R.V. Smith walks through familiar lanes of Old Delhi, missing the warmth of an era long gone

The death of the 23-year-old girl in last month’s sordid rape case made one impetuously take a walk (a risky venture not worth repeating) through Old Delhi’s roads one night and it made one, though well escorted, vividly realize the many dangers lurking in the dark. Nothing moved, except the leaves of the trees in the cold winter breeze. Even the street dogs were silent, lending an uncanny setting to the midnight scene. The dim shapes of the houses and the eerie whistles of policemen transported one to some horror film, notwithstanding the man taking a woman to J.P. Hospital in a rickshaw. Not a shop was open in Daryaganj. Gone were the panwallahs, the chaatwallahs and the all-night tea stalls, where one could pass the night without unduly worrying about the lateness of the hour. It was in such chai-stalls in the 1880s that Rudyard Kipling used to sit and write some of his Plain Tales from the Hills. But those were safer and more leisurely times when rape or other crime on the roads was rare.

Here in the Capital in the first week of January 2013 instead of the street musicians, who once entertained those coming out of cinemas and restaurants, one saw a taxi, followed by an auto and a private bus, tearing down the road. Wonder if anything weird was happening in them! In Chandni Chowk one saw Pahari chowkidars strutting about in oversized overcoats. They mark the shop shutters with chalk late in the evening and follow the numbering at night while on their beat to keep a special watch on shops owned by jewellers and bullion merchants and other ones selling costly items. On the pavements, despite the cold lay homeless people who had not been lucky enough to find space in the Rain Baseras for the vagrant. Sometimes patrolling cops shine torches on their faces. Occasionally an absconding suspect is detected in these night checks and promptly frog-marched to the police station. Men away from their wives for long and found with runaway youngsters are also hauled up thus, though not every night. Some are innocent as they are only trying to keep warm by huddling close to those sleeping nearby.

Outside Gauri Shankar mandir a sadhu sits intoning a prayer but Malini, who sells flowers there in the day, is perhaps deep in slumber somewhere. In Azad Park one found daily wage-earners braving the cold in the open, while an old man with a nasty cough squatted on a drain. At Kalimullah Sahib’s mazar the Kashmiri garment sellers and woodcutters are hardly found now because of security protocols. The oldies who used to be seated around bonfires, like biblical patriarchs, are missing too and so is the smell of meals being cooked under trees. Instead one hears some ditty from the hills sung by a watchman.

The Jama Masjid looms large in the distance (the Red Fort behind one’s back) and not even the waning moon, trying to peep through the fog, can throw any light on it. There are some hardy souls on the eastern steps but only four or five bearded namazis on the steps facing Matia Mahal, waiting to offer Tahajud prayers. Going past them one reaches Barsha Bulla and Chawri Bazar area. From an alley, a woman wrapped in a shawl suddenly emerges and enters a half-open shop. Perhaps a girl from G. B. Road, where the Red Light area was moved after Partition. Or may be a shopkeeper’s wife returning from a neighbourhood Milaad Sharif or religious recitation to her shop-in-home. Even so it is foolhardy to be up and about at night in these unsafe times. In G. B. Road itself you find a few loiterers, hiding in the corridors or behind lamp-posts, because of the fear of the Kamla Market police who are always on the lookout for such seekers of cheap pleasure. Probably these men hope some dancing girl, desperate for money, would open a window, espy potential customers and beckon them to her quarters, up paan and vomit-stained stairs that are dimly lit to ensure privacy of those who use them. But sometimes they slip as the staircase is usually a broken one with discarded garlands strewed on it.

Crossing over to New Delhi station from the Ajmeri Gate side, one sees people sleeping on the platforms in the hope of finding “first-come-first served” accommodation in the trains they are expecting to catch early in the morning. Men, women and children are among the sleepers. Kidnappers sometimes carry away a child from their midst, leading to a hue and cry afterwards. And once in a while a girl is abducted, or even a young married woman, and one doesn’t know what fate befalls them. Once, one saw a beggar woman being thrashed by a cop at the station on suspicion of being a pickpocket. Another time, on a summer night, a man who had bathed at the station hydrant was seen wearing a petticoat (his wife’s?) while rinsing out his shirt and underwear, with hardly anyone else around to giggle at the sight. But on a winter night nobody dares to bathe in the cold, not even hardy passengers, who have no other option but to cling to one another for warmth. While outside the station, people taking late-night risks keep coming to grief – an accident, a robbery, a murder, a kidnapping and rape, like the ghastly incident in December.

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