My father was aspiring to become a lecturer in the newly started medical college in Aligarh, the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, and settle there for good, but fate held otherwise. Inspite of having a wide ranging experience in medical research, with medical degrees MBBS and MD from KGMC Lucknow, an MS from McGill University etc, the coveted faculty position eluded him as some scheming colleagues and university administrators seemed to be elbowing him out. Therefore, in 1966, he decided to leave Aligarh for good and settle in Delhi, giving up all hopes of becoming a university faculty. He initially took up the job of a resident doctor at Hamdard (makers of famous herbal products like Rooh Afza, Pachnol, and Safi) Nursing Home at Asaf Ali Road in Old Delhi. After some time he decided to establish his own practice as a physician and set up a clinic in a rented premise in Urdu Bazaar opposite Jama Masjid. It was then that Abbu decided to shift completely to Delhi with the family.
When the question of where we should stay in Delhi cropped up, Abbu toyed with the idea of looking for rented accommodation in the Jama Masjid area also known as Dilli-6, after the postal code of the area. To this my mother objected vehemently. She felt that it would be better to live in a cosmopolitan colony with a good school close by and Old Delhi was far from the locality which she had in mind. So, it was decided that if we were to live in Delhi, then it would have to be somewhere other than Delli-6.
I don’t know what sort of experiences Abbu had when he went about hunting for a house to rent in Delhi. I also don’t know how he ultimately zeroed in on East Nizamuddin and Mrs Mehta—a kind genial lady, a partition refugee, who agreed to rent out her house in East Nizamuddin while she continued to live in another of her property in Defence colony. From 1967 till 1988, i.e. for over twenty years Mrs Mehta’s house was to become our own. Meanwhile, other things were also settled. My sister and I would be enrolled in the Delhi Public School (my mother who had done an MA and a library science course, gained employment as librarian in the same school, subsequently), located just a couple of kilometres away. Abbu, being the complete family man, had arranged for everything. I remember the day of our hijrat very well. All the house furniture and belongings were loaded on a truck. Coming by train, mother would join us, with our newborn second sister and her ayah, a day later. Abbu owned a small, black vintage car—a Standard Eight Saloon, which was also loaded onto the truck. In it sat the three of us, Abbu, my sister and me. The truck drove along the Grand Trunk Road from Aligarh to Delhi on a wet, cold wintry day, and from that day onwards, we became Dilli-wallas or Delhi-ites.
One tends to think that life ought to be a trajectory of progress, in small incremental steps. Coming to Delhi and leaving the small town of Aligarh behind, it seemed that we had moved forward and progress had been made in our lives. It seemed that for a whole lot of other people also there was this quest for seeking a new and better life in newly independent India. And indeed, many were rebuilding their lives from a scratch.
What was Delhi of the past—of the Mughals, Ghalib, Zauq, Sir Syed, Hali, Dagh Dehelvi, Deputy Nazir Ahmed and more latterly the Delhi of Ahmed Ali—as depicted in his famous English novel Twilight in Delhi was all but gone and referred to as the walled city. Any traces of the upheavals which Delhi had seen a decade or more earlier in the form of communal clashes, witch-hunt, refugee camps and people taking shelter in Humanyun’s Tomb, Old Fort, etc., were barely perceptible. A brand new Delhi was coming up, with new buildings, housing colonies and residential areas. In Nizamuddin even newer building activity was going on at a rapid pace.
One was constantly reminded of the fact that much had happened already in the new century, the Biswin Sadi, as the previous one had yawned to a close. Though people of my cohort were not around when the country was partitioned, yet as late as 1960’s, tell-tale signs of the upheaval were visible for all to see. One encountered people who had directly experienced the horrors of partition, the bloodshed and violence with their own eyes, the trauma of being uprooted from their homes and losing loved ones. Everyone, it seemed, was stoically rebuilding their lives, trying to make that ‘incremental progress’, make a difference for their families, stage a comeback. And we too had come, from a small provincial town to the capital city, to begin a new life and become a part of the burgeoning Indian middle class.
Delhi, in those days, looked very different from the urban nightmare it has now become. I remember there used to be very little traffic on the roads. Moving out of Delhi on the Mathura road, one saw sparse vegetation, open spaces with gnarled Accacia trees. On the roads of Delhi grey coloured Delhi Transport Undertaking (DTU) buses plied, alongside which also roared a peculiar mode of transport called phat-phatiya. These monsters were old Harley Davidson’s motorcycles refitted to a carrier which could easily accommodate 7–8 passengers. The reason why they were called phat-phatiya was due to the noise made by the Harley Davidson engine, which could be heard almost a mile away. Manned by elderly Sikh gentlemen dozens of phat-phatiya’s could be seen parked outside the railway station, Karol Bagh, Connaught Place, and at the Nizamuddin bus stand. With a dozen people packed together, clutching on to whatever support they could find and holding on to their shapeless baggage which protruded from all possible angles, the phat-phatiya presented a funny spectacle, and as they roared along on the road they were a sight to behold. However, with the passage of time, these road monsters disappeared and so did those elderly Sikh’s who used to read Urdu newspapers and work these machines. In 1998, with considerations of air pollution in mind, the Delhi government stopped phat-phatiya’s altogether. They were replaced by brown coloured Mahindra jeeps, which till today go by the name ‘Phat-Phat Sewa’.
The arrival of Punjabi refugees in large numbers in the wake of partition must have appeared as a cultural shock to the original Delhi residents, and has been much written about. Remembrance about places which now lie in Pakistan was the order of the day and, among the older generation of Punjabi’s living in Delhi nostalgia about Lahore, runs high even today. How else can one explain, so many decades after partition, the continued popularity of the Hindi/Punjabi play, ‘Jis ne Lahore nahi dekhya uh jamaya hi nahi’. This play runs to packed audiences every time it is staged in Delhi and people emerge with tears rolling down their cheeks. Prominent writers and journalists still continue to fill pages with nostalgic memoirs about Lahore. While several accounts exist about how Delhi received the influx of partition-displaced persons, on the other side of the border, people also noted the vacuum which existed in Lahore when the Hindu population fled to India. Tariq Ali, the veteran Left intellectual and activist, was in school in Lahore in 1947 and in his memoir ‘Street Fighting Years’ he makes a mention about how deserted and silent the streets and restaurants of the city remained for some days when the Hindu population suddenly left the city.
For us new-comers what was striking was that so many shops and buildings were named after places in Western Punjab and other areas which now constitute Pakistan. It seemed that everyone had brought a little bit of their homeland with them. For instance, a popular eatery in nearby Bhogal market was called ‘Lahorian di Hatti’. A school near the railway station was called ‘Quetta DAV School’. Small eateries served dishes called ‘Pindi ke Chholey Bhatoorey’. A shop had the name ‘New Lyallpur Cloth House’. There were ‘Lahorian Jewelers’, ‘Sindh Wood & Ply’. And there were also ‘Abbot Drycleaner’s’, whose shop, it turned out, had not been named after some monastery’s abbot but after ‘Abbotabad’, a town in Pakistan, recently made famous for all the wrong reasons. Thus, many places in erstwhile undivided India, but no more in India now, such as Lahore, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Lyallpur, Sindh, Abbotabad, to name a few, made their presence felt in a short walk in any area of Delhi. However, that said, yet another aspect of the cultural shock which we experienced in Delhi was coming to terms with a new vocabulary. For instance, the widespread trend of calling ladies and gents of our parents age as uncle and aunty. This was new for us and we wasted no time in making uncles and aunties of several of our neighbours.
In those days, discussions on partition, who were its chief villains, etc., though most of it was based on perceptions and hearsay, were common. Meanwhile, in school, there was an attempt made to present an ‘official’ version of the independence struggle, one element of which was to hang portraits of national leaders in the school building. So in every class room a portrait of our national leaders—mostly Nehru and Gandhi, but sometimes Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Azad, etc., used to adorn the walls. These framed pictures, with their garish colours, seemed like cut-outs from calendars or posters. The picture of Nehru had the leader dressed in an achkan with a red rose in the button hole. The picture of Gandhi was usually of a toothless, aged, smiling Gandhi, playing with a baby, trying to offer it a fruit. Thus, on account of peer pressure and frequent references to the freedom movement, we learnt to recognize our leaders and tried to behave patriotically. Music did the rest; in our music classes, the masterji sang patriotic songs, many of which turned out to be not so much the original songs of the freedom movement but popular filmy songs. For instance, ‘Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Sathiyon’, from the 1964 film Haqeeqat, and ‘Aiye watan, Aiye watan, hum ko teri kasam’, were huge hits.
Any traces of the upheavals which Delhi had seen a decade or more earlier in the form of communal clashes, witch-hunt, refugee camps and people taking shelter in Humanyun’s Tomb, Old Fort, etc., were barely perceptible. A brand new Delhi was coming up
The resettlement of partition refugees (‘displaced persons’ or DPs) is reasonably well documented. Many DPs were resettled in Bhogal, Jangpura, Greater Kailash, and areas of what now constitute Lajpat Nagar and Defence Colony. In Nizamuddin, plots were auctioned on which small bungalow-like houses, with a garden in front and a small courtyard at the back, were constructed. Few people would have realized then that this barren, jackal infested area would become prime property in the years to come. (The 1963 film Tere Ghar ke Samne gives an idea of the vast expanses of open areas in Delhi, when the new housing colonies were being built and it was a boom time for real estate developers.) In 1967, when we arrived, many of these old style, single-storied houses which had been built a decade earlier, were being brought down and multi-storied buildings, typically two flats and a barsati, i.e., with only half the portion of the roof area covered, were being constructed in their place. We occupied the ground floor, the first floor and the barsati being occupied by an elderly, Anglo-Indian couple, Mr and Mrs Andrews and their dog Duke. Houses in Nizamuddin have all been built in rows, one touching the other like a palisade. So, while we had house of Mr Kishan Lal on one side, on the other side lived Mr Sharma and his extended family.
Sharmaji, whom everyone called Bauji was an elderly gentleman and like most other residents of Nizamuddin he was a partition refugee, his family having once lived in a village somewhere in the interior of western Punjab. His attire was standard and unchanging—a white turban with a long tail and very simple clothes, just a pajama and shirt. This attire of his remained constant throughout the years that we knew him. Though he was in his sixties (or more), he was lean and walked very straight, never speaking much and always appearing calm and composed, thus coming across as a simple, no-nonsense but kind-hearted and helpful soul, bearing some resemblance to a well-known Hindi comic strip character, Chacha Choudhary. His equally aged, slightly plump wife called Bhabiji was a much more talkative person. Among the first people to befriend us, she and her daughters Prem and Kusum came over to meet my mother on the same day when she arrived, and in no time, started offering suggestions and help about how to go about organizing the household. Now when I recall that initial meeting between the ladies, it seems amazing how the womenfolk immediately connected with each other and formed bonds where none had existed before. Very soon they were behaving as if they had been friends for ages.
Within a couple of minutes, bhabiji, Prem and Kusum had mapped the entire neighbourhood and sorted everything out. We learnt that there was a small market in the locality with about a dozen shops, including those of a drycleaner, a halwai, and grocer. For milk, the booth run by the Delhi Milk Scheme, DMS for short, supplied bottled milk, at certain fixed hours of the day for which one had to get a token made—an aluminium strip which had some figures embossed over it. My mother also discovered, thanks to Prem and bhabiji that several household cooking items, grounded spices such as turmeric, chillies, and coriander could be purchased from the local Arya Samaj Mandir, just a short distance away in the neighbouring block. Since such facilities were unheard of in Aligarh, just after a few days of being in Delhi, we started feeling that great progress had been made in our lives. We seemed to be moving forward, on our way to somewhere. In due course, all things required by a middle class household would come, but at their right time—a fridge, a gas stove, and an Ambassador car (manufactured by the ubiquitous Hindustan Motors company). And later, when its time came, a black and white television set.
Mr Lal’s house, then in the old style of a single storied bungalow, was in the process of being demolished and rebuilt into a multi-storied apartment complex. We learnt that Mr Lal had lived in Lahore before partition where he and his brother Hansraj Lal had a thriving automobiles business, a dealership in cars. Partition had wiped out everything and they had fled Lahore and come to Delhi where they managed to rebuild their business and opened an office of their agency Central Motors in Kashmeri Gate. Just when things were picking up, Hansraj Lal suddenly died of a cardiac arrest. At the time, when we came to know them, the Lal family consisted of the widow of the elder brother whom everyone called Dedaji, Kishan Lal and his wife Kailash and their two sons. Theirs was a typical Punjabi family, though Kailash aunty, as we called her, came from a family of Kayasths, an old Mathur family of Delhi, and had several relatives living in Meerut and Bombay. As Kailash Rani Pandit, she also had a brief career as an announcer and a light classical music singer with All India Radio, which she later abandoned.
Jamil Urfi has an abiding interest in history, architecture, period publications and popular cinema of the 1960s and 70s—themes which figure prominently in his recently published book ‘Biswin Sadi Memoirs – Growing up in Delhi during the 1960s and ’70s’. He lives and works in Delhi
Though I’m not a Dilli-Wallah, I enjoyed Jamil’s excellent and evocative article. Next time in Dilli, I’ll plan to visit Kashmeri Gate that I’ve not been to for years. I’ve circulated the article to Dillites around the world who will surely enjoy Jamil’s piece.