down memory lane Society

In Old Delhi of the past, history and storytelling are intertwined

Anmol Chicken Corner, Urdu Bazar, Old Delhi

Anmol Chicken Corner, Urdu Bazar, Old Delhi   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Thoughts upon hearing of the Delhi government’s Oral History Programme of Delhi Archives

The State Government’s Oral History Programme of Delhi Archives, launched in collaboration with Ambedkar University, is a laudable venture, because far away from the learned tomes of historians, there is a charm in what’s often dismissed as gossip.

Old Delhi tales

I realized this during the years I spent living in the Walled City (where one of my sons was born) between 1962 and 1971. I spent some time at Azad Hind Hotel, once known as Urdu Manzil, where the marble tiles were inscribed with the words, “Ghar, Ghar Urdu”. It was there that a few Urdu poets would gather sometimes to hold impromptu mushairas.

The assembly at the hotel would discuss the mystery of the locked house in Matia Mahal where a bride was found murdered in bed on her wedding night. Also, the sensational pre-Partition yarn of the kebab seller. This man’s kebabs had cured a patient who had been told by a hakim that he had no hope of a recovery unless he ate human flesh. When the hakim was informed by the patient of his recovery, the Unani doctor asked the police to keep a watch on the kebab seller. One evening, when a labourer was carrying his heavy utensils, someone cut off his head with a sword. Believe it or not, it was the labourer’s flesh that would have gone into the making of the next day’s kebabs. The murderer and the kababiya were arrested and sentenced to death.

Folklore fellas

There were characters those days, like Karim Panwallah, at whose shop was displayed the engraved couplet, “Paan kehta hai ke sukh kar mar jaunga mein/ Ai labh yaar gar mooh na lagaya tu ne” (the paan says I will dry up and die, if my friend, you do not put me in between your lips).

While sitting at Bhure Mian’s shrine, near the Red Fort, munching Karim’s paan, I often conversed with the caretaker, Pir Yasin Beg. He used to distribute tabiz (amulets) to a crowd of burqa-clad women with children in their arms. A man not entirely devoid of rational thinking, he would sometimes advise an old woman that her daughter-in-law was not possessed by Jinns but had symptoms of TB which could only be cured by medical treatment. To another he would say, “Nobody is drinking your Bahu’s blood, she is anaemic and needs a doctor’s care and good nourishment”.

When he was free, he would talk to me and relate the story of Bhure Mian, who was a ‘fiery’ (jalali) saint. Even if a bird flew over his Takia (saintly abode) it would get burnt. Once Aurangzeb tried to test him by sending korma made of dog’s meat, garnished with dry fruits through his spiritual adviser, Mullah Jeevan, who asked what he thought of it. Bhure Mian replied, “Haram ha ya halal, tu jane, kuttey ka hai ya bakre ka tu jane” (Whether it is forbidden or permitted meat you know best, or whether it is made of dog’s flesh or goat’s you know best). He did not eat the stuff.

Listening to qawwalis at Hazrat Kalimullah Sahib’s dargah until late at night, barrister Nuruddin Ahmed, thrice Mayor of Delhi, would offer fateha (memorial prayers) at his wife’s grave. In Urdu Bazar, Mir Mushtaq Ahmed (first Chief Executive Councillor of Delhi) usually stood in his balcony waiting for a masseur to massage him down at night.


At Haji Hotel a group of old men would sit, discussing the events of the 1857 Revolt as though it happened just yesterday. Among them was a plain speaking Master Sahib, ex-wrestler; Ustad Zahooro Qazi Sahib, who had the facial features of Aurangzeb; and Mushtaq Bhai, the jarrah or herbal doctor much in demand for circumcisions.

In old Delhi, I sometimes met the eunuchs Sona and Chandi who ruled over the hearts of young men in the Turkman Gate area. At the house of Hajjan Bua in Chitli Qabar there were fanciful tales, about the two sons of Emperor Akbar, Hassan and Hussain, who died because of the evil influence of Jinns. The comet (Jharoodar Tara) that appeared over Delhi during the time of First War of Independence, and the sheet of blood seen in the sky at Agra before the Ghaddar (mutiny) was also part of the narrative.

Accho Bi was the raconteur of Gali Kababiya. Haji Zahooruddin and the shoe merchant, Mohammed Mian Akbar, used to talk of the shoe-sellers’ riot during Mohammed Shah’s reign in 1729, when the emperor’s favourite concubine, Nur Bai, lost a tooth. They were chroniclers of tales not found in books.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 12:25:26 AM |

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