City Walk – Lal Galli-Part 2, Old Delhi
A passage in the Walled City.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Cities are such a messy cobweb of truths and legends. Almost impossible to distengale the two. Such as our labyrinthine Purani Dilli.
Last week The Delhi Walla trodded through Lal Galli, the Walled City’s so-called red street. No dweller was able to tell the story behind its colourful name. An eatery cook mumbled of a long-ago shop selling lal roses, but was unsure of his story. Whatever, after the publication of that galli loafing, an 80-year-old reader summoned me to his residence, not far from Lal Galli.
This cold afternoon, ensconced in his living room stacked with hundreds of books (including under the TV), Urdu scholar Mohammad Feroz Dehlavi offers his version of Lal Galli. “It was originally called Kucha Jalal Bukhari, named after a Dilli ke buzurg (a venerable figure). Most of its residents left for Pakistan during the partition. Their empty houses were given to the sharnarthi (refugees) from across the new border.” At this point, the retired associate professor (Zakir Husain College) picks up his mobile phone from the coffee table, which is piled up with books he has authored across the decades. He dials a nearby tea stall and asks for three glasses of strong chai—the third is for wife Razia Sultana, a retired school teacher (“double MA in history and Urdu”).
The scholar continues: “Some of the sharnarthi who settled in the kucha perhaps found it difficult to pronounce Jalal Bukhari. Gradually, Jalal also came to be known as Lal.” This wordplay theory seems convincing since it is coming from a veteran of word games. Feroz Dehlavi once worked for Old Delhi’s legendary (now extinct) Shama magazine. One of his assignments included scanning the readers’ submissions to the monthly Adabi Moamma, the magazine’s insanely popular crossword puzzle.
Calling himself a 12th generation Walled City bashindah, the scholar notes that Lal Galli had sprawling residences with “darwaze, sehen, dalaan, kamre, kothriyan.” Most have been replaced by “chhote-chhote” flats. This is true of other gallis, too. And this is true of the scholar, too. He grew up in a large “100-gaz” house in Mohalla Lal Darwaza, near the long-closed Excelsior Cinema, but today shares a three-room flat with wife in Kucha Dakhani Rai.
These days, because of the intermittent pain in his left knee, plus the ongoing pandemic, Feroz Dehlavi rarely steps out of his first-floor home. He hasn’t been to Lal Galli for years. But no tension! The street comes to him occasionally. “Poet Zafar Moradabadi and Professor Mazhar Ahmad live in Lal Galli, they are friends, and visit me kabhi-kabhi,” the scholar says, and his scholar wife nods.
Scholars at home