Footloose in Chandni Chowk

ChanI had heard about it, read about it, but never visited it. A sacrilege if you ask me. So I set about correcting this great inhuman travesty. It’s bad enough that I have classes on Saturdays, but classes when the weather is unbearable, is nothing short of extreme torture. “You’ll get free unlimited parathas at Parathewali Gali. I promise”, said my very trustworthy and reliable pal Ruchi, hoping to bribe me into coming with her. Well, the trick worked. The enticement of free parathas can’t be overlooked by any self- respecting Delhiite.

YLSD (a Delhi-based youth organization) was organizing a “Delhi Walk”, and it was imperative for us to attend. Thanks to the Metro rail project, it is particularly trouble-free to reach Chandni Chowk. We reached the Chandni Chowk station , where a YLSD member was standing with a placard. The entire 54 member strong entourage started making its way through the famous lanes. The extreme narrowness of the street and the smallness of shops left me dumbstruck. Shopkeepers were making best use of the space available to them. Most of the shops have been passed from one generation to the next. One of our first stops was the “Ghantewala Halwai”. Ghantewala is managed by the 11th generation of its owners today. The metro must have been a fortunate thing for them; letting youngsters like me visit the place without much hassle. The biggest patron of Ghantewala was the Nehru family, who since the time of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, to his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, used to order frequently. Sadly for us, the shop was closed.

Immediately opposite the Ghantewala shop is a Fountain. A lot of historical importance is attached to this place, and fortunately we had been provided with information kits. A history teacher from Delhi University had also accompanied us to the walk. So, on the whole I was re-introduced to my history lessons.

It is said that Chandni Chowk was designed by Shahjehan’s favourite daughter, Jahanara. A large chowk, with a central pool and fountain, was built at some distance from the fort. The story goes that on a moonlit night, the complex and the pool lay shimmering; as a result, it acquired the name of Chandni Chowk.

Old Delhi is full of contrasts. An extremely remarkable thing that I noticed were street-hawkers selling spices like nutmeg on the pavement. In that regard, experiencing Old Delhi is like experiencing the mystique of India -baffling in its variety and diversity. The roadside hawkers can be seen selling leather jackets (yes. for one brief, shiny moment I was reminded of Fonzie. I think Matrix might do the trick for you.), alongside shops selling exquisite traditional sarees and lehengas. From shops selling chandeliers to light fixtures, they have it all. The display windows look beautiful. Most of the times, you’ll be reminded of Marie Antoinette (Hopefully with a better end).

Most of the shop owners and businessmen are quite religious. It’s not only a trade market, it’s also an ideal example of India’s diversity and unity. You’ll find mosques, Hindu temples, Gurudwaras, Churches and Jain Temples co-existing alongside each other, all within a stretch of 2 kms.

Visiting Chandni Chowk is akin to visiting the heart of Delhi. If you’ve been here, you can be baptized as a Delhiite. But you can’t help but feel saddened by the way this place is maintained. The havelis abandoned by the Muslim aristocracy when it migrated to Pakistan were taken over either by Hindu refugees who had lost their homes in West Punjab or by the government. These havelis are now functioning as commercial “complexes”, with people running their shops in them. Begum Samru’s haveli is one such example.

According to The Hindu: “ Begum Sumroo, whose name was Farzana, was the daughter of a dancing girl who had been taken away from Chawri Bazar in Delhi to the Doab region by Asad Khan, a nobleman of Arabian origin (some say he was a Persian, Nawab Latif Ali Khan), who made her his second wife. After the death of her husband, the young widow was driven out of the house by her stepson and returned to Delhi, living for some days near the Kashmere Gate and then moving on to the Jama Masjid area, where she died, leaving her daughter in the care of Khanum Jan, a tawaif of Chawri Bazar. That was in 1760. Five years later Walter Reinhardt Sumroo, then 45-year-old, came to the red light area and fell for the charms of Farzana, then a girl of 14, says Johan Lall in his well-researched work: “Begum Samru – Faded Portrait in a Gilded Frame”. A soldier of fortune, Sumroo moved from Lucknow to Rohikhand, then to Agra, Deeg and Bharatpur and back to the Doab. Farzana helped him in those times of intrigue and counter- intrigue. Her palace survives but the garden in which it stood has vanished. The reason it was known as Chudiwali-ki-Haveli was perhaps because of the Begum’s `past’ in the red light area, though some have other explanations. Farzana was courted by some of the European officers who were associated with her husband. Among them were Le Vassoult, a Frenchman, and George Thomas, an Irishman. The Begum favoured the Frenchman and when, in 1793, the rumour spread that she had married him, her troops mutinied.

The couple sought to escape secretly by night – Le Vassoult on horseback and the Begum in a palanquin. Misinformed that Le Vassoult had been shot, she stabbed herself but survived. Her lover, however, died of a self-inflicted wound to the head. When Lord Lake met the Begum in 1802, in a fit of enthusiasm he gave her a hearty kiss, which appalled her troops. But with her customary tact Begum Sumroo pacified them by saying that it was only “the kiss of the Padre to a repentant child”.

The Begum, though only 4-1/2 feet tall, wore a turban and rode on horseback as she led her troops to battle. So invincible did she seem ,that the superstitious spread the word that she was a witch who could destroy her enemies just by throwing her cloak towards them.

She died at the age of 90 in 1836 and her adopted son, Dyce Sombre, in 1851 at London, from where his body was brought to Sardhana and buried beside the Begum in the imposing church she had built there. Now known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces, it is the centre of two annual pilgrimages in March and November, when thousands come to bless the Begum and pray to the Virgin Mary”.

But the real hard hitting evidence of globalization is just a few feet away, in the form of “Kumar Talkies”, which has now been converted into a McDonalds. Have your McNuggets, as you run around looking for that perfect lehenga for your wedding; the notion of “pre-wedding” appetite never tasted better.

Old Delhi is a picture of both change and continuity. In spite of the onslaught on the basic character of the city, its essential features have not changed. They have managed to mutilate it, but its past could not be completely die out. Certainly, from a gracious feudal city inhabited by not very many more than a 100,000 people, it is now a commercial slum. The streets have become so crowded that one can hardly walk. Today, innumerable industrial establishments work through the night, be it summer or winter. The old city is physically there, but only as a settlement without a soul. Kumar Talkies in Chandni Chowk closed down as a cinema hall. Much noise was made about Kumar Cinema’s ‘heritage’ status (it became operational in 1935). But like all other “protests”, it soon died down. As a result, we Indians can now be used as guinea pigs for “Super Size me”.

Chandni Chowk, the moonlit bazaar, used to be the commercial heart of the Mughal capital. Today it is a pale shadow of its glorious past. Badly maintained and dilapidated, its past still lingers someplace inside. As you look at the magnificent buildings, you can’t help but imagine how well they would look if they were properly taken care of. I’m not a Delhiite. I wasn’t born in Delhi. My parents were not born in Delhi. My grandparents were not born in Delhi. How then do I claim this city to be my own? But I’m every bit of a Delhiite as the next person. Can a person belong to any one city, and, can a city belong to any person?

Delhi is more than just a city of politicians and bureaucrats. Today, it is a commercial city too. A new middle class has made it home. Industrial units have begun to dot its suburbs. Money power is competing with political power. People from all over India have made the city their home. In the words of Mir Taqi Mir: Dilli jo ek shahr tha aalam mein intikhaab/Hum rehne wale hain usi ujre dayar ke – There was a city, famed throughout the world/Where dwelt the chosen spirits of the age/Delhi its name, fairest among the fair/Fate looted it and laid it desolate/And to that ravaged city I belong.

Pratiksha Khandura

(image by: