The Capital has often reflected the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots.
Delhi’s affluence is the envy of lesser cities, with some families owning so many cars that parking becomes a problem even in well-planned colonies. Moreover there are advertisements galore exhorting the wealthy to buy the best of jewellery to flaunt their riches (ameeri ki shaan, khushali ki pehchan). No wonder robberies are on the increase, sometimes with dire consequences. It is worth mentioning that before Shah Jahan moved to Delhi, and then following the death of Aurangzeb too, people faced a similar situation, poet Mir Taqi Mir heard hungry princesses crying in the Red Fort post-Nadir Shah’s 1739 invasion. The scene worsened after 1857, so much so that it prompted a foreign visitor to remark that “everybody in Delhi seems very poor”. Thanks to the British prize agents (who fleeced the rich too) beggary flourished. “Delhi between Two Empires” by Dr. Narayani Gupta states: “The local English newspaper urged the municipality to ‘remove’ the chamar and jat women beggars.” Such comments were not taboo then. Incidentally, Nazir Akbarabadi’s candid couplet, Sabh thaath padha reh jayaga/Jab laad chale ka banjara (cushy life will end when the gypsy carries away the riches), was later to become the theme song of the leftist Indian People’s Theatre Association actors.
Gupta goes on to say in her thesis that “removal of beggars would have involved removing the acute grain shortage and high prices” (so evident now too), but one abjectly poor community, largely women, who did not display their distress, partly out of a sense of pride, and partly, from a deep-rooted fear of the British, were the Mughals. When the S.P.G. (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) Missionaries began their work of educating girls in 1867, they made some headway with the Muslims of the Delhi Gate area and the Mughal princesses living in the ‘nests of native hovels’ near Mori Gate, the outcome of the fall of the Mughal dynasty for hovels had come up in front of the Fort too (like the present slums around posh localities). In 1861 the situation was so grim that “eight thousand people queued for meals daily at the Idgah asylum”.
In 1868, the Rev. R. Winter of Fatehpuri church wrote to a Miss Bullock: “The servants are all crying out for an increase of wages.” Because of the bad times thieving thrived. Though the Europeans in the Civil Lines employed Gurjar chowkidars as a compromise, not everybody could do so. Houses were robbed every night and the police were helpless. Begging even by those of good families was quite common. One woman, who was slapped by an irate English lady, hit back saying, Khabardar, badshahzadi hoon (beware, I’m a princess). Even in the 1940s those going out shopping were pestered by beggar women who ran after their tongas crying, “Mai, give a paisa, my children are hungry”. They would catch hold of a “memsahib’s feet” and not let go despite the tongawallah swinging his chabuk (whip). After the hurly-burly the beggars left satisfied before sunset.
A separate entity were the fakirs at the Kotwali in Chandni Chowk. Early on Sunday a bearded man, who looked like a retired munshi, and an old woman with an imitation necklace, would plead with those on their way to church (Baptist or St Mary’s) for a “pleasing gift in the name of the God you are going to worship”. Sometimes policemen in mufti joined them. A nawabzada got the shock of his life when he saw his maternal uncle seeking alms with eyes closed and outstretched palm. The next day the mamujan came to his haveli and admonished the nephew for disturbing him during duty. CID Inspector Sarfaraz Khan was pretending to be a blindman while pursuing a murder case and did manage to nab the suspect eventually. The Capital now too has lots of impoverished people, some of them professional beggars, in a scenario reminiscent of bygone days. But at that time there weren’t so many neo-rich with cars abounding in Delhi!