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Grand Old City, Good Old Tales


HOW TIMES change and memories of people long dead linger on. I particularly remember Haji Zahooruddin and Mohammad Shafi Pehalwan. When I met Haji in the 1960s he was nearing 70. He was born and brought up in the Jama Masjid area and remember the days when it used to be known as Kapra Chowk or Cloth Court Yard. It was a famous shopping centre where all kinds of gowns and clothes for weddings and funerals used to be sold and the young Zahooruddin later escorted his mother and grandmother to the chowk.

It will sound incredible, he said, that in those days, there was also a big grain market just behind the masjid, which later came to be known as Rui ki-Mandi. "I used to help my father carry the monthly provisions from these shops in lieu of the enticing four-anna bit which I could spend as I wished."

Haji Sahib recalled that near the main gate of the mosque was a market where he used to buy fancy birds from the Bahelias or birds sellers; now little remains of the market except a few people who sell parrots by the roadside.

"I remember," he said, "We used to play football in the area now covered by Edward Park, (now Netaji Park) the fish market and the wooden shacks which housed eating shops. In the evening, the tumtums, phaetons, tongas and horses of the rich were there. During the days preceding Id-ul-Zuha the area was converted into a livestock market and we poor children were forced to go and play in front of the Red Fort".

"Whatever knowledge of Urdu I have", he said, "is due to Khwaja Hasan Nizami Manzil which was one of the best trade behaviours of the time and occupied most of the area which now goes by the name of Urdu Bazar. Most of my evenings were spent in such old houses as Haveli Sadar Sadur, Dojana House and the Haveli of Nawab Buddhan in Matia Mahal, where the elite used to gather in mehfils to hear mushairas or fascinating tales of the Mutiny from those who had lived during those troublesome days"

The butchers' shops used to be where they now are as also the poultry and egg sellers. At that time Firozi Kasai was the most famous butcher of Delhi and his shop, dating back some 100 years was run by his sons and grandsons. Haji Zahooruddin said that every evening Firozi used to feed 10 seers of his choicest meat to kites on the steps of the mosque "to repent for the slaughter he committed every day." Near the steps of Jama Masjid used to be the shops of Gummi and Maseeta Kababis, reputed to have been the best kabab-makers Delhi has ever had. There was an old wrestler in Turkman Gate who gloated over the past glory of his locality and felt that the area had become a jumbled mess of cows living in the midst of men and ancient houses tumbling like dark shadow behind some of the newest buildings in Delhi. "This was a chaman (garden) of valour in those days, with wrestling pits occupying the pride of place. All our time was spent in making our bodies stronger and in preparing to overthrow our rivals from other parts of the city."

At 65, the ex-grappler was still remarkably active for his age and put down his latent energy to his daily jerks when he was young. He recalled with affection his old rival Kekri Singh, whose name was a household word in the Walled City years ago.

Mohammad Shafi recalled that the area outside Turkman Gate was quite deserted. Ramlila Ground was then known as Shahji ka Talab: "much before I was born" he said, there was a big tank there which was used for boating and fishing. Instead of Asaf Ali Road there was a big nullah, "probably it served as moat for this part of the city during Moghul days". Beyond Ramlila Ground were vegetable fields famous for radish and turnips. Amidst the fields was the `Devrani-jithani-ka-Kuan". The well of the sister-in-law. How the name stuck to the well he did not know, neither could he place the well. "It was probably filled up when Irwin Hospital was built."

Comparing those far off days with present times another old pehalwan said his locality instead of developing, is in a state of decay. Most of the houses are dilapidated and the streets are dirtier than they used to be. "Can you imagine that in my younger days the elite of the locality used to play cards and pachcheesee (Chinese cheques) in these same streets through which you can now pass only with a great effort of will." The Metro construction has added to the problems of the residents, most of whom still live in a past that has been overshadowed by the present. Even so, distant dreams sound pleasing to the ear - don't they?

R.V. SMITH

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