Sunday, 30 January 2011

An afternoon at the Fraser's

In continuation of the previous post, fast forward three hours. A long auto ride to Kashmiri Gate area and we got down near the St. James's church. We walked the last mile to the hallowed building of our dreams. Approaching it, I took my camera out and strapped it around my neck. I also pulled the letters out. I wanted to convey a message. I was not about to be pushed around. I had slaved for three weeks for those damn pieces of paper. Today, I would throw all my charm and politeness to the wind and just be business like. 'Here is the letter you asked for. Now, scoot over and let me in.'

As we approached the gate I saw the familiar table in the open with two chairs on the other side seating the sentries just inside the gate. I handed them the letters and said 'These are permissions for photographing in this building. Do we need to meet someone?' The man was confused. Perhaps he had never seen permission letters, perhaps my face looked like that of an alien. After a few moments, he asked, 'Who gave you these permission letters?'

'The railway board.', I retorted in a pompous tone. I would excuse him if he half imagined me as the CEO of the board. He ran around a bit to find out what was to be done with these two strangers who had interrupted his daytime reverie and his slow meaningless chat with his buddy. His buddy remarked, 'Waise, is building mein jaane ki permission milti nahin hai.' (Normally you dont get permission to get into this building.) It was clearly my turn to be speechless. Just seconds after handing over a letter from the mighty railway board, I was being told this. I chose to ignore the remark.

The other man in the meanwhile, having checked around and possibly not found any answers, led us to the main building, to the office of the Chief Administrative Officer (Construction). He was very courteous though. In the lobby of the office, we were asked to wait and politely offered seats on comfortable chairs while our letters were taken to someone inside and their fate decided. Looking around, we could clearly see the old arches. This must have been the waiting salon even in Fraser's days. Three doors, each under a concrete arch led to rooms beyond. The lower parts of the wall were adorned with more recent wood panelling. Soon, we were called in and ushered through the central door into the presence of a man dressed in a navy blue safari suit working over a computer on a small desk placed in a corner. As we stepped in, he walked over to his main working table, an imposing wooden one with a table glass and a few paper weights. A couple of phones on the desk, a printer, the size of the room and the manner of the man clearly indicated he was one of the top honchos. Once again, I went through the rigmorale of explaining our purpose of visit though this was much shorter, concise and the man on the other side was smiling through it. It was a gentle, kind and affable smile.

As soon as I had finished, he picked up a phone, called someone and said, 'Mr, Arya, we have visitors who want to photograph the building. I am sending them over to you. Can you please ensure they are taken around and taken care of. Please assign someone to take care of them.' With that, he signed our letters, notated something in the top corner and returned them to me with a smile. I had one last question though.

'Would we be allowed entry into the underground cool rooms?' I asked.

'No, they are closed.' was the answer.

'But in our original request letters, we had asked for permission to get into the cool rooms as well.'

'Yeah but these letters don't say so.'

Before I resigned to my fate, I had a last question. 'What do we need for getting into the cool rooms?'

'Permission letter.'

Not again! So I put on my charming hat and said, 'It took me 3 weeks of running around to get these letters. It's been a lot of hard work, I am not sure why they were omitted from the permissions. You will appreciate we have done a lot of work and have keen interest in this building. Working again on letters will be quite a hassle. It would be very kind of you if you could help us.'

He smiled, picked up the phone without replying to me, called up Mr. Arya and said, 'Please open the underground rooms too, get them lighted. First take them around the main building. Once the underground rooms have been opened for sometime, please take them there.'

We thanked him profusely and left the office. This was turning out to be just too good. Mr. Arya was even more affable and gentle. He seated us in his room while our escort arrived. He was almost apologetic about the state of the building because it was being scraped and replastered in some parts. He was concerned we would not get good photos. By now, the escort had arrived. Yet another affable, soft-spoken man,

'Where would you like to begin?' he asked in the politest tone I had ever heard.

We started from in front of the building, shutter happy with two SLRs between us. After multiple shots of the front, half hopeful we asked him if we could climb to the roof. Of course, we could. Our fortunes seemed to have turned in a few hours. From no permission to a yes at everything was a transformation we were having difficulty digesting. As we climbed to the top of the roof, walking around beams and pillars, we walked into two of the four minarets around the building, which served as sentry positions in the days of The Fraser.

Finally, after climbing down from the top, we were taken to the back of the building, where a lifted iron grill led to some stairs, the gateway to the underworld. The underworld built around the same time as Red Fort to serve as cool rooms. When William Fraser, the then Deputy Resident was alloted the house of Ali Mardan Khan (Shahjehan's senior general), he razed the run down quarters but the Mughal tykhana was preserved. Over the past almost 400 years of existence, the underground passages have been through a lot.

As we climbed down the slightly slippery, poorly lit stairs, three more people had joined us. Using cellphone lights as torches, they guided us down the narrow, winding staircase. Their concern for our safety was touching. After a 180 degree turn on the staircase and few steps, we reached a landing about 10 feet long. At the other end, a few steps led down to yet another landing. This one had three arches, all stuffed up with concrete. It had been whitewashed not too far back in the past. Drops of moisture could be seen on the walls and the underground humidity was clearly noticeable. One of our guides pointed to the three arches. One of them, to our left was originally a passage to the Yamuna, which back in those days flowed where the present day Ring Road is. The one straight in front, so the story goes, led to Agra via the Red Fort. The last one, on the right, led to St. James's, possibly further outside the city walls. Clearly, these were escape routes or secret passages which connected the residences of important people with those of other important people.

One of the men with us also pointed to a clear streak of fainted paint running about two feet above the floor as the flood level this last monsoons. Even today, as the monsoons wreak havoc in the Indian plains and the Yamuna floods, the raised ground water level floods these underground passages, further destabilizing the foundations of Fraser's house. Quoting City of Djinns

'Roots spiralled down from the roof like curvilinear stalactites. It was pitch dark, but as the flashlight passed over the walls you could see that its surface was decorated with beautiful ogee-shaped arched niches. Although it was difficult to see clearly, in some of the arches you could faintly make out traces of Mughal murals, perhaps originally of flowers inside filigree vases.'

The basements have clearly changed beyond recognition since then. The original thin brick walls have been plastered and painted white to keep them from caving in. One of our escorts explained how a few years ago, the walls and the surrounding earth had caved in, creating earthen mounds on both sides and just leaving a few inches wide passage to pass through. There are no roots, no arches on the walls and consequently no remains of the murals now.

The entire basement has however been preserved intact, almost that is. There are still all the rooms, flanked by smaller ones. On the far end is a room, which was apparently used as stables (quite how, I do not know). Then there is another room which was used by the railways as a record keeping room, which roughly translates to shoving piles of unwanted old paper files down into a room till they collect dust. We did not see that room because the underground approach to it had been plugged by concrete but in the words of one of our guides,

'It has a 2 inch thick layer of dust on piles of files, cobwebs run all over the room and its a scene right from a horror movie.'

The rest of it, which we saw was no horror movie at all. It was a large basement, divided into many rooms, large and small, some flanking the others, others with ventilators to keep the building above cool (but now closed). One of the ventilation holes was explained as a dead body disposal hole by one of the men with us. We were skeptical about that. After all, what kind of human, British or Mughal would like to throw dead bodies down a hole into his own basement and then walk down a few hours later to feel the cool of the rooms amidst the stench of the just severed head.

The underground passage tour lasted about half an hour, the distinguishing feature being the pride each of our four escorts took in showing us around. It was almost as if they had family ties to it. It was so moving and touching to be taken personal care of, narrated the legends of the building, shown around the passages and the building. It was also so contradictory. As we walked out into the open, we could not believe we were apprehensive about getting into this building a couple of hours ago. This world was so different from Rail Bhawan (except Ganesh).

Once again, like Nili Chhatri, our visit to a place had been made infinitely more interesting and fun because the people we met were warm, welcoming, human and more people like than anywhere else. What are a few old, dank, damp, cold and undergrounds rooms compared to four smiling and courteous escorts!

And if you have read the last post, it is worth remarking; there was not a trace of trash in the entire building worth photographing, commenting on, writing about or for portraying railways in a negative light! So much for the bureaucracy then.

P.S.: While they are only incidental to the experience, attached below are some photographs of Fraser's bungalow. I am not given to hyperbole, so let me state here for the record: Getting into William Fraser's bungalow counts as the pinnacle of achievement in my Dilli walking career.

Front view of Fraser's bungalow

One of the sentry posts

The dome from the rooftop

The stuffed passages: To Yamuna (L), To Agra via Red Fort (C), To St. James's (R)

One of our escorts. The faint water mark line can be seen.

In the middle of the cool rooms.

The lighted cool rooms.

1 comment:

  1. I see this building every day. Hats off to the effort you put in to get the permission. I had heard from a lot of people, some of whom had worked in this building that there are tunnels that go to Agra, Red Fort and the Yamuna river but never thought of ever seeing them. So a big Thank you for sharing the photos .Its was a pleasure going through your blog