City Walk – Gali Syed Rafai, Old Delhi
This way to Gali Syed Rafai.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
All is quiet. All is empty. Except for a black-and-white billi nosing around. No human is crowding this narrow gali, though it is lined with many doorways. Now another black-and-white billi surfaces. Oh, may be she is the same one.
Gali Syed Rafai empties into the crowded Chitli Qabar Bazar, but within its habitat, it lies as secretively as an animal in winter hibernation. This afternoon, the muffled roar from the chaotic market outside is only amplifying the haunting nature of the street’s silence.
At long last, a street dweller appears. Handicraft artist Halim had gone out to shop for two cucumbers. He describes Syed Rafai, after whom the street is named, as “a man of izzat who performed prayers five times a day… he lived in our gali about 400 years ago.” Holding the cucumbers as carefully as if they were glasses of steaming hot chai, he disappears behind the dark wood door of his house. Close by, the doorway belonging to “news editor, All India Radio” is fitted with a slim plaque stating: “God wills it.”
The short but labyrinthine gali swells gently to a moderate height, giving the feel of walking in a hill town. It forks into two galis, both of which end up as cul-de-sac. The longer one is overlooked by an elevation of old-fashioned lakhori bricks. This is actually the boundary wall of an iconic landmark. Founded in 1922, the so-named Subhan Factory is among Old Delhi’s oldest dry cleaning facilities. It is also among the gali’s only two commercial entities (the other one is a “medicura”). During the wedding season, its large hall gets filled up with very many dry-cleaned lehengas and sherwanis. Those sequinned dresses then shine faintly from inside the wood-lined glass closets, as they wait to be claimed by their owners. The establishment’s patriarch, Syed Muzaffar Ali—who was founder Subhan Ali’s son—died last Saturday, aged 74. The young Mansoor Ali, his son, is sitting on his chair (he is seen in the photo, standing beside the aforementioned wall). Mansoor’s elder brother, Farid Ali, is out for a while.
Now, an elderly man is sighted, slowly walking down the gali. A retired betel leaf trader, he is heading to the nearest mosque, which faces the bazar, but is connected to this quiet street by a back-door. The mosque, too, is named after Syed Rafai.