Settling down in Delhi some 55 years ago wasn’t a very good experience in the beginning. Agra’s kharbuzas were sweeter and so were the phalsa fruit, which one could munch on the hot afternoons with salt masalas. Slowly the perception of the city changed.While doing night duty in a news agency there was plenty of time for a bachelor to spend the day cycling from the Ludlow Castle Road and exploring the city. The Red Fort nsturally came first on the list of monuments. Entering it through the Lahore Gate and proceeding to the Naqqar Khana, one sought a meeting with the Custodian of the fort, Asghar Ali Khan. He had a fund of stories to relate after the initial hesitation of meeting a young stranger.
"Lal Qila," he said, "has many secrets hidden from the casual visitor. There are palaces, which brood in the day and come alive at night with paranormal activity. I have seen kings, princes and princesses on my midnight rounds. Especially on Thursday. He invited me to accompany him but being on night duty I couldn’t accept the offer. However, one wrote about what one had heard and the staff photographer of the Hindustan Times in the 1960s, Kishor Parekh, spent a whole night in the fort photographing paranormal activity. However, his photos showed only blobs of light or skeletons dancing around. They were published alright and caused a lot of excitement. But the Army, which occupied a large part of the fort, came out in denial that no such activity took place in Dewan-e-Am or Dewan-e-Khas and Rang Mahal. HT and its photographer, however, stood by their exclusive pictures as proof.
Outside the fort one day, one entered the shrine of Bhure Mian and found a queue of burqa-clad women. They had come for cures affected by the caretaker, Pir Yasin Beg, who distributed amulets (taviz) and medicines for all sorts of ailments, "particularly for those possessed by the djinns". Pir Yasin emphatically declared that every Jumairat (Thursday) a procession led by Bahadur Shah Zafar went around the fort after midnight. Parekh tried but couldn’t photograph it.
After leaving Bombay House in the Civil Lines (at the time of Pandit Nehru’s death) one took a room in Naaz Hotel, behind the Jama Masjid, whose earlier occupant had been the painter MF Husain. From this room one could get a bird’s-eye view of the whole area right up to the Red Fort and no wonder provided a lot of inspiration for Husain’s paintings.
Naaz proved expensive and so one had to move to Azad Hind Hotel, whose proprietor was an Urdu poet with seven wives and 28 children. Afzal Sahib had declared himself an atheist, saying since he had become one he had prospered, having found god in women "(Maine tau aurat ko khuda mana hai)".
At Azad Hind all sorts of characters found accommodation, from classical artiste Ustad Latafat Husain Khan of the Agra Gharana to Firoz Kanchwala, the glass-eyed singer, to dancers Shanta Rani and vivacious Naseem Bano, who had entertained President Najibullah in Kabul, to Khan Abdul Haye Khan, an expert angler, and Tyagiji, translator in foreign embassies. From here one usually went to Haji Hotel, in front of the southern gate of Jama Masjid, where Haji Zahooruddin sat amid a group of old men. There was one with the features of Aurangzeb, another an ex-wrestler. Ustad Zahooro, chain-smoker Mohd Mian Akbar and the gentle Master Sahib. They talked of the "Mutiny" as though it was a yesterday event. No wonder too, as their grandfathers had played a part during the revolt. Hajiji related the story of how his maternal grandfather, Maulvi Rajab Ali, and father, Munshi Turab Ali, had caught the thieves who stole the shoes of namazis during Friday prayers. Two or three men used a fishing line to do so and the Maulvi and the Munshi had to abstain from namaz that Friday to collar the "juta-chors". Tales over, Haji’s servant Nazir used to bring a big tiffin-carrier from his house in Kutcha Mir Ashiq (a nobleman of Mughal days) and everybody joined in the meal before dispersing. One tasted the best shammi kababs at this gathering before walking down, past the water-carrier Bhisties jingling their water-cups, to Karim Paanwallah’s shop, which had an engraved verse decorating its façade: "Paan kehta hai sookh kar mar jaoonga mein/Ai Labh-e-yaar gar moonh na lagaya tu ne. (The Paan says I will dry up and die if lips, my friend, you do not taste me)". After a paan here one strolled to Parantha Gali, where a milkman’s shop sold the best milk. His grandfather had fought in 1857 and the old man’s lathi was preserved in the shop.
One Sunday evening, some friends from the media got together to attend a mujra at GB Road. Among them was Peter Hazelhurst, Times London India representative. The dancing girls did take advantage of us novices, with baby- faced Vijay Shankar drawing a lot of attention. Even so, they and some pimps saved us from being roughed up by a group of drunk, turbaned truck drivers, who had initially picked up a quarrel with friend Saeed Naqvi. The scribe got out of trouble because of the Urdu playwright Chacha Niaz Haider, who had joined us. Chacha winked at a pimp, whom he knew and soon calm was restored. All of us walked out with a sigh of relief, with the dancing girls teasingly calling out, "Aap ki love-evening ho gayi kya?" and then shying away. The photo-feature on the mujra was published in "See Magazine", brought by Hali Vats, companion of National School of Drama chief, Sheila Bhatia, and brother of footballer and veteran journalist B R Vats, who always accompanied Indira Gandhi on foreign tours.
Not too far from the Red Light area is Urdu Bazar, in which stayed people like Mir Mushtaq Ahmed, first chief executive councillor of Delhi, M O Farooqi, CPI leader, and close by the redoubtable Imdad Sabri and Chowdury Abdul Sattar. Kashmere Gate had its patriarch Pandit Ramchander (born 1860) and Chandni Chowk Lala Hanwant Sahai, an accused in the 1912 Hardinge Bomb Conspiracy Case. One interviewed both, besides the only Indian marchioness, Bapsybano Parvey, who was on her way to meet the Shah of Iran, and the new Maharaja of Jaipur, Brig Bhavani Singh.
After marriage, one continued to live in Azad Hind and a son was even born there. We (wife and I) would take the kids to Karim’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner and make monthly payment. Once there was a strike in The Statesman (which one had joined after a stint with PTI) and old Karim Mian waived payment till it was called off. The qawwalis at Hazrat Kalimullah’s shrine had their own charm, with women going into ecstacy (Haal), along with eunuchs dressed in kurta-pyjama with hair open, the famous Sona and Chandi among them. Also present used to be Barrister Nuruddin Ahmed, thrice Mayor of Delhi, and his pretty daughter Ameena, who served as interpreter when Russia’s Khrushchev and Bulganin visited India. Some evenings were also spent at haveli Sadr Sadur, which had a nahari joint, Mughal-e-Azam outside it, which was as famous as the one at Kali Masjid. At this haveli Ghalib used to recite at mushairas, made famous in the latter-day fictional one, "Dilli ki akhri shama (The last lamp of Delhi)" by Mirza Farhatullah Beg. The pedestal on which the shama was kept was still there then in the courtyard. A little way ahead in Suiwalan was the shop of butcher Qureshi Dada. Over 100 years old, he was born during the "Mutiny" and enjoyed coyly winking at the mohalla sweeper-women, who often instigated him to do so, with nary a hint of sexual harassment. What naive times!