Friday Review » History & Culture

Updated: July 28, 2013 20:10 IST

The night of the new moon…

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The strains of the azan, the prayer post iftaar, quick walks for sehri….R.V. SMITH soaks in the spirit of Ramzan

When one saw the new moon like a silvery wisp recently and heard the strains of the azan from Kutcha Tihar, one was wistfully reminded that the month of fasting had begun, which compared favourably with the drab scenario of yesteryears. For it’s worth admitting that the observance of Ramzan by those living in the five surviving gates of Delhi at the fag-end of the 19th Century lacked the fast-and-feast ambience of the present day when night turns into day in places like the Jama Masjid and its environs. That’s what poignantly comes to mind now in 2013.

Mori Gate, Kashmere Gate, Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate and Delhi Gate had borne the brunt of the British onslaught in 1857. Mori Gate had been completely knocked out and so it stays to this day, with no gate worth the name. Even up to 50 years ago it was so desolate that not only the teachers of the newly-opened St Xavier’s School nearby but also the Muslim khansamas, bearers and other staff gave the gate a wide berth after sunset. Only a few hardy ones ventured into it. The reason was that it had the best fried fish shop, run by a refugee from Punjab, which tickled the taste-buds after 15 hours of fasting. Chuttan Khan, whose family had lost all its wealth in the aftermath of the Revolt, used to visit the shop regularly as fish was considered halal and he had no qualms of buying it from a non-Quraish butcher.

Pandit Ram Chand, who claimed to be 99 years old in 1964 and the oldest inhabitant of Kashmere Gate, liked to distribute bananas, gur and gram to indigent families for Roza aftar in his younger days as an act of charity. It was a time when communal harmony was to be seen to be believed. Pandit Ram Chand remembered the days when the Yamuna used to flow near where Delhi Polytechnic was situated. That was during the last span of the 19th Century. Panditji was at that time just 12 years old and had come from his village, Kotla Jhabbu, to study in M.B. High School, which was situated close to Delhi Polytechnic. His favourite exercise was a swim in the Yamuna. “We used to jump in near Qudsia Garden and get out near the Fort. An old woman who had lost her all in the Revolt used to sit there on the river bank and apply chandan (sandalwood paste) to our foreheads.” Kashmere Gate had few big buildings. Most of the houses were kuccha, and occupied by petty craftsmen, weavers, carpenters and some gypsy girls who danced and sang and entertained the soldiers of the British infantry stationed in the Fort. People used to shut themselves in (Ramzan or not) after 8 p.m. for fear of wild animals.

That was the time when Ashiq Ali, 80, was attached to an Anglo Indian family in Civil Lines. His Ramzan days had earlier been spent in the household of Hamilton Sahib, for whom he served as Syce (groom). He later worked for Jenkins Sahib who had six “Missi-Babas”, each girl outdoing the other to give him baksish at Id. “Poor, old Ashiq”, they would say, “needs a new set of clothes for his feast day”. Figs and dates were what their mother condescendingly gave him in the evening when he rested under a tree during a hot summer Ramzan. One hundred years ago Ajmere Gate was a cluster of kuccha houses, with khaprail (tile) roofs that gave little protection from the elements, disclosed 70-year old Mohmmad Umar in the 1960s. There were at least three masjids where the fast was broken, the biggest and best dating to Mughal times, Umar recalled. The population was a tenth of what it is now; few people were to be seen in the streets even in Ramzan and hardly any women, as most of them were confined to the zenana. Mohammad Umar said the area occupied by Kamla Market and the big buildings of Paharganj was a wilderness punctuated with fields and wells.

In Turkman Gate, Mohd Shafi, a 65-year-old ex-wrestler disclosed at about the time of Jawaharlal Nehru’s death that many “Rozadars” frequented Baba Turkman Bayabani’s mazar before the Tarabis (post-fast prayers). Lala Makhan Lal, then 78, used to recall in 1970 that Delhi Gate’s population was confined to the side where Golcha Cinema now exists, the other side being the swampy Bela. People wanting to offer Namaz after breaking the fast used to go to the Tehraha Bairam Khan and Suiwalan mosques (something that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan also did in his youth). For “sehri” they had milk and jalebi.

Lala Makhan Lal was one of the six men who pioneered the building of new Daryaganj after King George V had proclaimed that Delhi would again be the Capital of India. At that time Lalaji had just shifted to Delhi from Fatehpur Sikri and missed its Ramzan fervour. Lalaji recalled that the area was occupied by Indian “ghursawars” (cavalry) and their British officers. The officers lived in 24 kothis, one of which later housed the Agra Hotel. Then the building of Bela Road began, and the waters of the Yamuna receded; also Faiz Bazar was widened after Nehar Saadat Khan was closed. “This delivered us from the “Bhainsa mosquitoes” as the Bela was finally made habitable. That was all in the hazy past. Now when one sees the new moon, one makes a wish and looks into one’s open palms to absorb its beneficial influence, or so it is believed. As for the festival that falls 30 days later, can an old man forget the Partition-time Id hug that childhood mate Zahida gave so lovingly before she left for Karachi. As a “Badi Bi”, she too may be remembering that evanescent evening on the starlit terrace 66 long years ago. But just now let’s listen to the distant azan!

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