Trams were much safer than buses during simpler days in the Capital, says R. V. Smith
Imagine a scion of the Mughal family like Prince Surayya Jah boarding a tram from Jama Masjid to Chandni Chowk in 1910 or the author of ‘Twilight in Delhi’, Ahmed Ali, doing so as a schoolboy after leaving his residence in Kutcha Pandit. “Trams were introduced in Delhi on March 6, 1908 at the behest of the Viceroy Lord Hardinge” who inaugurated the Tramway Company’s project at the Town Hall. Among those present was the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, Lord Marshal. The introduction of the Tramway was an achievement that caused more excitement than even the coming of the Delhi Metro 10 years ago. Lala Hanwant Sahai, who was arrested for the bomb attack on Lord Hardinge in 1912, had mixed memories of the advent of trams when one met him in 1966. He and his teacher (and later martyr) Master Amir Chand had taken part in an agitation in 1907 against the move to introduced trams a year later.
One remembers travelling by tram in 1960, three years before trams ceased plying, while buying pilau from Khan Sahib’s shop below the steps of the Jama Masjid, close to the Hare- Bhare shrine, for the family living in Ludlow Castle Road. It was so easy to board it and just as easy to get down, not as difficult and risky as doing so on a bus. Talking of buses in those days, the longest route was No. 9 from Kingsway Camp to Mandir Marg, later extended to Shadipur Depot. The tram tickets were priced at half an anna, one anna, two annas and four annas (the ticket for the longest route). In four annas, which was one-fourth of a rupee, in those days, one could buy the best parantha in Parantheywali Gali made of desi ghee, along with the sabzi of one’s choice-not just potato curry or aloo rassa. Now even the cheapest parantha costs Rs. 30. Incidentally, it was from a tram that one first saw the dancing girl’s mosque in Hauz Kazi.
There were few women and girls travelling in trams (much cheaper than a tonga or even the humble ekka), but once there were a whole lot of purdah ladies seen in burqas, singing their way to a wedding reception from Ballimaran to Sadar Bazar. The passengers were seated in three compartments, the lowest (which was the most popular), the second one and the high-priced first compartment. The ladies were in the second though some old male members of the family were seated in the higher class. As for marriage guests, it is no secret that some of those (poor cousins?) who attended the wedding of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamla Kaul in Bazar Sitaram travelled by tram in 1916. For that matter, even a famous hakim like Ajmal Khan occasionally caught a tram to reach his house in Ballimaran, discarding his doli or palanquin. A young woman teaching in St Thomas’ School, Reading Road, once went shopping for a sari in Chandni Chowk by tram and enjoyed the experience as the ride was a smooth and comfortable one, though slow-paced with hardly any chance of the fair sex being harassed or molested-something so common in DTC buses.
In 1921 the popularity of trams was said to be at its highest but soon after there was a general strike in which the tramways were also badly affected. The 1921-22 strike probably led to rethinking and introduction of city buses for an expanding Delhi a decade or so later, initially run by the Scindia Gwalior bus transport company (if one is not mistaken). At its best the tramway company had 24 trams that linked important parts of Old and New Delhi. In 1947, when the refugees from Punjab and Sindh flooded Delhi, trams ran jam-packed as many of them were eager to pay obeisance at Gauri Shankar Mandir and at Gurdwara Sis Ganj, opposite the Fawarra (fountain), named after Lord Northbrook. Obviously there were many Sikhs among them, carrying swords, spears and shields, something the local populace found intimidating, until their fears were calmed by the tram conductors who welcomed the opportunity as heaven-sent for good profits.
Dr. Ausaf Ali, who had come to Delhi from Allahabad in 1954 to join Maulana Azad’s Message weekly and later Hamdard, recalls that as a bachelor he would often travel by tram to Rui Mandi and eat kaleji (liver) and roomali roti at the shop of a man with only one eye. He had lost the other one probably in smallpox.
At a function attended by the U.K. High Commissioner, Sir Michael Arthur, at Nicholson Cemetery some years ago, O. P. Jain of INTACH, disclosed that as a young man living in the Walled City he frequently travelled by tram. But to go to Rouse Avenue, then considered a lovers’ lane by young people, he had to use a bicycle, which also came in handy for carrying a friend on the front or back of it, depending on his or her closeness with the biker.
That was the era when motorcycles were so few that they could be counted on the fingertips-and cars too were scarce.
Ahmed Ali in “Twilight in Delhi” devotes some space to the tramway which linked Lutyens’ Delhi with “the old world charm of Shahjahanabad and the lush greens of the Town Hall”. In those days the Town Hall was the focal point, for after the tramway was launched from there it was to the Queen’s Garden (now it has reverted to its original name Roshanara Garden) behind it that many went for picnics on balmy winter afternoons, cool summer evenings or rainy monsoon days. But came December 1963 and the tramway stopped operating, much to the regret of many. The girl Marion, who went to buy a sari in it, was perhaps the most disappointed, along with her companion, who had braved the crowd with her near Fatehpuri, (the starting point of the trams) one memorable Diwali day.