Delhi’s Gole Market, awaiting its impending closure, holds many a story, writes R.V. Smith

The closure of Gole Market is like the theatres of Paris closing their doors for the last time and of some fond, and some not so, memories of this central mart that was the forerunner of the Super Bazaar and the present-day malls. Under one roof one could initially get most of the things one wanted — from chicken and mutton to pastries and other confectionery, garments, cosmetics, antiques and contraceptives, a rare whispered item in days gone by. One chap mentioned French leather in class and got nearly expelled. When Uncle James was in charge of the Johns’ Mills stores, his first stop on arrival in Delhi was Gole Market, for Countess Marzano and other ladies of the then biggest mills in North India preferred stuff sold here. Monsignor Burke would often walk down from Sacred Heart Cathedral to make purchases in the evening. Gole Dakhana to Gole Market was not a long distance, as a matter of fact, the two complemented each other by both name and fame which brought the French Ambassador Count Ostrorog to it every weekend.

Opened in 1935, Gole Market was the rendezvous of the sahibs and memsahibs settling down in the new Capital. It was on Sir Edwin Lutyens’ suggestion that the market came up, say some. A fan of Sherlock Holmes, he probably fancied the idea of the great detective walking into a multi-store to meet his urgent needs. Sherlock creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, would have loved basing one of his stories on the Eighth Delhi but it was probably a bit too late for him to do so. Doyle’s conception of India was of a place steaming with devils and fire worshippers, and of rare rubies and diamonds —which of course you could never find in Gole Market.

It strikes one that its design was borrowed from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where the greatest and the lowest found entertainment. But the kind of entertainment Gole Market provided was different. When the shops in Connaught Circus and nearby places closed, Gole Market came alive. One remembers meeting actresses Chand Usmani and Nigar Sultana and the novelist John Masters there, sampling seekh kababs and inhaling the aroma of chicken being roasted slowly over the brazier. One doesn’t know if they liked the odour but Rai Bahadur Chimman Lal just loved it as he had got tired of smelling Urad dal being fried for dinner with ghee and garlic “tadka” (zing).

A rich seth of Chandni Chowk, Chimman Lal used to visit Gole Market on some evenings, being driven to it in a private tonga, whose driver, Kallan, was sworn to secrecy over what the Sethji ate and drank at the “Firangi market”. At home, the Sethani, who loved to maintain tradition, did not allow even eggs. Sethji had got over his initial dislike of mutton and fish dishes when he was briefly admitted to Sherwood College, Nainital. There, he once ate a mince patty by mistake in the mess and relished it so much that he couldn’t help asking a classmate what the stuff was supposed to be. When told what it really was, Chimman Lal thought that he should vomit the mince out. But somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do so. After that he became a regular mince-eater, with fish and chicken becoming part of the menu later. Fish was served on Fridays at the college because the hill station butchers kept their shops closed for namaz.

Shamshad Ali Khan of Tehraha Behram Khan came to Gole Market after he had gulped down a few pegs on the sly inside his big general merchant shop. He came in a horse-driven tum-tum to eat kababs. The ones in the Jama Masjid area were better but he did not get the company he enjoyed there. Also, he didn’t want people to smell him and get shocked to realise that he was reeking of sharab (actually whisky). When one met Khan Sahib in the 1980s at Karim butcher’s shop, he began talking of his younger days. One met him three or four times a week and learnt of his friendship with Rai Bahadur Chimman Lal and of how the two would sometimes take skirt-and-blouse wearing girls living in Old Pataudi House, Daryaganj, for joyrides and, of course, some flirting in CP on New Year’s.

Gole Market had other characters frequenting it daily, among them Mr Webb, who was absent on Thursdays as he was fond of hearing qawwalis at some dargah or the other and then telling his friends, “Kya sama tha, bhai, amidst the burning joss-sticks”. Like Jelaloodin Mcintosh of Kipling’s tale, Webb later became a Muslim though he continued to attend church on Sundays by force of habit.

Gole Market had its ugly side too. Fights broke out there easily among tipsy men over gay friends or the bais of Chawri Bazaar, and once someone even got stabbed fatally. Another young man Suraj (name changed) was luckier. He happened to be the son of a bullion merchant of Dariba Kalan. The fight with a pimp, Bashira, broke out over a dancing girl who had fallen in love with Suraj. As a result, she stopped dancing at the kotha and Suraj began to be resented as the reason for it. Suraj’s wounds healed but if memory serves right both he and the girl, Kashmeeran Bai, committed suicide in Edward Park — the culmination of a fight that broke out in Gole Market. One will miss the place for these and other memories that lie hidden in the heart of the mart. Wish they could be exhibited at the museum that will come up in its place!