New Delhi celebrated its centenary birthday last year (2011) with much fanfare. The advent of New Delhi goes back to December, 1911 when the British Raj shifted its capital from Calcutta to New Delhi.
Old Delhi, however, has a long history to boast of . Archaeological evidences prove that Delhi had been the capital city of some or the other empire all through with minor breaks it between, making it one of the longest serving capitals in the world. The walled city of Delhi had seen the rise and fall of many a kingdom. As a result of which, the city had been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times.
In common parlance, however, these twin cities are synonymously referred to as ‘Delhi’.
Growing up in Delhi
My memories of Delhi go back to 1951 when my father left Allahabad and came to Delhi to take up a job in the Railways. I was then only four years old.
I spent the most part of my formative years in Delhi and left the city in 1973 when I got married. I came back again for a short visit in 2011 after a gap of almost four decades.
When the British shifted its capital to Delhi, the early Bengalis settled Timarpur and thereafter near Gole park.
After independence, a fresh influx of Bengalis came to Delhi in search of luck. These Bengali babus, working in Govt. offices, were put up in barrack-like chummeries having common bathrooms and a kitchen on each floor. These ‘chummeries were well-built two storied buildings built by the British during World War-II for their soldiers.
When we first came to Delhi, we too stayed in one such ‘chummier' in Lodhi Road. I still have many fond memories of this ’chummery’. Every family was allotted a space in the common kitchen. My mom and other aunties used to talk, laugh and exchange recipes while cooking. They would often talk of their ‘desh’ (East Pakistan), ‘baper bari’ (parents home) and ‘sasur bari’ (in-laws’-home). It was like the kitchen of a joint family. The only difference was that each had a separate hearth.
These young Bengalis, who stayed together in the ‘chummeries, developed a longstanding kinship which lasted their whole lives.
I went to study in a nearby school in Lodhi Road when I was only four and a half years old. It was a branch of ‘Union Academy’ school where Bengali was taught as a subject.
The Bengalis, who migrated to Delhi, wanted to connect themselves to the world left behind by teaching Bengali to their children.
Delhi’s Bengali schools
‘Raisina Bengali School’ was the first school in New Delhi which accommodated the children of these Bengali migrants. It later opened a branch in Chittaranjan Park. Other schools where the children of the Bengalis babus studied were ‘Union Academy’, ‘Lady Irwin School’, ‘Shyama Prasad Vidyalaya’, ‘Vinay Nagar School’, ‘Bidhan Chandra School’ etc.
I studied in the primary section of ‘Union Academy’ for a short while. I still remember that an ayaha from the school used to collect me and to other children from different blocks. She used to call me from downstairs in a shrill musical voice by saying ‘Ni Rekha ni…….’
Soon after, the primary branch of ‘United Academy’ was shifted to Lodhi Estate as the authorities wanted to have a full fledged CBSE school.
The name of the school was changed to ‘Shyama Prasad Vidyalaya’.
A huge stretch of desert – like sandy land was acquired at Lodhi Estate. Classes were held in tents as the Bengali babus could nor afford to build a proper building. I spent 11 long years of my school life studying in the tents(Those days H.S course used to be for eleven years). However, in 2011 when I visited my school again I was very pleased to see a huge school building standing in place of the tents.
Ours was not the only school having classes in tents at that time. Quite a few schools initially started their classes in tents.
‘Madrasi Higher Secondary School’, next to our school, also held their classes in tents though their tents were replaced by a proper building much before ours. In fact, I appeared for my H.S. examination in the building of ‘Madrasi H.S. School.’
‘Sardar Patel School, on the other side of SPV, came up much later with a proper building. Their students, wearing smart uniforms and proper blazers, looked upon us as children of ‘lesser gods’.
India was passing through one of the most trying times at that time having won freedom just a few years back. The wound of partition was still fresh in the minds of the people. An uphill task lay before the leaders - the whole nation had to be built, constitution to be framed, education system to be overhauled.
People from different states were recruited to carry out this arduous task. Make-shift schools were built for the children of these employees so that their children could study their mother tongue without any loss of time. That is why there were so many schools in Delhi which were held in tents.
At that time I did not realize that I was being a part of history too. Now that life has almost come to a full circle, I can see a pattern in everything.
The new government in Delhi built government quarters for its employees in East Vinay Nagar, Vinay Nagar and later at Ramkrishna Puram, Pandara Road etc.
The early settlements
Having spent two and a half years in a ‘chummier', we too shifted to East Vinay Nagar to take possession of our new quarter. Each flat had a separate kitchen and a bathroom. There was a kitchen-garden at the back of every flat. I spent most part of my school days in East Vinay Nagar later renamed Laxmi Bai Nagar. After that we shifted to Ramkrishna Puram and from there to pandara Road near India Gate.
After finishing my school, I joined college for my graduation. There were not too many good colleges in Delhi at that time apart from the colleges in the Delhi University campus. Those colleges were far way from New Delhi. ‘Lady Sree Ram College’, ‘Janki Devi College’, ‘Gargi College’, ‘Dayal Singh College’ had just opened but they were not up to the mark due to the teething problems which are usually associated with anything new.
The principal of my school suggested that I should take admission in ‘Delhi College’ at Ajmeri Gate as its English faculty was excellent.
Joining ‘Delhi College’ was another memorable experience of my life. The college set up by Muslim Board, was held in a century old building. The Honours rooms were small and dingy. There was a lot of ‘pardah system’ in the college as many of the students came in ‘burkhas’ from the walled city of Delhi.
Prof. Manmatha Nath Ghosh, our Head of the Department, was a Gold medallist from Dacca University. He was one of the best teachers that I had ever met. Even at that time, he used many innovative techniques of teaching. During summer vacation, he used to call all the students to his house in Karolbagh once a week. There he used to teach us how to write a critical appreciation of a poem. Sometimes he used to ask us to write a synopsis of the editorial of ‘The Statesman’ so that our language could be enriched. Not only that , every week he used to treat us with hot ‘samosas’ and huge ‘rosgullahs’. The boys of our class were very keen on attending his class due to the ‘treat’. Now I feel how dedicated he was to his profession to teach all the students for free! Those days college teachers were quite poorly paid but that did not deter him from treating his students with snacks. (Thank you, Sir, for everything you did for us. I tried to pay off your debt by giving my hundred percent to my college students and by helping them in my own way.)
Prof. Bhism Swahney, younger brother of famous actor Balraj Swahney, was another teacher worth mentioning. He was great writer and later in life his famous play ‘Tamas’ (meaning ‘darkness’) on partition won him a lot of applause. This play was also made into a serial by Doordarshan.
Other members of the faculty were also equally good. I was brought up listening to the ‘ajan’ from the mosque during my college days. All these helped to broaden the horizon of my mind.
Last year (2011) when I went looking for my college , I found that the college had been shifted to a nearby place. I was amazed to see the new modern building of the college and was very happy for my juniors. The old building was being renovated to accommodate a Higher Secondary Madrasa School.
The extreme weather
Let me now write something about the lifestyle of the good old days. Delhi, being a city of extreme weather, has got much respite today due to the modern electrical gadgets like A.C, cooler, fridges, room heater etc.
Those days during summer, apart from fans, we had nothing also to beat the heat. But we too survived.
We avoided going out during noon. I remember when I was doing my post- graduation, we used to go to the university library for reference work after our class. We left for home only after 4 p.m. Meira Kumar, the daughter of the then Railway Minister Babu Jagjivan Ram and present Speaker of Lok Sabha, was our batch mate in M.A. English class.
She was the only student who used to go home after class as a car used to come to pick her up. She was very affable. I am very proud of her and never miss a single chance to bask in her reflected glory.
At night the houses used to be like furnaces. We used to sleep outside our house on the lawn in front of our house. The first floor people used to sleep on the open roof. We used ‘charpoys’ (portable beds made with wood and jute string) for sleeping outside.
It was a wonderful feeling lying under the navy blue star studded sky. I developed my interest in ‘star gazing from that time’. Luckily for us, there were no mosquitoes at that time (unbelievable ?). I still cherish the memory of those summer nights.
When I look back, I wonder how people of different states could sleep outside in the open while the scar of the riots ,due to partition, was still fresh in many minds.
To provide some relief to the housewives during summer, there used to be ‘tandoors’ in all localities. A huge hole was dug on the earth to implant the ‘tandoor’. Moms used to knead atta at home and the children used to queue up to get them made into ‘tandoori rotis’. One or two used to be enough for each person. I wonder if they still have ‘tandoors’ in different localities of Delhi during summer.
Cut sugarcane was another delicacy of the summer days. At 4 p.m. one man used to come in a cycle van and sell sugarcanes. They were peeled, cut into two inch pieces and kept on huge blocks of ice. Rosewater used to be sprinkled on the top. Sugarcane pieces were very sweet and juicy. We used to look forward to the vendor every evening.
Winters were very bitter and ruthless as well. We used to wear one full- sleeve sweater on top of another. Moms used to knit sweaters all through winter. Most of the parents could not afford to buy woollen coats for their children. It is not that they did not earn enough. Many of them held high positions in Governments offices. But those were the days when most of the families belonged to single income group having three to four children and a large family to support back home.
But winter had its pleasure too. We used to love the fresh vegetables, fruits and the colourful flowers. We enjoyed ourselves basking in the sun on lazy afternoons. We also loved the smell of the smoke that emanated from the burning charcoal-pot placed on the heaped roasted peanuts by the vendors during winter.
At night, we used to huddle around the coal-fire hearth in the kitchen while my mom used to prepare fresh hot rotis and serve us. I can still feel the warmth of the coal-lit hearth, hot rotis and the closeness of the siblings.
In the sixties, we did not have computer games, multiplexes and 24 hour t.v. programme. In the seventies, t.v. had just been introduced with minimal programme.
The entertainment business
How did the children and the young then entertain themselves? We had our own ways of enjoying life.
The most popular entertainment was the puppet show. Sometimes a resident of the block would engage professional people to perform a puppet show. .Charpoys and saris were used to build a make-shift stage. As the staging of the puppet show used to be announced beforehand, all the residents flocked to see the show on the designated day. They gave money, rice or atta as their contribution and as a token of appreciation. . I had seen some of the best puppet shows during my childhood.
Then there were the jugglers who used to show various feats like swallowing iron balls, blades and walking precariously on a tight rope string. Sometimes a man used to come with two monkeys and make them play. He would simultaneously interpret their antics. I also loved to see the dance of the huge black bear on its two feet. Whenever these men used to come to show the tricks of their animals, they used to announce their coming by playing on a ‘dugdugi’ a wooden small drum like instrument. All children used to run to the lawn hearing the sound.
A snake- charmer was another person whom I found very interesting. He used to bring a small straw basket from which a cobra used to spring up moving its fawn to the tune of the snake charmer. A few snakes used to be let loose on the ground. We used to be very scared the next few days thinking the snake charmer might have left one or two snake by mistake.
I wonder if the children of Delhi still get to see these people and the antics of their animals anymore. That is if they get time to take their eyes off their computer games.
Delhi, being a historical city, abounds in monuments, relics and mementos of the British Raj. Every day on our way, we came across Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Kutb Minar, Humayun Tomb,Lodhi Gardens, Parliament House and India Gate. We knew they were there to stay. They were a part of our setting. They provided us with an assurance of timelessness.
Very rarely, we used to visit these places. We became aware of their existence only when guests from Calcutta came to our house. These guests were not only our relatives but also friends of our relatives. We used to escort them to these historical places and see them again in a new light through their eyes..
The festive spirit
Republic Day celebration was an important event. People came from all over Haryana, Punjab and other Indian cities to watch the Republic Day parade braving cold wind. In the evening, my father used to take us every year to see the grand illumination of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and Parliament House area. A day or two later, he would also take us to see “the beating retreat.”
Like any other Bengali in the homeland, the ‘probashi’ Bengalis (Bengalis in exile) also looked forward to Durga puja and organized exuberant Durga pujas. It enabled them to connect with other fellow Bengalis and take stock of each other’s lives.
Durga pujas were usually observed in lawns. Colourful pandals were put up. Idols were brought from Kolkata. We stayed in the pandal most of the time. Prasad, community lunches and variety programmes were arranged. Very often Bengalis films were shown in the pandals, sometimes three at a time .Non- Bengali friends also participated specially during cinema shows. We each had a non –Bengali friend in tow whom we used to interpret the cinema in a whispering tone.
Kali Bari, in Mandir Marg near Gol Park, held the best Durga puja at that time. Every year it was compulsory for us to visit Durga puja at Kali Bari at least once during the puja days. Eminent personalities were invited to be the ‘Chief Guest’. On one such visit, I saw Late President Dr. Radhakrishnan in Kali Bari Durga Puja. It was the chance of my lifetime to see such a great personality, whose birthday is now celebrated as ‘Teachers’ Day’ all over India. I hear there are now nearly 350 Durga puja in Delhi and NCR !
We, the children of the ‘probashi’ Bengalis who migrated after independence, always felt that we belonged to Delhi. We were proud of its stately highways, clean roads, twenty-four hour electricity and tap water, well maintained sanitary system and its educational environment which was free from any political disturbances. We did not mind going to Kolkata during our vacation but we felt more at home in Delhi than in Kolkata.
In the sixties, the Bengali refugees from East Pakistan were allotted land at a discounted price in South Delhi. It was called EPDP Colony meaning ‘East Pakistan Displaced Persons’ Colony’. Later it was redesignated as Chittaranjan Park. Most of my friends’ parents bought land at C.R. Park. But my father did not buy any land there as he did not like the extreme climate of Delhi and wanted to stay near his people after retirement.
The children and grandchildren of the original landowners now stay in C.R.Park . I hear it is like a mini Kolkata. The sweets in the racks of sweet shops vanish by evening, as in Kolkata, on the day of ‘jamai sasthi’, the day when mothers-in-law treat their sons-in-law with lavish feasts.
There are approximate 10 lakh Bengalis at present in Delhi and NCR. These Bengalis have created a distinct identity for themselves contributing at the same time to the city’s melting pot of culture.
I left Delhi in 1973 and did not come back even once during the ensuing four decades. Life took its own course and I started orbiting around other planets. Delhi remained as a distant memory in my mind but I always felt its impact on my upbringing.
The return to Delhi
It was just a coincidence that I came back to Delhi again in 2011, the year New Delhi celebrated its centenary birthday. My younger son Sid took a posting in Delhi so I went to visit him and his wife. I was very much excited. All my memories came back rushing to me .I visited my school, my college from where I passed out and also the college where I taught for four years before leaving Delhi. Not only that I also went to the house in Pandara Road, where I stayed last, in search of my roots.
I was very delighted this time to see Qutab Minar, the World’s tallest brick minaret built by qutb-ud-din Aibak of the slave dynasty. The whole Minar was so clean that it seemed as if it was sparkling. Everyone said it was spruced up because of the Commonwealth Games. Whatever the reason, I was very happy as I was brought up looking at Qutb Minar as the landmark of Delhi. Humayun Tomb also looked very good. It did not seem it was so many centuries old.
As it is quite natural, Delhi has undergone a drastic change in the last four decades. However, I found out that the central part of Delhi i.e. Rashtrpati Bhavan, India Gate area, Conaught Place, Shahjahan Road etc had not changed so much as compared to the southern part of Delhi.
One day Sid took me to ‘Shilpi Hat’ near INA Market. I was completely at a loss. I had spent quite a few years of my life in that area as we used to stay in Laxmi Bai Nagar. Where was that place which I knew so well? Instead, I saw a sprawling metro station in front of me. The broad road, with shops on both sides, was replaced by a four/five lane highway on which vehicles were moving at a very fast speed. I could not find out the location of our old govt. quarter too. I felt like Rip Van Winkle, who had woken up after forty years instead of the proverbial ‘twenty years’
It seemed even stronger while passing through Ramkrishna Puram. We were among the first few ones who had shifted to R.K.Puram years ago. Construction work was still going on. On the other side of the metalled road was ‘Munirka Gaon/village’ where there were only a few huts and some thorny bush. Women from Munrika Gaon used to come to our quarter for selling cow dung cakes for fuel. They used to carry huge baskets on their heads in which they stacked layers of cow dung cakes.
There also used to be a small Hanuman Temple where I used to go every Tuesday to offer puja and get ‘huge budias’ as ‘prasad’.
Every time I passed through Ramkrishna Puram, I craned my neck out of the car to find out if there was any familiarity. But alas! I could not find any familiar object. On the Munirka Gaon side, there were huge buildings and a township. And where was that small Hanuman Temple? Instead, I saw a huge Hanuman Temple. I do not know if it was the same one.
I was very saddened and felt a kind of numb-pain and consternation at not being able to recognize anything of yore. I finally resigned to my fate and closed my eyes muttering to myself the famous Victorian Poet Tennyson’s lines, ‘old order changeth, yielding place to new……”
Yes things must change. That is the law of nature.
This post had been very nostalgic and I walked down my memory lane dealing mainly with the past. But that does not mean that I live in the past. My feet are firmly rooted in the present. That is why I would love to have a feedback of present Delhi from my readers.
I do appreciate the youth of today for their confidence and forwardness. But sometimes delving into past is also necessary as it is said, ‘We must look back to look forward.’