The Pros of Cons
Three centuries of tricksters, hawkers and hucksters around old delhi's jama masjid.
After ten years of living in Aligarh, my family returned to our native Delhi in 1964. In our absence, a local muscleman had usurped our house near Kashmiri Gate, and since no one had the time or money to go to court and try and get him evicted, we moved around for a couple of years, living in one-room hovels until my mother, a head mistress, was allocated a house inside a Lodi Estate school.
Soon after settling into the house, we developed a routine – every Sunday my elder sister Sabiha, our mother and I would take the bus to Darya Gunj to buy our weekly supply of groceries at the fruit and vegetable market. I was then in my teens and this was my first introduction to Shahjahanabad, now known as Old Delhi, the city of my paternal ancestors.
By my late teens, my younger brother Safdar and I were tasked with the Sunday shopping and I began exploring more of the city. When I was in my early 20s, whenever I had time after college I’d walk through the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad, sometimes on my own or in the company of a college friend who lived in Ballimaran – the street populated by Muslim traders from Punjab who were known as Qaum-e-Punjabiyan and had settled here in the 18th century. The great Urdu poet, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib also lived in Ballimaran until his death in 1869.
The first place that I discovered was the Sunday market for secondhand books, which occupied all the pavement space in Darya Gunj. In those days, there were proper books for sale – not the used, third-rate publications about commerce and accountancy, double-entry ledger systems, and general knowledge for competitive exams manuals you find today.
Gradually I found the extensions to this pavement bazaar. There was a market for gramophones and previously owned vinyl albums and opposite Subhash Park, was a market selling good, cheap secondhand shoes. I had long suspected that the shoes were stolen from mosques and temples, but I found out that the outlet for stolen shoes was in fact set up elsewhere.
Beyond the secondhand shoe stalls was a path that led to the steps that one had to climb to enter Jama Masjid through the Shahi Darwaza, the Royal Gate. On either side of this path and on the mosque’s steps, flourished a veritable market of all manner of eatables – kulfis, kebabs, sherbets and other foods. Amidst this sat people who claimed to predict your future and forewarn you of ill turns ahead, while next to them sat those who sold fake precious stones and rings they claimed were made from nine metals to counter the evils of malignant heavenly bodies. The rings, they’d assure you, could be fine-tuned, to take care of other malevolent entities; troublesome neighbours, relatives, a recalcitrant wife, a non-responsive beloved.
From cousins and friends who lived in the locality I came to hear about all kinds of other interesting characters, great masters of their crafts, some who were of local lore, such as the master of patey-baazi, an art similar to swordsmanship, except that instead of a sword a stick is used. I’m not sure if he existed, but old Delhi-wallahs spoke of this elderly artist who lived south of Jama Masjid. He would apparently stand on a cot while one could release as many pigeons as they wanted underneath it, and he would swirl and swish his stick so fast that the birds would remain trapped as though in a cage, and then he would allow them to fly out one at a time.
Whether or not he existed, the street artists that I saw would draw crowds with performances centred on the services they were soliciting. One such artist was a dentist with a strange twist, and what a consummate performer and trickster he turned out to be.
He operated out of Urdu Maidan, the open ground southwest of Subhash Park and southeast of Jama Masjid. He’d set up by spreading a white sheet before him and laying out a rather fascinating collection of horribly misshapen teeth, whole and in broken bits and pieces, with what looked like traces of congealed blood. He had a metallic nameplate, which had text saying something to the effect that he was a celebrated dandaan saaz, a dentist, renowned for painless extraction of diseased teeth.