We thought of a series on Delhi that does not talk only of the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad, the Mughalia, aka Mughlai delights and the lip-smacking Chaats of Chandni Chowk or the grand ruins of the seven Delhis and the wide open spaces and broad roads, but a series that also looks at the way Delhi has evolved. We wanted to explore the logic of the city and of the forces that have shaped the idea of the city itself. It was this idea that made us approach people who have engaged with the city with love and care for decades and we requested them to write for Kafila.
This series is titled Dilli hai jiska naam and the links to the previous posts can be found at the end.
This is the sixth post in the series, by JAYSHREE SHUKLA
Shahjahanabad My Love Affair: Jayshree Shukla
(All images by Jayshree Shukla)
My love affair with Shahjahanabad is only five years old. But it has the passion and intensity of star crossed lovers who fight to be together against all odds. It all began when I enrolled to go for a heritage food walk with a cousin of mine.
The omens were not good. Mohammed (my friend and family driver) and I made the unwise decision to drive to Chandni Chowk and we got stuck in the mother of all jams almost right away. I frantically checked my watch over and over again. My cousin, who had wisely chosen to use the Metro, was already there. Finally, the group left without me.
As they moved to halt number one, I thought I could join them there. But to no avail. I was still stuck. I finally caught up with my group at halt number three. They were having Kanji Vadas. Then we crossed over to the other side and stopped briefly at the Sunehri Masjid. Here we learnt that Nadir Shah had ordered the massacre of the citizens of Delhi standing atop the roof of the Masjid. Exactly there, I too got slaughtered. In my enthusiasm I remained blissfully unmindful of the purse slung carelessly over my shoulder. I discovered soon enough that my wallet was gone. As were all my IDs, my credit and debit cards, all the money I had – everything. I had been foolish enough to keep everything in the wallet and bring it along that evening. So the heritage food walk ended for me in ten minutes. I was not even able to pay for it! And I spent the evening at the Kotwali trying to get an FIR registered.
That first encounter with Shahjahanabad shocked me so much that I did not venture to that part of town for a few months. But the truth is that I was hooked. Those ten minutes were exhilarating. I knew I had to go back. And I did. This time I prepared like I was going to war. I carried little cash and nothing else. I clung to my camera like my life depended on it and walked with my elbows jutting out from both sides. I kept looking furtively for thieves that might be shadowing me. My name was Bond. James Bond.
Fortunately, nothing untoward happened on that visit. And I slowly began to relax. To begin with, I had no clue where to go. I did not want to join walks because I have bad ankles and knees and I worried about not being able to keep pace with other walkers. So I had to wander alone even if I really did not know where to go.
Nevertheless, not knowing where to go did not create any real deterrence for me. This was because, in Shahjahanabad, everywhere I looked seemed amazing to me. The rhythm, the energy of the place was mindboggling. I would dart from one place to another on rickshaws, from one lane to the next. I was able to take thousands of pictures. I found life so inordinately beautiful in Shahjahanabad. Yes, the place has very serious problems to which I will revert later. But I was completely love struck and could not focus on the negatives for too long.
It also helped that I love food and Shahjahanabad is a gourmet’s delight. To walk along Dariba and eat Jalebi and Samosa is one of the first things I learnt to do. Then we started going to Karim. Every trip ended at Karim where Mohammad and I dipped our bread in Qorma. This was the beginning. Later, we started discovering places where Shahjahanabadis eat and which are often different from the places where tourists flock.
Initially, we traveled by rickshaws a lot. Then I learnt it is much better to walk. As I started walking the map of Shahjahanabad started getting imprinted in my brain. Dariba, Kinari Bazaar, Dharampura, Maliwara, Ballimaran, Gali Qasim Jaan, Fatehpuri Masjid, Jama Masjid, Matia Mahal, Chitli Qabar, Pahari Bhojla, Pahari Imli, Nai Sarak – slowly these were not just names but places I began to recognize. I began to remember them. I started understanding how to find these places again. Shahjahanabad was, ever so slowly, revealing its secrets to me.
Once during the month of Ramzan I sauntered into the Jama Masjid and was amazed to see it come alive in the evenings. The courtyard was full of families who gathered there in the evenings to break their fasts. I was mesmerized by the magic of those evenings. Dates, Fruit Chaat, Kala Chana, Sherbet and Pakore were some of the staples for the evening feast. I realized that Ramzan was a special month in Shahjahanabad. I started hanging out in the evenings there.
A recent triumph has been the climb up to the Minar in the Jama Masjid. After you climb two steep floors up you get to the smaller roof from whence you enter the Minar. A narrow spiral leads you to the top. I counted every one of the 122 steps I climbed. I experienced a rush at the top no drug can match. Birdseye views of my beloved city were unbelievably spectacular.
From atop the Gadodia Building
The climb up to the roof of the Gadodia building in Khari Baoli also gives incredible views of the Fatehpuri Masjid and the spice market. I especially like to visit the spice market just before Holi to see huge stacks of Tesu flowers there.
Bird’s eye view from the Minar
Once I decided to go to Matia Mahal past midnight on a Ramzan night. I was amazed to find it brimming with life and energy. Raju (my husband) was with me that night. We decided to buy a plate of biryani from a Biryani seller when the two Cool Points, which stand next to each other, got into a fight. Cool Point is a stall which sells Shahi Tukra, Rabri, Mango Ice cream etc. And you have two Cool Points next to each other. Possibly brothers who separated? I do not know. But soon I saw Shahi Tukra flying in the air, thaals of sweets being upturned and a few people getting into a scuffle. All the sweets were gone. A few cops turned up and broke up the fight while I watched the hullabaloo saucer eyed. It was thrilling. In no time people had gone back to their own thing. Aji ye sab to chalta rehta hai Shahjahanabad main they said with a shrug and some humour.
Or then there is the qissa of a chaatwallah who got into a fight with his customer when they asked for a fresh dona for the water of the golguppas. The fight escalated to the point where both parties were trying to call the cops. That the cops did not bother is another story!
Or the day I heard a shopkeeper yelling at his assistant – tune mujhe kai ke tu aarti ke liye ja riya hai aur tu mobile pe batiya raha tha baahar? Aajkal ke londo’n ka koi bharosa nahin raha he shook his head sadly. I was the fly on the wall secretly enchanted by this quaint exchange.
I have always been in love with the movie Delhi 6. In it featured a tree, a most beautiful tree, which had hundreds of bells on it. I kept hunting for such a tree in Shahjahanabad and never found it. Until one day, in Lal Kuan, when I whizzed past a tree with lovely bells in a tempo. We got off the tempo and walked back to the tree. It did not have hundreds of bells like the movie. But it did have bells. And the tree was beautiful. Yet another wish was fulfilled.
I recall the day I was standing somewhere in Matia Mahal, wondering what to do next when I ran into Abu Sufian. He took me to the Shah Waliullah Library and then showed me a narrow uphill trail, which basically went up Pahari Bhojla through an endless series of steps. This trail leads to Turkman gate. But the steps were so daunting. I shook my head and walked away. Then, in a few minutes, I was back. I was going to go up a few steps I thought. But I went all the way up and then started rolling down the hill. I went through lanes which looked just like Venice to me (not that I have been to Venice). I reached Turkman Gate, via the grave of Razia Sultan in Bulbulikhana, absolutely bursting with pride. Then we took a tempo back to Matia Mahal. Oh what an adventure that was!
Gradually, like all Shahjahanabadis, I fell in love with nahari. I learnt that nahari was a breakfast item, not a curry you ate for dinner. I was badly hampered by the fact that I do not eat ‘bade ka meat’. But once you have tasted nahari, preferably buff but even goat, you understand there is nothing like it. And no, it is not Mutton Qorma by another name like many restaurants in south Delhi will have you believe. I looked pityingly at those who thought Daulat ki Chaat was a savoury snack, a la Papri Chaat. Or those who did not know what Kulle ki Chaat was. Or those who had never eaten Bade Mian’s kheer. Slowly, I was becoming a snob and loving it.
Nhari and naan
So there is the food, there is the place, there is the heritage and there are the people. And they are all completely unique. They preserve a way of life, a tehzeeb that is, to use a phrase, almost gone with the wind.
Crumbling havelis, the stunning Jama Masjid and millions of heritage structures are strewn carelessly around in Shahjahanabad. They are disappearing fast. If we don’t act now they will be lost forever to future generations. I shudder to think of the day Dilliwallahs will regard the malls of south Delhi as their heritage.
Why is it important for anyone to care about the past? In the melting pot called Shahjahanabad, for instance, people from different faiths have coexisted for generations. The culture of the walled city is an important example of secularism, not of the concept found in books but an actually lived experience. Shahjahanabad showcases a synthesis which is born when different cultures collide, coexist and intermingle, eventually creating a new stream.
Shahjahanabad hosted some of the finest poets of Urdu and the city also gave the world an incredibly beautiful language – Urdu. Mir, Momin, Mirza Ghalib, Sauda, Zauq and Daagh, to name just a few poets, roamed these streets. Urdu was born here and then it travelled all over India, eventually to come back home to Delhi again.
There is so much about Shahjahanabad that is incredible. I am no expert but I come to the place like a devotee, a mureed, an aashiq. In its tea houses, on the steps of the Jama Masjid, in the hole in the wall shops which sell the finest delicacies, everywhere I hang around or sit, like Casper the friendly ghost, and watch the world go by. And I take photos.
Shahjahanabad is theatre on the scale of life. It is the biggest production in the world. Possibly because the houses and shops are so small, life plays out on the streets. I can never be lonely or sad when I am here. In the summer, in the evenings, people drag their chairs out on the footpaths and gather together over tea. In the winters I find people sunning themselves everywhere. Two wheelers parked around are impromptu sofas and people are lounging on them as they chat.
Many caution against romanticizing Shahjahanabad. There are very serious issues that people grapple with every day here. It is one of the most neglected parts of our city. We have electricity wires dangling dangerously everywhere. Conservation is a crying need as is managing the chaotic traffic and the burgeoning population. The builder mafia is eating into heritage properties. Shahjahanabad is not a priority with any government. Sanitation, health and education are neglected. The people are often very poor. Governments come and go but the plight of the people remains the same. There is a lot which is seriously wrong there. The walled city, the city within a city, is also a city in crisis. There is a lot to think about and a lot to do to try and save this place from ruin.
I often wonder what can I do? I want to roam every inch of the place, document every by lane and take as many photos as I can. This is so I can save something of the place for myself and my friends, while trying, at the same time, to invite attention to the place. I am trying to preserve the past as best as I can.
I am still learning to uncover the layers of Shahjahanabad. There is still so much more to discover. During summers the speed becomes slower as the temperatures start to soar. But come winter and my feet find wings again. I think even a lifetime is not enough to discover Shahjahanabad in all its nuances and my love affair is only five years old. On the other hand, there is not too much time. Things are changing fast. Every day an old building with the trademark Lakhori bricks comes crumbling down to give way to a ‘modern’ building. So while I am only a recent devotee, I know I don’t have forever to discover the place unless Shahjahanabad is saved. If it dies with it will die the heart of Delhi. And the city’s hope for a future which appreciates that diversity is a true benchmark for a thriving and robust culture.