Talking the walk, Swapna’s Delhi Walk

When  Swapna Liddle’s  Delhi – 14 historic walks   was made available by  BlogAdda for book  review  I grabbed it because I wanted to  ‘re-visit’  Delhi; and because I believe heritage walks are not just for tourists,  but are  also for the likes of me wanting to re-discover Delhi. And here I found a historian with a doctorate in 19th century Delhi  to take me around.

Carrying,  as I do,  an emotional baggage of  having spent my college, and early working life in the city, I admit to reading  Delhi – 14 historic walks with tinted eye-glasses that had weathered 30 Delhi summers (1950-80s).  And if,  in  Liddle’s  290 pages,   I find the  book  leaves something to be desired,  it is because of my rather high expectations.  I expected the author to lead me by the hand while talking the walk,  pointing  things with anecdotes.  I expected a story-teller to bring  alive  the ruins and tombs of nawabs and other nobility with tales,  gossip and myths of their life and times.

I wasn’t totally disappointed, though.  Diwane Khas  at the Red Fort assumed a khasiat (added value) for me after reading Swapna Liddle ,  in the sense  I visualized  the emperor’s special court hall as the  spot where  Shahjahan  suffered the indignity of getting  deposed from the throne by his own son Aurangazeb.  Among other nuggets from history that Liddle weaves in her historic walks was Mehrauli’s  Metcalfe connection.  Sir Thomas Metcalfe,  British agent at the Mughal court in the 1840s, showed up as  bit of a crank in the sense that he converted the first floor of Quila Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli as a retreat.
The Qutab Minar, widely known as symbol of the Turkish conquest of northern India,  was seen by the Muslim faithful as a maznah, from where they gave the call to the faithfuls to come for prayer. Someone who could climb up the Qutab (72.5 m), and still have the stamina to call out to the faithfuls,  must have had super-human lung-power. Hogwash ?  Perhaps,  but it made an interesting read.

The book made me wonder  how Ballimaran got its name ;  I had no occasion to learn, till I read Liddle,  that  Mirza Ghalib lived in a rented haveli that belonged to a neibourhood  hakim.  And that Delhi’s St.Stephen’s College  was initially housed in a modest Chandni Chowk  house in narrow lane called  Katra Kushal Rai.

I wonder if  sarkari tourism  depts.  realise the potentials  of  city walks.  Walking tours are mainly done by  NGOs and through  individual initiatives.  I have read about some city-loving  San Francisco residents devoting their weekends to  taking interested  visitors on neighbourhood walks.  Nearer home, the walks with which I am familiar,  in Mysore and Mylapore (Chennai),  are individual initiatives.  The royal Mysore walks  is the creation of a software techie who got bitten by the walkbug in Singapore. While on assignment abroad Vinay was so taken in by the Singapore city walk  that he chose to return to  native Mysore  to start a heritage walk.  Vinay’s business model has apparantly been  successful  enough for him to start a Mysore bike tour.

I wish his success drives him enough to try out walks for other interest groups –  R K Narayan walk (of his haunts in the city),  the Maharaja’s College walk,  Kukrahalli walk (for bird-watchers),  The Mysore Banyan Walk , Mandi Mohalla or  the Agrahara walk. Speaking  agraharam,  my media friend Vincent D’Souza  has been conducting walks centred on the agraharam in Chennai’s Mylapore. 

INTACH with which the author is associated conducts the walks  she writes about in her book.  Her friend  Surekha Narain,  who acknowledges  Swapna Liddle  as a guiding force, is into conducting  Surekha Walks  devoted to the  Ghalib trail, the Pahargunj bazar, and the 1857 Mutiny walk.  I have a few walks ideas, triggered by my sense of Vintage Delhi. Would  Surekha  consider any of these ?

The Coffee-house walk:  Starts from Janpath where the original coffee-house was located. When the India Coffee Board decided to close  down  its chain of coffee-houses in 60s, their employees, left in the lurch, were backed by the Delhi coffe-house regulars to form a workers’ co-op to take over the Board abandoned coffee-houses. When they  faced eviction from  Janpath, the workers union started the search for an alternative, with  the support of coffee-house regulars –  they included artists,  academics,  poets,  journalists, politicians, lawyers,  insurance agents, and students. Among the regulars were  Inder Gujral and Young Turk  Chandra Shekar.  A joint agitation by coffee-house  regulars and workers  resulted in NDMC  allotment of open space where Thambu coffee-house came to be located .  So called because , the the coffee-house functioned under a tent.  That was the space where  Palika Bazar is now located.  The workers’  coffee-house  eventually moved to Mohan Singh Place,  still in Connaught Place (CP).

Meanwhile,  some  regulars from my time (70s-80s)  drifted away to other C P  locations such as the United Coffee House,  the Tea House in Regal Building. On a Delhi trip a while  back I discovered  a small band of old time regulars meeting  at Connaught Circus Embassy restaurant.  The group of coffee-regulars  is sustained  by my college friend  S P Dutt  (Barkha’s  dad) – we have been coffee-house regulars  since our days together in Hindu College,  till our jobs took us away from  Delhi.  I left New Delhi in early 80s, for good.  SPD, as friends call Dutt, returned to the city,   re-connected with old-time regulars after retirement,  and Embassy is where they meet nowadays.  Out-of-towners ,  like yours truly,  visiting Delhi can catch up with  S P Dutt’s group at Embassy, on weekdays –  ‘make it there,  11ish’,  as SPD would say when you call.

Karolbagh Monday market:  A weekly walk, on Monday,  holiday for  Ajmal Khan Road traders. It is  on Monday pavement hawkers of all type take over the stretch from Pusa Rd. end to the Unani hospital. The pavement close to the Gurudwara Rd. crossing on Ajmal Khan Road  would be of interest for pavement shoppers of used books.

Worship Walk, of 3 histoic temples, a gurudwara and a church. Could start from the Hanuman temple near Rivoli Cinema, Connaught Place;  walk down Irwin Rd. to  Gurdwara Rakhab Gunj;  Continue the walk upto the Gole Post office, where there is a church;  take a turn towards the Bird Rd. Kali Mandir, located on encroached pavement; and make your way to Birla temple on Mandir Marg via the heritage Gole Market.

The Mandir Marg Ridge: This walk could interest alumni of Mandir Marg schools,  notably Harcourt Butler and Madarasi.  Students living in Karolbagh used to walk to school through the ridge,  picking along the way  wild berries with sour-sweet taste,  that grew on thorny bushes.  The back-door ridge was also the escape route, notably for those who had running accounts at the Madarasi  school front  chai-samasa dukhanwala.

Delhi University Walk: For students in my times,  who did cafe-crawling before,  after,  and,  often, during class hours.  University coffee-house,  strategically located near the campus gate bus stop,  was usually the place where students started their day. From here it is a few minutes walk to the Miranda House cafe,  so named because  of its proximity to the noted women’s college hostel. And then there was Wenger’s,  an upscale cafe near the university library, conveniently located for students meeting  for ‘group study’.  After the study session at Wenger’s  day-scholars take a walk with hostellers to catch the bus home,  from the Miranda House stop. The 8 pm bus to Kashmere Gate,  Daryagunj and beyond  that passed by Miranda House was  widely known  among students as Ashiq Special. 8 p m was when the  women’s hostel gate closed for the day.

One Response

  1. Those who wish to read more on our coffee-house days should look up Mr Sethi’s piece on Delhi memories – http://www.apnaorg.com/articles/sethi-2/

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