In a narrow lane of Ballimaran, Delhi sits an old man at a shop with a wide array of clocks. There used to be a shop like this in the Meena Bazaar of the Red Fort years ago, where one thought the Mughals timed their watches. Unfortunately, they had only sundials though, in the beginning, they were never at a loss to do things at the right time. Only later did they lose track of time and idled away their hours. Some of them thought the day was meant for sleeping and the night for merriment. So they went more by the moon and stars than the sun, which found them curled up in sleep in the Khwabgah or house of dreams. That had a devastating effect on the affairs of State and many of them became an easy target for the assassin and the invader.
That shop in the Meena Bazar was set up after the Coronation Durbar of 1911, when George V and Queen Mary came to preside over the transfer of the British Capital from Calcutta to Delhi. It had many clocks, which were old grandfather pieces, though they chimed with regularity. There was even one with the cuckoo flying in and out. The shop was depicted in a scene in Mughal-e-Azam, probably as a reminder of how the palaces of the great were preserved in the present age. It had to make way for a curio emporium and is sorely missed but the loss is more than made up by the one in Ballimaran.
For those who did not believe that time must have a stop, this is the place to prove Aldous Huxley right. There are many clocks here, which have stopped ticking and some that are several hours late. Surely this is the place Dickens would love to write about were he to come back to life and miss the Old Curiosity Shop. But his character Miss Haversham, for whom time had ceased to exist in Great Expectations, would perhaps have fitted into this setting.
The clocks, like many humans, are beyond repair. That’s why they hang on those shabby walls with the accumulated dust of long age. No one is interested in them, not even the old man, for he is busy repairing the not-so-hopeless ones while his sons handle the trendy watches of the day. One could take Father Time by the forelock here without the old fogey being the wiser for it.
The entire street of Ballimaran is a tourist’s delight for here the old order seems to exist like a patient, who has got a new lease of life. There was a time when people of note dwelt in this street. Among them the Nawab of Loharu, ruler of a principality in Rajasthan, and the sons of the Nawab of Oudh, for whom Haveli Hisamuddin Haider is said to have been built. The haveli still houses people, who live in slum-like conditions, little knowing what a grand past the building they inhabit once had. There are many other mansions in Ballimaran, whose history is not known but which nevertheless provide accommodation to a host of people with diverse professions. There are shoe-sellers whose business stretches to nearly all corners of the country, and there are general merchants who are always in touch with Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai either through couriers or over the telephone. They are the ones who run modern business houses and yet prefer to operate from this old street, on both sides of which are eating houses that specialise in one dish or the other, but whose charges are not as high as the quality of the stuff they sell. As you look up from the shops you might see a face peeing out from a tattered curtain of what constitutes a zenana apartment. The story goes that a Nawab once fell in love with a local beauty thus. He eventually married her and took his bride away to distant Hyderabad, where she pined for Ballimaran, but was able to make only annual visits.
Some lovers of beauty, who dabble in poetry, live here and their verse in steeped in those emotions, which overwhelm a dejected young man. Ghalib once dwelt in the nearby Gali Mir Qasim Jan and wrote some of his most famous ghazals there. But now his house is half slum and half museum. Just imagine him timing his pocket-watch here!
Ballimaran, which means the street of the boatmen, also houses a number of hakims. The famous Hakim Ajmal Khan’s house still stands in the locality and there are many connected with him, who just feel the pulse of a patient and tell him that he ails “here and here”. No wonder you can buy some of the best herbal medicines in Ballimaran (despite the pitiable condition of the Hindustani Dawakhana). And for those who relish a good paan then this is the place where they can get it made to taste no matter how fastidious they are. But remember to have it after eating the gola kabab sold by the young man, who sits by the huge gate (that once saved the residents from the wrath of Nadir Shah). A bearded man used to sit their earlier, but now he was left the business to his sons.
Hasrat Mohini, whose famous ghazalwritten in 1928, has been popularised by the singer Ghulam Ali, also lived in Ballimaran for some years ~ as did Mohammad Mian Akbar (better known as Akbar Bhai), a shoe merchant never seen without a pack of cards and a packet of cigarettes. Remember the beloved comes here on tiptoe on the terrace when the sun shines bright in the afternoon and many take a nap while lovers meet. An old clock suddenly chimes, the shopkeeper smiles and you leave the place with a blink on seeing a lovely face.
It was such a face that inspired Hasrat Mohani to write his ghazal, “Chupke, Chupke, aansoon bahana yaad hai”. Mohini did not write it in Ballimaran but while on a train journey when the tresses of a young lady accidentally brushed his face because of a sudden gust of wind.
Another place where time seems to have stopped is Urdu Bazar of Jama Masjid, where you walk into a shop and a transported to the 18th and early 19th centuries with books written at that time staring you in the face. They contain “Risalas” or stories of the days of the Sultanates, Indian, Persian, Arabic and Turkish, besides ghazals, nazams and anecdotes, when great Urdu poets held sway during Mughal times.
It was here that in more recent times people like Josh, Jigar, Majaj, Maikash and M F Hussain found inspiration for their works. Maikash came specially from Agra to browse through old books and Hussain nearly every evening from Jangpura, walking barefoot in the bazaar and buying a book here and there. If you go into Matia Mahal street you will find dhabas, which have the ambience of the heyday of Muslim culture with calendars of scenes from West Asia ~ Arabian Nights, MakkaMedina and one on Khayyam with his beloved in the wilderness drinking the red wine from the juice of delicious Iranian grapes. The customers get so taken away by this atmosphere that their talk is not of modern days but of things that happened long ago like the battle of Karbla. You too get influenced to such an extent that when you walk homewards your mind is filled with nostalgia of the glorious past, for time has suddenly stopped for you also.