Through the 1950s and 60s, Azad Hotel in Urdu Bazaar was home to the most peculiar cast of characters
There was a rum place in the 1950s and 60s in Urdu Bazaar called Azad Hotel where cranks and intellectuals lived cheek by jowl with characters like the merry widow of Najafgarh. A big contrast to her was Tyagiji, a wreck of a man who was a Brahmin and occupied a room facing a big pipal tree with in-transit Mullahs and Khojas from Mumbai (headed by the glass-eyed qawwal, Firoz Kanchwala) as neighbours. The hotel was run by a man with multiple wives and a love for shayari.
Tyagiji did not mind eating mutton curry and chapatis for dinner, served by the waiter Rais to him every evening at 8 o’clock, after which, tired with the day’s exertions, he went off to sleep and got up only in time to attend the aarti at a temple in Esplanade Road. He then came back for his breakfast of two slices of bread and a cup of tea (served by Salamat) or, depending on the money in his pocket, settled down at a dhaba in Matia Mahal for nahari-roti. Thereafter he clutched an old, rumpled bag under his arm and caught a bus to Chanakyapuri, where he worked as translator in a western embassy.
Once he was asked by a young diplomat to translate Book One of Milton’s Paradise Lost into Hindi. Tyagiji took up the assignment in his usual nonchalant way but as he proceeded with the work, found it difficult to translate some passages of which he could not make head or tail. Among these was Satan’s speech to his fellow-fallen angels that had the famous line: “Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven”. Tyagiji, his hair tousled and a big frown on his face, went to the other building of the hotel, adjacent to Jagat Cinema, and sought out a trainee journalist, secretly in love with the proprietor’s favourite daughter, who was quite conversant with Milton and other English poets. The youngster sat down and began explaining the difficult passages to Tyagiji who had to hold several sittings with him to get the hang of things. Even then it took six months to complete the translation, with help from other quarters too.
Next he was given Cleopatra, The Woman of Passion, a novel by Henry Rider Haggard. Tyagiji did not know a thing about Egyptian gods and goddesses and here he was confronted by the history of Harmachis, son of the High Priest, Amenemhat, with whom Cleopatra hadfallen in love while Antony was away from the Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt. Deities like Osiris, Isis, Sethi and Ra and the underworld of Amentia and Abouthi were quite alien to him. Since Tyagiji’s journalist friend was leaving for his hometown for Christmas, he introduced him to the European parish priest of St. Mary’s Church, opposite Old Delhi Station, who had earlier been posted in Cairo and was well versed in the Classics. The old Italian father helped him along until the friend returned and the novel was translated after three months. It later turned out that the diplomat who had assigned the work to Tyagiji did not really need the translations. He just wanted to create work for the poor man as there was not much else for him to do otherwise, and that would have meant loss of his contract with the embassy.
Like Tyagiji, Sydney Bellety, an Anglo-Indian from Kanpur, also stayed at the hotel. He used to be a good boxer in school and, though forced to limp after a foot injury, was still good enough to teach two sons of the hotel owner to box as they were street hectors and in sore need of the art of self-defence. Bellety had to tie up their feet sometimes so that they did not run away after getting a few punches from him. “Stand up and face it like a man or you will not be able to protect yourself”, he would shout in English and then repeat the same in broken Hindi.
Then there was a dimpled peacock dance artiste, Shanta Rani, who lived with her lanky Zamindar companion Latif Mian and nursed a grudge against sexy vocalist Naseem Bano, occupant of Room No. 4. Khan Sahib, who hailed from Saharanpur, would sometimes peep at her while she was changing costume for a performance. After losing his job as manager of an oil mill in Nuh tehsil, he decided to stay at the hotel and work as supplier of wines to hotels in South Delhi. Khan Sahib was very fond of fishing and the lovey-dovey singing duo of Anwar Sultana, holed up in Room No. 3. He was also on very good terms with Tyagiji who, like him, used to be reprimanded every month by the hotel owner for not paying his bills. Once Khan Sahib caught a big Rohu and presented the fish to Afzal Mian, which earned him a week’s reprieve. A sultry girl from a stranded Bombay drama troupe, patronised by actor A. K. Hangal, sang the then hit number, “Purva sohani aiya re, Purva” one breezy evening which earned her party a similar reprieve.
There was also a gay Eurasian dancer who lived next to the room of the divorced wife of a Colonel and was the butt of many a joke for “enticing the he-men” of the area. What befell most of these characters after they left is not known, but one of them is still around to bear witness to the crazy happenings at what was probably the most rummy place in Delhi some 50 years ago.