Of mad sahibs in the Red Fort hovels

Legend R. V. SMITH wonders if hovels can come up in front of the Red Fort again like they did post-1857

The Red Fort square is cluttered with all sorts of vehicles now, but there was a time when mud houses made this place a veritable jhuggi-jhompri colony. That was after 1857 when Bahadur Shah had been banished to Rangoon and the fort placed at the disposal of the British troops. People who had been uprooted during the uprising found shelter in mud hutments, which led to the formation of slums right up to Kashmere Gate.

The Tommies shuffling between the Kashmere Gate and the fort found these slums attractive because in some of them women of shady character had made their abode.

A story doing the rounds those days was about a sahib who had adopted native attire and customs, much like Jelaluddin (Joseph) Mackintosh, in the Shimla of the 1880s, a neo-convert to Islam, bowled over by Eastern mystique.

He was in the same mould as the Scholar Gypsy commemorated by Matthew Arnold in a poem that echoes the Oxford tradition of a student keen to learn the ancient lore of gypsies who had one day just disappeared from the university. He was however seen sometimes gazing at the spires of his alma-mater in the twilight. Another comparison that comes to mind is that of William Lyons of Charsoo Darwaza, forever in bed because of the effects of the local brew he imbibed in large quantities. Yet he was once a man of substance and a much sought after ladies’ man.

The sahib one was talking about also used to be in his cups all the time and had become a permanent guest in one of the hutments. He sired some children too (like William Fraser, the British Resident had done earlier) who were fair with blue eyes, but could speak only the Khadi-boli dialect of Hindustani, along with some swear words in English.

The sahib was carried away by force many times to the British quarters, and when that failed to curb him, he was confined to the care of the padre where he confessed that he had become a convert to Islam and had nothing to do with the church in which he had been baptised in England.

It was the progeny he had fathered that made him take that step, he confided. The man was ostracised by the Europeans but that made little difference to him, for if, he felt like it, he could still recite the prayers he learnt at his mother’s knee when the muezzin gave the call for azaan from the distant mosque, because the conversion was only skin-deep.

Junglee Sahib

They called him “Junglee Sahib”. What his real name was nobody knows. Could be he was the model on which Kipling based his eccentric character Jelaluddin Mackintosh.

The hovels are gone now and so also are the “ladies of the night”, and in the mad rush of life in Delhi today one cannot even think that such houses existed on the Kashmere Gate-Red Fort stretch of the main road and that their occupants called out to the Tommies in such coaxing tones that they couldn’t resist their overtures. Nobody laments their disappearance, for they must have been a nuisance even in those days. But when the bands blare out in front of the fort at practice sessions every afternoon, it makes one wonder.

Considering the numerous weddings in the Capital, could there come a time when the resultant population explosion would force people to make such hovels in front of the fort again? From the fort to Shah Jahan’s mosque is a risky walk because of the heavy traffic on the intervening road. The emperor used to stroll here with his courtiers after Friday prayer. Can one do so now to hear the seven-voiced azaan — seven muezzins raising the cry of Allah-ho-Akbar at Maghrib time every evening? It makes you long for the Jama Masjid ambience whether you are Jelaluddin Mackintosh or just a curious passer-by!

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