugly depending on your aesthetics. The most notable surely being the Os and the Es. Curiously, some of these symbols are drawn even on the doors of what appears to be private houses. “It’s because the man painting the signs just went along without bothering about what kind of door it was,” says an elderly man, gazing upon a green doorway painted with an O.
A few beggars are sitting right under these signs, some are breakfasting on chai and bun. The elderly Sab Begum is asking for money from passersby under an E. Under another E, stands a goat.
The yellow shade of these signs hasn’t faded over the months; instead it has acquired a darker and hardy hue, seemingly enriched by exposure to the elements. They look like guests who have permanently settled down in their host’s house.
What will happen to these signs, in that longed-for future when coronavirus is gone? Will they be allowed to stay on as souvenirs of these unprecedented times? In any case, you ought to take a walk past these Os and Es, just to see for yourself how history is made — by the addition of new layers over older ones.
Come in the morning when the shutters are down, obviously.
Vowels on the street