R.V. Smith weaves a yarn around the quirks of some elderly folk who added to the character of the Walled City
There are little folk, smart folk and poor folk but old folk have an aura of their own. Rai Bahadur Mitthan Lal was a rich businessman of Old Delhi in the pre-World War years but he was known for his stinginess. He would keep the letters he received, tear out the blank portion and keep it with the envelope on his table rack, where other such stationery was preserved. If he had to write a note, he would use these, saying that paper was too precious to be wasted.
Dr. Murarilal of Daryaganj was an early riser who, along with his friend, Hakim Abdul Sattar, would play hide-and-seek in Edward Park, flitting behind trees and bushes in the morning and perspiring and breathing hard in the process. The philosophy of the two was that this helped to correct blood circulation and toned up the body after a nightlong rest.
Khan Bahadur Akhtar Adil was a well-known man in the seven mohallahs he represented in the Municipality who had the habit of going to the park and after taking off his clothes get his body massaged for half an hour by any masseur who happened to pass by. It was rumoured that he was gay and had himself massaged even before falling off to sleep. No wonder a masseur made off with his wallet, gold chain, watch and ring one night. His friend, Lala Bishambhar Das, however, preferred an early-morning swim in Bakshi-ka-talab, after which he would teach youngsters the art of staying afloat in water with the help of toombas (big dry gourds). F. Z. Khan, addressed by one and all as Bade Mian, used to carry a cotton roll in his kurta pocket and if he found a balding man catching forty winks in Queen’s Garden, opposite Delhi Station, he would make a thin ward of cotton wool, put it on the snoozer’s forehead and set it alight. When the man got up, with a start, Bade Mian would laugh and say “fakta ur gayee” (the dove has flown). The person who was generally the butt of this joke was Pirji, whose real name was Pandit Narsingh Rao Dixit, but he was mistaken for a maulvi because of his beard and his habit of saying “Yah Allah” before almost every sentence he spoke.
Dilliwallah (few knew his real name, Fida Mohmmad) used to take contracts for weddings at which his men cooked the most delicious food. Dilliwallah had a French-cut beard, dyed with henna, which he was in the habit of stroking while his men were busy making pulao, zarda, sheermal and korma. A fair, big-built man, he smoked the hookah until evening, when he would start drinking from the two bottles the person, who had engaged his team, had to supply along with the hefty amount for the work. Dilliwallah was active until 1947, after which he disappeared, (probably migrating to Pakistan) but people still remember him as the best bawarchi the Walled City had in those days.
Alamgir Sahib, with his long nose, bent neck and white beard, reminded one of Aurangzeb. He was a freedom fighter who is said to have drawn Mir Mushtaq Ahmed into the independence struggle. The stately man was highly respected but behind his back people made fun of his penchant for mispronouncing park. “Parikh gaye thhe” (I had been to the park) he would say, swinging his walking stick. Alamgir went away to Karachi, where he died, complaining, like the poet Seemab Akbarabadi, that the bad air of the place had killed him (Karachi ki hawa ne mar dala). His body was flown to India and buried at Fatehpur Sikri as he was a devotee of Sheikh Salim Chisti, from whom he claimed descent.
Cyril Ireland was the English and maths teacher in a reputed local school. He always carried a cane to class which he sometimes used on errant students. But in the evening he would take out his tum-tum, whip the horse into a fast trot, and drive to the club where he had three pegs of whisky and dinner before driving back. One fine day Ireland just disappeared and it was later learnt that he had enlisted for World War II. He was wounded at Flanders and came back a cripple to his native Bettiah in Bihar. A fellow-teacher was Joseph E, whose wife ran away with his khansama as he used her the wrong way.
Jailor Sahib and his friend Naine Joseph spent hours sitting under a neem tree and drinking black tea as sugar and milk had become expensive during the war, along with matches and salt. Joseph’s wife, Looni was a thin whisp of a woman who outlived both the Jailor and her husband. At the age of 90 one found her picking twigs below the trees in the church compound to light her sighri. Once a man named Illias came to exorcise a girl, who disclosed that she had been possessed by a chudail, who lived on the peepul tree. The exorcist told the spirit to go to Looni. Believe it or not, Looni died the same night aged 98 and the girl, Sheila recovered and went back to school. Such were the old folk 75 years ago.