Mission Delhi – Ompal, Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He’s one of our city’s most uncommon men. This afternoon, he is sitting on the pavement, giving the final touches to what seems to be a self-made chabuk, or whip.
A dhaba owner describes him as a goat herder. This isn’t completely surprising because the neighbourhood, Hazrat Nizamuddin basti, is full of these animals. “He takes people’s goats to the (nearby) Panj Peeran graveyard, where they feed on wild grass and bushes.”
There is no easy way to confirm this with the man himself. He can’t hear or speak, the locals say, and neither is he known to communicate by writing. But every Basti shopkeeper this reporter talked to asserts that this man is the most extraordinary figure in this 14th century urban village.
Curiously, nobody seems to know his name. He is often seen on a lane teeming with beggars, though he always sits alone, and never asks for alms from passersby. He carries a red comb in his shirt pocket. The eatery owners give him meals and chai for free. At night, he sleeps on the street.
A grocer conjectures that the man’s name might be tattooed on his arm. On being queried through a series of gestures, the man smiles and shakes his head, tapping his chin on to his right shoulder, implying that the tattoo—if it ever existed—was on his missing limb.
Later investigations paint him as an artist—particularly skilled with tiles. Some of his works are immortalised in the area’s public spaces. The pedestrian roundabout outside the shrine of Hazrat Inayat Khan’s dargah is decorated with his tile arrangements. So are a few benches in a park, as well as the spaces in a municipality-run clinic and an anganwadi.
At long last, during the course of these enquiries, an official with Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has carried out many urban renewal projects in the basti, identifies the man as Ompal—“We got to work with him for a few years. He did some beautiful tile works for us. He prefers to work alone, and doesn’t like being supervised. He’s very moody but polite.”
You may celebrate the artist by viewing his aforementioned works, or by meeting him in the basti. If he is not with the goats in the graveyard, he’ll be somewhere near poet Ghalib’s tomb. And usually standing out from the crowd, in his hat (though not on the day this photo was taken).
[This is the 413th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
An uncommon man