The days in the 1960s and 70s, when one stayed in a Jama Masjid hotel, lingered in the memory long after one settled down to a domestic life in a drab DDA flat, where the ambience of the past was missing and only the call of the koel from the neighbouring eucalyptus trees contrasted with the ominous hoot of the barn owl and the night-jar hidden in the leafy laburnum, with its yellow flowers that matched the red blooms of the towering gulmohar.

But to go back to the hotel, it’s worth recalling that a motley lot came and stayed there. Among them Josh Malihabadi; Maikash Akbarabadi; Latafat Hussain Khan of the Agra Gharana of Ustad Faiyaz Khan; and Naseem Bano, who entertained President Najibullah of Afghanistan in Kabul, and would take long baths in the only washroom, while others, including Pathan traders, peeped through the broken door in a bid to hurry her up.

Also resident was Shanta Rani, with her husband Latif Mian; and Sultana Jehan and her live-in companion, Anwar Bhopali; besides poetasters like Betah Sahib, composing their verses sitting in a marble-tiled room with “Ghar, ghar Urdu” written on them.

Chawri Bazar was not far from there and next to it was GB Road, where one went with friends to hear the mujra and after that the late-night qawwalis at Kalimullah Sahib’s dargah, which made another Azad Hind Hotel guest, Shameer remark that it was nice to divide the evening between the devil’s Sin Street and a godly shrine.

Earlier, there was Lal Kanwar, mistress of Jahandar Shah, and then Nur Bai, who had captivated the hearts of Mohd Shah Rangila and the invader Nadir Shah.

Now for the mujra: “Aiye, aiye!” said Sitara Jan on seeing Shameer entering the hall, where she was preparing for a mujra. Shameer returned her low salaam.

There were quite a few assembled for the performance by the noted dancing girl, all smelling of the perfumes with which they had dabbed themselves for the evening.

Sitara flitted about, making her “aadab” to old familiar faces. She then danced the Kathak to the beat of the Tabla and the sweet strains of the Harmonium.

People swayed and beckoned her to approach closer by placing hundred-rupee notes on the carpet. She came and sang a few lines of a ghazal to each of them.

A greying seth wanted her to sit on his lap but she kept out of his reach. Another reeking of liquor motioned her every now and then towards the side-room with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

Sitara was too experienced to take note of such gestures. She kept smiling and salaaming and collecting the money that was so freely offered by lovers of mujra and discarded Romeos badly in need of a common sweetheart. At Shameer’s request Sitara sang Begum Akhtar’s favourite ghazal, “Jis tarehe nikalta hai gul aiyastha aiyastha…”

The reference was to the rose slowly coming into bloom. She followed it up with a pensive composition: “Dil ki yeh aarzoo hai koi rehnoma miley / Jo bhi miley woh befawa miley…” The indication was to faithless lovers. It suited Shameer’s mood and he listened with great attention.

When the assembly dispersed, Shameer was persuaded to stay on. Sitara took him to her room, where she produced two glasses and whisky to go with kababs. He drank with some relish while Sitara sipped from her glass.

“Sing to me that folk song, ‘Chalat Musafir moh liyo re pinjrewali muniya’,” he said patting her cheek. “Why?” she asked. “Has some caged muniya (tiny bird) stolen your heart?” “Quite right,” he replied. “That’s why I am here because my muniya has decided to fly away with someone far, far luckier then me.”

She obliged, shaking her shoulders, bosom and hips in response to the baritone, rustic Purabi (East UP) tune, while he lapped it all up with misty eyes.

Later they strolled on the terrace, watching Delhi under the cloud of night. It looked strangely calm, this Capital of many empires where emperor, and clown and poet held sway for a while and then went into oblivion never to come again like Mir, Zauq, Ghalib, Momin and Daagh.

Some labourers, relaxing after their daily grind, were singing the Aala. It recounted the folk tale of Aala and Udal of Mahoba and the tragedy that befell the two princes. He listened with a pang in his heart, for all such love tales are heart-breaking, aren’t they?

“Last time you insisted on staying away from me. Has anything happened to make you change your mind,” she asked. “The experience of unrequited love,” he said and then fell asleep. “Aadab,” said someone as he opened his eyes.

It was Sitara with a cup of tea on a long past morning. Don’t know where both are now but this amusing after-mujra account by friend Shameer and the comely face of Baby, the hotelier’s daughter, often come to mind when the going gets tough in drab Mayapuri.

Later, one met Begum Jan on an evening in Sawan. She revealed that she had known Sitara when the two lived in neighbouring villages in East UP. Both were in their teens when they eloped with lovers, who had promised them a good life in big cities. Sitara was taken to Delhi, where the “lover” sold her to a kotha madam and disappeared, leaving her heart broken.

Begum Jan was taken to Agra by the youth, who professed to love her, and sold in the dancing girls village of Basai, near the Taj, where the notorious Putli Bai once lived before joining the Chambal Valley dacoits and eventually becoming the leader of a gang.

Begum endured many hardships in Basai and often thought of her village home and the mother, who loved her so much. She had a brother who was afflicted by the Down Syndrome.

The whole evening he watched boys his age performing the usual antics, felt discarded when he couldn’t bear it any longer and fell asleep. “That boy must have grown up into manhood now,” reminisced Begum. “But he would always remain a child and I often think of him in my leisure moments.”

Begum Jan did manage to escape from Basai with the help of an almira, who took her away to Kaochi, where she started a new life. But she never met Sitara again, though she learnt that her friend had found a husband and was the mother of two children. Thus do prostitutes also sometimes break their fetters and re-enter the society that had once discarded them.

But the koel calls again and one cannot help thinking of the ex-tawafis, while taking a rain-bath in the balcony as the Bengali Babu next door sings the Malhar and his wife plays the Harmonium in the drawing room as a reminder that Sawan still has its charm no matter where you live and also that the likes of Lal Kanwar, Nur Bai, Sitara Jan and Begum Jan are not born as such but made so by a cruel and heartless society.

R V Smith