Cityscape A.R. Siddiqui accepts the reality of Partition, but that does not stop him from enjoying a walk down the lanes of Old Delhi, his boyhood home

Karachi-based Abdul Rahman Siddiqui has been through the 1965 and 1971 wars, acting as the principal military spokesman in the latter. He might have shifted to Pakistan following the Partition but he is essentially a Dilli-wallah who talks with zest, and only a hint of inescapable nostalgia, about Old Delhi. Siddiqui came down to Delhi recently to launch his latest book, “Smoke Without Fire: Portraits of Pre-Partition Delhi”. In the fitness of things the book was launched some time back at Azad Park, adjoining Town Hall in Old Delhi. The book, a joint India-Pakistan Heritage publication, forced one to trace the places Siddiqui writes about in vivid detail. He talks of the Delhi of more than half a century ago in ways that are both dispassionate and sensitive. His memory is a wonderful ally as he talks about Ballimaran, Gali Qasim Jaan, Charkhe Walan, Chandni Chowk, Fatehpuri Masjid and the rest. He refers to Sunehri Masjid which stood in front of the good old Majestic cinema, not too far from Gaiety. Back then Siddiqui studied at the maktab of the Sunehri Masjid.

He recalls, “From the terrace of the mosque, I could see the Fountain and the Majestic theatre right in front. Huge coloured hoardings painted with the faces of heroes and heroines of the movies showing were a feast for my eyes. As I walked up and down the mosque terrace memorising the Quran, I could not help stealing sidelong glances at the billboards.” Siddiqui is indeed right. The masjid is right there even today, but Majestic downed shutters two decades ago and is today a Sikh place of worship. Similarly, Gaiety is long gone. First it was renamed Jubilee cinema some 59 years ago. Then, like Majestic, Jubilee too downed its shutters.

Siddiqui talks of other theatres in Chandni Chowk. He refers to Picture House and New Royal in the chapter “The Shop”. Well, they are still there except that Picture House gave way to Kumar talkies. Kumar in turn shut shop about a decade ago, only to re-emerge as Abhishek Cineplex some eight years later. New Royal was replaced by Moti. The hall still runs, happy to play dubbed versions of South Indian action flicks. How times change! How they remain the same!

The feeling comes back when one steps into Ballimaran. Siddiqui talks quite vividly about Mahal Sarai, Haveli Hisamuddin here. He remembers Sharif Manzil, Hakim Ajmal Khan's abode. He talks of the masjid near Ghalib's residence; even recounts the famous couplet “Masjid ke Zair-e-Sayya Kharabat”. Today, more than six decades later, they are all there. The haveli, the sarai, the masjid. Of course, Charkhe Walan has changed beyond easy recognition as has the nukkad of Ballimaran: there is a watering hole now, a couple of chic restaurants too. But Charkhe Walan continues to be the preferred place of residence for Hindu gentry, just as Ballimaran still has rexine and leather shoe shops. Even the age-old Swadeshi Shoe store that Siddiqui refers to in the book is still there (Swadeshi Boot House). Only the notes change, the tune that emerges from Old Delhi is the same timeless one.

Old Delhi, indeed, continues to defy time and space. Siddiqui though, could not spend more than a night or two in the in the city of his birth. Sometimes, does he not wish Partition could be done away with, and he could roam the streets of Chandni Chowk, as he did in his adolescence?

“Partition for better or worse, is an absolute fact of life. There is no question of reversing it. What should and might happen, sooner or later, is a sort of a union as opposed to a re-union or the undoing of Partition. That'd be a disaster incomparably more devastating than the Great Divide. We must learn to co-habit as Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis within our own national turfs in a visa-free regime, free trade and unhampered people-to-people contact, inter-marriages, etc.”

Even as Siddiqui talks of his next project — “I am contemplating a project on Post-Partition Studies. It'd be essentially an academic exercise with a practical side likely to emerge in due course” — life in Old Delhi continues on an even keel. Young men sell nahari curries and tea topped with ‘malai mar ke'. The qulfiwallah vending ‘malai ka baraf' is still found near Jama Masjid, and yes, goats are still found tethered near Meena Bazar just as expert kite flyers and pigeon flyers have their own friendly contests. Yesterday never died. It was merely rechristened Today.