If walls could talk, Suraj Kanya Shikshalaya, a school for girls in Naiwara, might have told us hair-raising tales of Nadir Shah’s invasion. R.V.Smith fills us in

Chandni Chowk’s gullies and kuchas harbour many a secret. Take Naiwara, to reach which one has to pass through narrow lanes criss-crossing each other in which two men can hardly walk abreast. It was in such gullies that Nadir Shah’s soldiers got caught after they were ordered to massacre the citizens of Delhi in 1739 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., when Mohammad Shah threw himself at Nadir’s feet and begged for mercy; “Delhi’s streets are flowing with blood and every able-bodied person has been mortally wounded or has perished. If your wrath has not yet abated, you will have to put life back into the corpses that have piled up to renew the slaughter (qatl-e-aam), oh mighty warlord,” he pleaded. That sobered down Nadir Shah and he asked his Persian troops to put back their swords in their scabbards. However during that “Tandav nritya” (dance of death), places like Naiwara by and large escaped the bloodbath, as access to them was so very difficult. Moreover the constant barrage of missiles in the form of stones, iron utensils, millstones (chakkipat) and boiling water and milk thrown from the high-rise buildings forced the rampaging soldiers to retreat and not venture deeper. Such a scenario was witnessed again more than 100 years later when the British made the final assault to recapture Delhi.

Patni Mal-ki-haveli is a landmark in Naiwara, which now houses Suraj Kanya Shikshalaya. The first Suraj Kanya presumably was Surajmukhi, Prithviraj Chauhan’s daughter, for whom the first storey of the Qutub Minar (later built upon by Qutubuddin Aibak and Iltutmish) is believed to have been erected so that she could see the Yamuna at dawn and worship the sun. Now the 350-odd girls studying in this middle school are all considered “Surya Kanyas” and lavished with such love and affection that they never think of leaving it till passing out. Patni Mal was a wealthy merchant of Chandni Chowk whose two-storied, spacious mansion was later handed over to nearby Indraprastha Girls’ School in 1924 by Lala Jagan Nath for running its primary section. The school, reached through Chawri Bazaar Chowk via Nai Sarak and Chipiwara, still retains its old world charm, like the Rajasthani-style balcony and canopy above the main entrance in marble, with intricate designs, pillared rooms and arched verandahs. Now after renovation it is a mixture of the old and new. The courtyard, where once purdah ladies danced and swung on rope jhoolas at the Teej festivals or celebrated Janmashtami, Diwali (with a hundred earthen lamps) and Holi (when rainbow colours blotted out even the sunlight), is now the place where the students assemble in the morning to welcome the new day with a song before entering their classes.

And what unique classrooms they have — arched with exquisite dallan-type enclosures that breathe of the 19th century. In one of them was a well, a deep one, from which water was drawn before Delhi got its piped water supply. The cool water of the well was a blessing in the summer months, when there were no refrigerators. In the aftermath of the revolt of 1857, when a lot of wells in the city had been either poisoned or had corpses of the slain dumped into them, such mansions as this haveli were a real oasis for the thirsty as the wells were hidden inside the living rooms. Now since the wells have lost their utility, the one in an ante-room of the senior classes has been closed, says the principal, Manjula Sharma.

She leads one through the classrooms and up a flight of stairs to the roof, where too classes are held in newly-built rooms, with a wire meshing to keep out monkeys which are a real menace. Before the school came to be housed here, there were probably kaua-haknis (women who chased away crows) and men employed to scare monkeys. But now it’s the meshing that keeps away these marauders.

Standing in the balcony one imagines the time when husbands hiding behind their big-Rajasthani-skirted wives watched the Persian soldiers looking for human fodder for their swords, which were drawn out when the huge one of Nadir Shah was unsheathed at Sunehri Masjid, near the erstwhile Kotwali, opposite the Fountain. “So long as my sword is out of its scabbard, kill everyone you come across,” were the invader’s words. But now what one sees is a long queue of parents waiting for school to get over so that they could escort their children back home in the nearby or far away kuchas. “These are bad times,” remarks 90-year-old Narain Prasad, president of the managing committee of Indraprastha Girls’ School, the parent body of Suraj Kanya Shikshalaya, “when even young girls run the risk of abduction or molestation. So no one wants to take chances.”

As one descends from the balcony through a narrow staircase, that also breathes of old times, one cannot shake off the feeling that after seeing the bloodbaths of 1739 and 1857 the inmates of this haveli (though some wonder if another one stood here then) must have hurriedly descended through it to take refuge from the killers who had been let loose in the city. Now, of course, it’s the girls who run down this staircase to rush into the arms of their waiting parents.