City Walk – Asaf Ali Road, Old Delhi
Road by the vanished wall.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Like people, places grow, reach their pinnacle, and then decline. Something like Old Delhi’s Asaf Ali Road. Its cordon of grand buildings once housed la-di-da institutions. Today, modest offices, small warehouses, photocopying kiosks, and booths of notary typists operate out of those premises.
The busy road flanks the south-facing side of the Walled City’s (far longer) vanished city wall. On the immediate other side of the disappeared wall runs Old Delhi’s Faseel Road, which principally survives in two fragments—already featured here and here. The Asaf Ali Road walk concludes the trilogy.
Students of Delhi’s contemporary architecture will instantly fall in love with the road for its trove of early modernist buildings, many samples of which have been erased elsewhere in the city (the reader may recall Chanakya Cinema building, demolished in 2009). Dating to the initial decades of independence, these Asaf Ali edifices are like a departed era’s precious scrapbook. In their severe asceticism, some of the facades trigger the awe usually inspired by Brutalist architecture. Such as the imposing Hamdard Building, headquarters to the manufacturer of the Rooh Afza. Until a few years ago, the only decorative motif was a giant flex banner of the sherbet bottle. While the austere monolith of the 960-seater Delite Cinema, since 1954, speaks as poignantly for the pre-streaming age of movie watching, as it does for the Asaf Ali’s original chic.
Another must-see is Hotel Broadway, that checked into existence in 1956, and checked out in 2020. The well-preserved exterior showcases a time when nobody could have foreseen Asaf Ali’s descend into genteel dereliction. Nearby, a building, circa 1947, bears the metallic lettering of the discontinued Delhi Stock Exchange. Many of the letters are missing—in ‘exchange’, everything has fallen off except the ‘x’.
Built in 1953, the ruinous Shama building that housed the Urdu film and literary magazine of that name has a tree growing out of its balcony. A rusting metal hoarding is still painted with ‘Shama,” the Urdu for candle.
For some years, Asaf Ali was also the office address of the capital’s greatest contemporary architect (guess who!). The firm of Stein and Polk was on the top floor of A15/3. These days, a chartered accountant occupies a portion of the otherwise deserted floor.
The road is also distinguished for its adjacency to three of the Walled City’s surviving stone gateways. It starts from Ajmeri Gate, passes by Turkman Gate, and terminates at Dilli Gate. A park there is overgrown with unruly grass. This afternoon, the only other visitor is a mangy brown dog poking his nose into a series of rat holes. In the corner stands a tall statue. The plaque identifies the figure as “Freedom Fighter” M. Asaf Ali. A crow is perched atop the statue’s head; the dried streaks of white bird-droppings stain the statue’s cheek, tears-like. In the backdrop glares the menacing visage of the brutalist Telephone Exchange building. See photo.