Past and gone doyens of Ink Street of Delhi

  • RV Smith | New Delhi

    April 27, 2017 | 01:03 PM
Ink Street, Urdu Bazar, Jama Masjid

Before Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg earned the sobriquet of Ink Street it was Urdu Bazar in the Jama Masjid area that enjoyed that status as it existed since Mughal times. There were papers like the Delhi gazette, the Moffusilite and the Morning Post (to quote Narayani Gupta) and then Master Ram Chandra, who edited two of Delhi's earliest Urdu newspapers ~ the Fawaid-al- Nazarin and the Qiran-us-Sa'adain, besides translating Macaulay's Minute on Education, which advocated the English medium. Much before the 1857 uprising the Urdu Press was abuzz with rumours of an imminent oubreak against the British. To add to the din there was the Zia-ul Akbar and Maulvi Nasir Ali's three newspapers ~ Nusratul- Islam, Nusrat-ul-Akbar and Mihir-ul-Islam, which advocated exposure of beef for sale. "That was after the Multan disturbances on cow slaughter". The Punjab government, which ruled Delhi, banned cattle slaughter in the city and the shops selling meat in Kashmere Gate, Mori Gate and Phatak Habsh Khan were closed and the trade transferred to Mor Sarai, says Gupta. That shows how the local press influenced government policy.

After the Capital was transferred to Delhi, the Calcutta papers, like The Statesman, descended from William Carey's Friend of India and The Englishman, began opening branch offices here, but the leader of Allahbad, the Pioneer, and National Herald stayed put in UP (United Provinces) and influenced public opinion in Delhi all the same through the writings of doyens like C Y Chinatamani, Rama Rao amd later M Chhalapathi Rau (Magnus), though the Hindustan Timeshad started publication in the city in 1924, followed by the Times of India office at 10 Daryaganj, Indian Express in Mori Gate and Aljamiat from Gali Qasim Jan. The Moffusilite threw up such moffusil correspondents as Fred Ellis and T Smith and with them Pandit Rajnath Kunzru and Nawab Faiyaz Khan, who graduated in Journalism from California University. Among the Englishmen active in Delhi were Stateman'sJames Cowley, who introduced the concept of a weekly Notebook, and resident editor Ian Stephen, who cycled all the way to Maulana Azad's house on a summer afternoon, wearing a vest, khaki shorts and wooden khadons, and managed to interview him despite communication problems. Then there were editors like Arthur Moore, who had to go back to London after taking up the cause of Indian Independence and Malcolm Muggeridge, who operated from Simla in summer, where he befriended Amrita Sher-gil and later complained of VD and exhaustion. The names of editors like Evan Charlton and Philip Crosland also need mention as Delhiwallah journalists.

Through their encouragement came up Prem Bhatia, Pran Chopra, Kishan Bhatia, Mahesh Chandra and S Nihal Singh. The last named travelled with the entourage of Queen Elizabeth II in the 1960s right up to Peshawar and the land of Kipling's Gungadin, to write about Chappali kababs. There was also M L Kotru, who had taken over as Chief Reporter from N N Rana and was lauded as the best feature writer. And his successor R K Raju, who went with wife Bula all the way to Kenya to lay flowers on Jim Corbett's grave, with the memorable epitaph: Until daybreak and the shadows flee away".

Of greater note and fame were: the Mahatma's son Devdas Gandhi, S Moolgaonkar, Frank Moraes, Khushwant Singh, Hamdi Bey, Chanchal Sarkar, Shamlal, B G Verghese, Kuldip Nayar, S C Kala and D C Kala. (The former's grand daughter, Leher Kala still writes a trendy weekly column, like Nayar). Then there was Uncle Atkinson, who was murdered by gay cycle mechanincs when Edata Narayan was editing Patriot. Some other names have faded from memory (mutatis mutandi). As for Urdu Bazar, now it is mostly famous for books which fire the imagnation. You can buy the works of any Urdu poet here, be it Mir Taqi Mir, Zauq, Ghalib, Momin, Zafar, Iqbal, Josh, Jigar, Firaq, Maikash, Faiz or the less well-known ones. The shops are stacked with them. You name the "shair" and you get the book you want, pretty cheap, as even M F Husain realised.

The bazaar is unique for perhaps nowhere else would you find so many rare Urdu books available easily. The people who sell them are learned in their own way and can recite line and verse from any "shair", who made his mark. They have acquired this mastery over the years, starting off as apprentices in their hereditary shops with beardless chins and then maturing with fullgrown beards. Walk into any shop and you'll find them sizing you up with glasses perched over their nosetips, people who speak a language so refined and cultured that you begin to feel a rustic in front of them and reach the unsettling conclusion that what you have been speaking for years is some coarse variation of the actual tongue. It's like Josh taking a budding votary of the Muse in Delhi to task for pronouncing "untees" (29) as "unatees" which means one less than "tees" (30). He attributed it to the Punjabi influence.

But Urdu Bazar is not only books and couplets, quoted to suit any situation. It's much more. It is also kabab and fried chicken stalls and paan, milk, and tea shops, where people discuss the daily happenings. And in the evening it is the rendezvous of vendors, who sell cool kheer, chamcham and rabri. It is also the stink from the chicken and fish shops, which gets smothered in the fragrance of "gajras" sold for milady's hairdo, and the perfume of attar,khas and raat-ki-rani that migles with the smell of chameli and agarbattis. In the 1960s, after the last namaaz had been said and the ongawallahs had lit dry grass to fend off the mosquitoes, one saw the solitary figure of Mir Mushtaq Ahmed looking down from the balcony of his old house ~ before a livelong day had been gathered into the vast mantle of the night.

When one occupied a room in Naaz Hotel, just behind the Jama Masjid long ago, one heard from the waiters that M F Husain used to stay there earlier on a monthly basis. He spent most of his time painting steet scenes of the Walled City and in the evening went for a barefoot walk around the area (a practice he continued even after moving to Jangpura). He would go via the new Meena Bazar in Azad Park (then under construction) to the mazar of Sheikh Kalimullah Jehanabadi, linger to hear snatches of the daily qawwali, then return through the fish market, stopping at the shrine of Hare Bhare and his disciple, Sarmad Shaheed, where he would browse through Urdu books at a small stall run by a young mullaji. From there Husain would usually go to Flora Restaurant, then famous for shammi kababs, or to Karim's, where mince samosas were sold, besides seekh kababs before dinner time. Finally, he would go home with some books he had bought on his evening round under his arm.

Another one looking for Urdu books and magazines was Chacha Niyaz Haider, a Shia playwright and novelist who, though always short of money, could manage to get some on credit. He did repay later, after borrowing from journalist Saeed Naqvi, then working for The Statesman, besides persuading him to give an extra Rs 5 to buy pint of rum. When Ghulam Rabbani Taban, the late Urdu poet, came from Basti Nizamuddin, he also spent some time looking for books, newspapers and magazines in Urdu Bazar. He used to write under the psedonym of "Farchat" while a student of MA English Literature at St John's College, Agra (favourite pupil of Prof Suraj Prasad, head of department) and once made Sarojini Naidu roll on the stage when he mimicked the cock-crow to signify that morning had come and it was time for the all-night mushaira to end. With maturity he began writing as "Taban" but older folk still preferred his tongue in check verses recited as "Farchakt". All this comes to mind when one visits UrduBazar, once Delhi's Fleet Street before English newspapers gave that name to Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.