City Walk – Chatta Chuhiya Mem, Old Delhi
World of a street.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
How was she like? What were her passions and pursuits, her joys and despairs? Where is her grave?
There are no answers. Nothing substantial is known about this mysterious figure. And yet, a neighbourhood in Old Delhi is named after her name — well, not after her real name, for even that we do not know.
This unknown woman was nicknamed as Chuhiya Mem, a mousey ma’am, and she lived in what is today known as Chatta Chuhiya Mem. “Her home was in this very street during the time the British ruled our country… she was a Mem because she was an angrez lady, and she was very dubli, as thin as a mouse, so she was called Chuhiya Mem,” explains resident Muhammed Kafil, who works in the “mechanical line.”
The dead-end alley looks dull at its mouth, where it meets the main street of Chitli Qabar. The feeling changes on entering. Akhlaq Bhai’s snug chai kiosk is densely stacked with cups and glasses. A tiny mobile phone is playing a film song on YouTube; the handset is arranged on the shelf as prominently as a flat screen TV in a drawing room.
Further ahead, the lane grows more silent. People pop up, but not frequently. A ramshackle window is decked with a decorative placard urging citizen to throw the household litter on the street only at night, from 11 to 6.
Chatta is the Hindi for beehive, but in the Walled City it implies an area where the upper storeys of houses arch over the street and block the view of the sky. This locality has two chattas. The newer one, towards the entrance, is fronted by a gigantic arch. The older chatta is more discreet. This is where the famous Mem is believed to have lived.
The passage way through this chatta is almost as dark as twilight. It narrows into an airy alley that makes a twist and a turn, and ends into a house. At the door, homemaker Rubeena, is standing with neighbour’s children, Hafsa and Juweriy. She repeats all that is known about the Mem.
Back at Akhlaq Bhai’s tea stall, kebab maker Danish informs that the chatta officially renamed itself a few years ago to Mem only, “because ‘Chuhiya’ wasn’t considered respectable.”
Be that may, a sheeny banner for Zishan International, hanging at the neighbourhood’s entrance, is painted with the following address—“Shop no 6072, Chuhiya Mem ka Chatta, Gali Mem Wali.”
This way to Chuhiya Mem