City Landmark – Poets’ Corner, Modern Tea House
Poetry with chai.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The white lighting at Modern Tea House would illuminate the darkened Walled City alley far beyond the midnight. Inside, the last table would be clouded in tobacco smoke, smelling of beedis and of lukewarm chai. This was the poets’ corner. The singsong recitals of shairyi would be punctuated by interludes of comfortable lulls.
All of this stands silenced. The tea house in Gali Haveli Azam Khan shuts by 8. The poet’s’ corner has its old table, but no poetry.
During the day, a few of those verse writers might still trickle in, arriving at different times from nearby gallis, kuchas, katras, chattas, ahatas. Occasionally, two or three of them happen to be present simultaneously, accidentally forming a quorum, obliging them to share a nazm or two over slurp-slurp of chai. Such impromptu sessions are not intended to resuscitate the poets’ corner. That is permanently dead. The leading member in the informal collective was the distinguished Rauf Raza. Each evening this poet from nearby Chitli Qabar commandeered the proceedings from 7pm onwards. Following his burial in Dilli Gate Qabristan, seven years ago, the tea house’s poetry society gradually disbanded.
This evening, motor mechanic Sameeruddin is lounging on a middle table, directly facing the legendary back bench, the site of the poets’ corner. His gaze is rapt withal, as if intently witnessing the ruin of all space, shattered glass, topping masonry, and time one livid final flame. Sameeruddin was faithful to the poets’ daily soirées, turning up every evening for their latest compositions—“That age has ended.” His eyes cursorily glance up at the ceiling, whose peeling paint has laid bare the rusty iron beams. His table is bereft of its blue polish; only a grainy residue is left along the fringes (the table’s exposed coppery brown surface is marked with overlapping rings of chai glasses.) Closing his eyes, the motor mechanic raises an arm, slowly waving it through the heavily humid air. “Earlier we valued khalipan, took out time to be idle, came to chaikhane like this one—to meet friends, to meet nobody, to do nothing.”
A street salesman enters, keeping his merchandise of Amigo electronic calculators on a table. Lighting up a beedi, the new arrival tunes into his mobile’s YouTube. A news presenter’s agitated voice drowns out the whirring of the ceiling fans.
Looking askance at his own beedi, as if suddenly finding himself sitting next to a mystifying stranger, Sameeruddin breaks into a monologue: “I never smoke, somebody else is smoking this beedi, somebody who is inside me but remains a stranger. I’m only satisfying his urges.” Throwing it on the floor, already littered with beedis, he sings aloud (see photo) a couplet by late Rauf Raza, the bright star of the vanished poets’ corner, who had first presented these lines in this very place:
“Vo ye kahte haiñ sadā ho to tumhāre jaisī
is kā matlab to yahī hai ki pukāre jaao
(They long for a voice like yours,
I conclude they need to be addressed often.)”