There was a pretty girl in the flats opposite Hari Nagar in Delhi, who used to give flying kisses to the setting sun every evening and mutter, "Darling, darling bada beiman (Dishonest beloved)". Sometimes she would add a naughty expletive that shocked the passers-by. Rickshaw-pullers and street urchins would watch but from a far distance and women out shopping for milk and vegetables would shake their heads in astonishment.
Sometimes her mother would venture out from the flat in which they lived and gesture to the girl to come home. But she would still linger on, unmindful of the stares directed at her and deeply engrossed in her daily ritual. One often wondered what had affected her so much. Was it a love affair that had failed? Now one doesn’t see that girl. Maybe she’s gone away or stays confined to the house. Or, God forbid, in some psychiatric asylum, still searching for the sun her two index fingers crossed to implant a soft airy kiss and then sliding down.
There was another young woman, always dressed in a blouse and petticoat, with a garland round her neck, a big red tilak on the forehead and a paan in her mouth, who used to keep winking while walking on the road to Subhash Nagar.
Also in a West Delhi colony was a girl, who would come out in mid-afternoon, when the sun was at its scorching worst and walk briskly up and down "E Street" opposite Metal Forgings. She was slim and sallow-complexioned, wearing salwar kameez and leather slippers, which probably aided her to make at least a hundred rounds of the street. If someone looked at her, she would stop and stare back before resuming her marathon walk. Some said both the woman in petticoat and she were victims of trauma.
An old man with tousled hair and grisly chin, in a crumpled up shirt and pyjamas, who sneezed and clapped by turns, came to the area in the area in the morning, before most people were pick up, picking up bits of cigarette paper and odds and ends that attracted his attention. He was neither mad nor a rag picker but the grandfather of a lower strata family living in the Government Press quarters, who would occasionally be seen buying milk from the DMS depot. The funny old man too has disappeared somewhere.
An old woman, who lived near the Kutcha Tihar mosque, was usually spotted standing near its boundary wall, softly repeating,"KhizrKhizr". While enquiries about the other odd characters failed to elicit any plausible explanation, the whispers of the old woman did. A venerable maulana, with long hair and a graceful beard, confided that she was a Hajjan and calling to Khwaja Khan, and thereby hangs a tale.
"Khwaja Khizr", the name brings to mind an evening in the University campus, when the walk from St Stephen’s College seemed a particularly long one for two young men, new to Delhi! It might take more than half an hour to make it to Kashmere gate bus stand, and it’s dark already; may Khwaja Khizr help us, said Baig as he looked at the winding road thrown into darkness by a long blackout during the Indo-Pak war. Who is Khwaja Khizr, was the natural question from the perplexed scribe, still learning the ropes in Ink Street.
Baig looked to his left and right and replied, "He’s the one who takes care of the wayfarers. When in danger,one must invoke him. Khizr, which means green, is believed by some to have accompanied Prophet Abraham to Canaan, by others to the person who guided Moses and the Israelites during their 40-year journey to the Promised Land. Yet others believe that he was the great grandson of Shem, the son of Noah, and one of the survivors of the Deluge. The Greek belief was he accompanied Alexander on his conquests as friend, philosopher and guide. He was also the saint, who controlled the waters of immorality.
Belief in Khwaja Khizr can be traced to almost all religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For the Sindhis, he is Jhule Lal or Raja Khidar and in Punjab he is supposed to be an avatar of Vishnu. When one is in danger, one has to call to him thrice and he is there to help, never failing to respond in any emergency. The old woman of Tihar called him just by force of habit only twice and hence probably got no response.
Perhaps in the Western milieu he came to be known as St Christopher. This saint is revered in the East too, for even in Delhi one sees many car owners, who have a medal of St Christopher dangling from the steering wheel. Whether there is substance in the belief or not is a moot point but it is a good psychological boost alright. Khzir, however, will keep travelling till the end of the world.
William Dalrymple did some research on Hazrat Khizr for his book City of Djinns, with help from the learned Dr Yunus Jaffri of Delhi College, who took him to Makan-e-Khizr in Mehrauli. Dr Jaffri (now 85) lives in Turkman Gate, Dalrymlpe at his farmhouse in South Delhi and Baig has migrated to the US, where he misses the ambience of Delhi in his Flushing Meadows New York home.
As for other odd characters, one must mention Puttan, who had learning problems in school and had to leave after Class III, but later began to pose as a teacher in decoit-infested Bah-Pinhat. He would "lecture" village boys in a singsong voice, leaving his listeners overawed, though what he spoke was a jumble of sentences in broken English, which made no sense. During one such lecture, out in the open during May1994, he died after a heat-stroke caused by the sizzling loo. His mother brought the lanky six-footer’s body all by herself (save for the driver) in a van at midnight to Agra. She knocked at the house of her shocked nephew to announce the sad news. The next day Puttan was buried in a mud grave at Tote-ki-Taal Protestant cemetery but now his grave is not traceable. His mother, who had started living in Bah with a Maulvi noted for occult powers, passed away only in 2011 at Kalka in Himachal Pradesh.
Talking about nonsensical lectures, one remembers a man wearing an old coat with a tattered tie and crumpled up trousers, delivering a non-stop lecture near Theatre Communication Building (home to the redoubtable Jag Varesh Chandra), the PRRM (Price-Rise Resistent Movement) restaurant had come up in the 1960s-70s. He paced up and down the pavement, noting the points of his lecture on his fingers and buttoning and unbuttoning his coat. It was later learnt that the man had been a college teacher once but had gone off his head. Now Palika Bazar stands at the site occupied by the PRRM restaurant, where old man Karim, who had started the restaurant named after him in Jama Masjid, used to come in the evening with his burqa-clad wife for coffee, priced quite cheap and equally cheap vadas.
Among the coffee house house wits used to be Naqvi and Shankar, with their delightful "Badmashiyan" (naughtiness), Rajinder Puri, who died recently, and fellow cartoonist Vijayan, who did a political cartoon for The Statesman every day. Quite a few working journalists were among frequenters, including the exuberant Atul Cowshish, Narula and Mukker Sahib, who was also a great lover of food at Karims, not known to many in New Delhi then.