City Neighbourhood – Gali Gondni Wali, Old Delhi
A street of the interiors.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Walking down the Walled City galis is comparable to chase scenes in James Bond thrillers in which the hero is running after the anti-hero through a variety of constantly changing backdrops.
Take Gali Gondni Wali. The scene changes drastically at every turn. The lane is packed with picturesque doorways, groceries and chai shops. This afternoon, a veggie seller is encircled by four cats and a dog. Just before the gali peters out into a doorway, you pass by an opening on the right that looks like a private corridor. It is actually a roofed alley of the same gali, very badly lit, in which the atmopshere is silent and dark, and silhouetted passers-by are going about silently. The alley soon jerks to right, landing you abruptly into daylight. Here begins Gali Jagat Cinema Wali. This roomy yard narrows into a lane, climaxing into a bustling thoroughfare.
Presto, you have traversed through a multitudinous assortment of scenes within a minute, just like agent 007.
Though short, Gali Gondni Wali feels like a self-contained basti saturated with its own schema of virtues, wisdom, habits, legends, histories and secrets. It is such an enclosed enclave that venerable Zahiruddin, who runs the street’s stationery shop, talks of the area outside the street as ‘baahar,’ a land belonging to the exteriors. His tone makes that land sound unattainable. But Zahiruddin, who grew up in this street, had long ago shifted his residence to this enigmatic ‘baahar,’ commuting back daily to his shop in Gali Gondni Wali.
For that matter, many Walled City natives refer to ‘baahar’ as places outside the Walled City—there’s currently a steady slow-paced exodus of the Purani Dilli wale to localities such as Lakshmi Nagar in the east, Okhla in the south, and also to the more distant Noida and Gurugram. But when our elderly shop owner talks of having moved his home to ‘baahar,’ he merely means the next-door Gali Jagat Cinema Wali!
In his 70s, Zahiruddin momentarily talks of his childhood in Gondni Wali. The gali had four or five gondni trees, which gave the street its name. All those trees are gone, he says without sentimentalising their loss with nostalgia. Now he stands outside his stationery to pose for a portrait. Meanwhile scores of passers-by are passing by, like film extras enacting a chase sequence.