Monday, 30 January 2012

I found Delhi's attraction at Masjid Moth

I first visited Delhi as a boy of nine on a 'Bharat Darshan' trip with my family. It was supposed to be a trip for the kids to see the country’s landmarks, but I was mostly taken aback by the sheer crowd, dirt, dust, noise, loudness and crowds of Delhi. We lived in a mountain village of four hundred back then. I still remember looking down from the 4th floor balcony of a hotel (called Neelkamal or Kamal Hans or something with a kamal in it) in Chandni Chowk and seeing more people in one sweep of the eye than I had perhaps seen in my lifetime. I could not find anything appealing in the city. Yes, Gandhi's memorial was cool, so were Jantar Mantar and Red Fort and so on but they weren’t Delhi, they were more like things that had been mentioned in school and had seemed unreal or far away. Textbooks in 3D form.

As I went to college and then to business school and then worked in Chennai and abroad, Delhi was the airport I flew from, the bus station I boarded the bus to Himachal from and the second choice railway station. It was my gateway to the world beyond Himachal but it was one I did not look forward to crossing through. Delhities were rude and seldom answered my questions, auto drivers seemed to be out to fleece me. I was a simple mountain boy in a place that was out to get me, trample me. Someone once said, 'Delhi is cut-throat'. That it is and it almost cut my throat so many times. Only masochism or love could have driven me to move to and walk around the city I most dreaded.

The truth is it was a little bit of both, but that is a different story. Over nine months of wandering, I found many things that made Delhi tolerable. But it was only after I paid ten grand last Diwali to fly to Delhi for just two days, that I realized that I, like so many sceptics before me had become a Del-mantic. Sure I was partly there for the friends, but the truth is that something else draws me back to Delhi. I can’t put a finger on what it is. The city hasn’t changed, it is still as dusty, loud, and polluted as ever so it must be me. I have a theory that over all of these centuries, the city never really changed. The loved tortures, subdues, and changes its lovers without ever once moving itself.

On Diwali, over a pontificating session, we discussed how Diwali might have been celebrated a few centuries ago without reaching a conclusion (this was pontificating after all). But the next day I went with Varsha (who writes here and is still wandering around Delhi) to Masjid Moth. This was the first time someone else had taken me wandering around Delhi. I had often seen the signage from a flyover on the Outer Ring Road reading 'DDA Masjid Moth Flats'. Often I had imagined that there must be a Masjid Moth and a couple of times even thought of venturing there.

The first surprise came with the realization that Masjid Moth is not anywhere near those DDA Flats. It is a good 3-4 kms away near Hauz Khas. We got off an auto and, expertly, Varsha led me through a maze of streets. I have often noticed and never mentioned that there are many Old Delhis in Delhi. You can go anywhere in an older neighbourhood and find an old fashioned market where a grocer sells only limited goods, a stationer only stationery, there are a couple of shops for fixing the punctured tyres of bikes, a couple of cheap eateries and a doctor who calls his business a 'dispensary'. Old Delhi just happens to be the biggest such neighbourhood and the most chaotic. But that is beside the point. We were now in the heart of something somewhere in Hauz Khas with chaotic criss-crossing lanes in an old fashioned market place. I could not believe I had missed a site this close to where I took Spanish classes.

After walking a few minutes, we came upon a stone structure to our left. It was ruined and dilapidated. There were a few cars parked next to the walls, which stank slightly of urine. We walked through a small gap, past a wall, turned right and then saw a gate. Stunning. Carved with delicately carved floral patterns and geometric figures, it has to be the most ornately carved gate I have seen in Delhi. Once inside, I was surprised again with the carving in the second picture below.

It is very un-Islamic to have a life form carved in a mosque, infact it is prohibited by the Quran. This is however a case of a mixing Hindu and Islamic architecture: a Hindu arch laid within a Muslim arch. The story of the mosque's origin is also fascinating and can be found at this Wikipedia link.

As we walked in and wandered around the courtyard, the quintessential Delhi ruin quiet caught on and I just sat on a parapet mulling over life. It is amazing how repeatedly, Delhi can throw old buildings your way which really transport you back into time, where the sound of the traffic seems to come from a distant place and age. I was thus lost in a reverie when I was interrupted by a voice. It was the security guard at the mosque talking to Varsha. She was asking him questions about the history, which he did not have concrete answers to. I got up from my seat and walked over to them. He was clearly a recent immigrant from either Eastern UP or Bihar, like most of the security guards in Delhi these days. Slowly, as he got talking, he mentioned his previous job at Humanyun's Tomb. In a soft tone, he said

'There are ghosts there.'

Varsha was almost livid. She does not like nonsense. However, before she could interrupt him, I cut in, 'Really? How do you know?'

'I have seen them. All the guards in Humayun's tomb are scared of going anywhere near the crypt in the night. Sharp at midnight, when everyone is asleep, and the tomb is absolutely silent and dark, the royal procession of Humayun makes it way out clad in royal shining fine silk robes and mounted on beautiful steeds.'

I was already in dream ghost land when Varsha, who could take no more of such nonesense, pulled me away. To this day, I have been imagining how the plot would have developed. Would Humayun's procession cross the road and be joined by a procession of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana and, together, would they meet the spirit of Nizamuddin and seek his blessings? Or would the procession just wander around lamely within the tomb walls? Damn you Varsha!

The guard also sheepishly mentioned something about ghosts in Masjid Moth but I did not get to hear about them either. Instead we sat down under a tree and read a little from a book which describes the mosque. I climbed the top of the gate to see if I could get a good picture (I couldn't) and then we heard the creaking of an opening door. Right opposite us, in the courtyard of a small shanty sharing a wall with the mosque was an old man with a newspaper. The courtyard had a line with laundry hanging on it. Casually, the old man sat down on a chair, appraised his surroundings with a slow movement of the neck, looked towards us and the courtyard of the mosque, and finally faced the mihrab and started reading his paper. It’s only in Delhi that someone can so casually share a wall with history while a visitor from another city stands across the way appreciating the finesse of the fabric hung out to dry, and fantasies of royal phantoms march through the courtyard between them.

I couldn’t capture the word, but I almost understood what pulls me back to Delhi.
The Gate

The Blasphemy

The courtyard
The Mosque and............The Ghost

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A Trip To The More Recent Past

India coffee house is the stuff of cosmopolitan legend. The great leaders of India’s independence movement and the philosophers of modern India dreamed, argued, and conspired at its tables throughout the (1950s and 60s). This coffee house was part of a chain, the most famous of which is in Kolkata, which was taken over by its employees in the 1950s after the British abandoned the venture. For the independence generation, the coffee house represents the center of a movement and a generation.

Accounts of the place’s degradation abound. Still, with every trip through Connaught Place the Coffee House crept into discussion. India Coffee House. A chance to sit at the same table as history, not see its objects behind ropes and glass, but simply to stare in thought at the same dull, stained, walls as generations before. Finally last May we found the perfect morning to make it happen. Not too hot, dry, and mostly fog free.

Khushwant Singh paints the Coffee House in Delhi as a kind of leftist farting man's club. But even this description of the place is generous. The wait staff’s tattered uniforms are not only fading but also crusted with weeks of food. The sadness in their faces is striking. Some chairs are missing backs and their leather is torn. The bathroom is difficult to find and when found, it is difficult to bear the stench. Rumors in 2009 were circulating that the coffee house would be closing down and management seems to have taken that to heart.

While there are a few older patrons sitting silent with their stories, the life that these walls once inspired is gone. It has been replaced by bureaucrats. 15 of them were huddled around a laptop on the veranda congratulating each other. The menu is extensive and the prices fine but most items aren’t available. Luckily the building does provided a pretty decent view of Connaught Place. But when the food finally arrived our group declared with enthusiasm, “Pathetic!”

I’ve eaten food served from a plate cleaned with roadside dirt just outside the toxic shipbreaking port of Alang and I still hesitated with the plate before me. Probably the worst of it, the coffee was bad.

I descended the stairs with the feeling of visiting a distant relative dying at the hospital. You know the place through its stories and you want to honor the life it hosted, but you’re pretty sure there is nothing left to say goodbye too.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Sam Miller and The Blue Guide

Sometime last year, I read Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity and promptly fell in love with it. It was because of sweeping statements like 'Anyone who has not eaten a freshly made dhokla has not truly lived'. I too like to teach people exactly how they are missing life and I absolutely agree, a freshly made dhokla makes it all worth while. But, on a serious note, Sam makes me want to get out and see stuff out of the ordinary. His Delhi is not only the monuments, which in Delhi's cliched context are ordinary, but small everyday pleasures too.

After reading the book, I dropped him an email. Last weekend, Rachel and I met him at his office in Panchsheel Park. There was a lot of conversation about Delhi, its monuments, and books that Sam is working on now. Finally, he gave us a signed copy of Blue Guide: India, officially launching on the 12th January 2012. As it happens, this is the only guide focused solely on India’s monuments and historical sites. It covers all states. From the oldest monuments to the least visited to the well known ones, it covers huge ground. What takes the cake is it took Sam three years to cover them and while I cannot vouch for him having seen every single of these, I am inclined to believe it is as first hand an account as an account ever got. It has detailed site plans for some sites and hundreds and hundreds of sites covered. I can say from my Himachal, Delhi and Chennai experience that it covers as much as there is to cover. If you were waiting for small teasers on the historical places in your state but did not want any spoilers, this book is it. Just the right amount, not more, not less.