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.
One day, while between errands, I stopped to see him in action. The “famous dentist” began his show by announcing that anyone with a problem tooth could come to him and have it extracted for free and that if those with healthy teeth didn’t want to suffer from the pain caused by a rotten tooth, they should, from this day, begin regular use of his magical tooth powder that made teeth rock-hard. This tooth powder, he said, was made according to a recipe that one of his ancestors had learnt from a great sage that required rare medicinal herbs collected from the Himalayas and inaccessible forests.
He then spoke of times gone by, when people enjoyed long, healthy lives free of vice and took extreme care of what they ate. Only women and sissies ate sour stuff, he said, and real men guarded their virility and didn’t allow their taste buds to rule and ruin their lives.
A dramatic pause, a look directed towards heaven, and then came the indictment. “But now all that is gone forever, men are no more distinguishable from women. They eat like them, they are slaves of their taste buds and their digestion is all shot to hell and when your digestion is gone, nothing remains as it should – your teeth begin to rot and gradually become useless. And when your teeth are rotten, you can never be healthy.”
Now establishing eye contact with his audience he began an extremely graphic narration of what happens when someone has bad teeth, starting with the terrible odour that emanates from the mouth, he moved on to describing the symptoms in detail; the infected and bleeding gums, swollen jaws, an inability to chew and the sharp searing pain that shoots up from the jaws and tears through the brain when you try to.
This went on for a while. And each word made his audience cringe with the imagined pain.
After, he asked if there was anyone going through this intolerable pain. Fixing his gaze on someone he said: “Are your molars not swollen? Doesn’t a part of your meal always lodge itself in places you can’t reach? What is there to be ashamed of? Come to me! I’ll fix it in a jiffy. My family has been performing this magical treatment for decades, it does not hurt – I guarantee that it will be painless.”
Then pointing to an array of dangerous-looking pliers and instruments he said: “Don’t be afraid of these! My family has not used them for four generations. ‘How do we do it then?’ you might ask. We do it with a handkerchief. No pain, no blood, not now, not later.
“If anyone who comes to me for extraction feels even a bit of pain I’ll give up this profession this instant and become a beggar. So come, have no fear. It is free. I do this as a social service; the great sage who taught my ancestor the formula for the tooth powder, warned him, if he ever asked for money to help a man in pain this magical powder would lose all its properties.”
From a corner someone raised a tentative hand and the famous dentist zeroed in on him with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile.
“Yes, yes. Come on, come on now. Let everyone see you. There is nothing to be ashamed of, it is not a disease that you have to hide. Come on now.”
The crowd encouraged the reluctant man, parting so that he could make his way to the middle of a circle.
The famous dentist made the patient squat, asked him to open his mouth wide, and inserted a grubby finger in his mouth and probed: “Is it this one? Or this one?” Suddenly the patient shouted and the dentist said: “Tsk Tsk, what have you done? It is all in a mess, thank God you came to me. If you had gone to those fashionable fellows in Darya Gunj or Chandni Chowk or in New Delhi, they would have milked you dry.”
Quickly, he turned to his audience and a long diatribe about modern medicine followed – its ill effects, its costs – and about forgetting our own traditions and aping the West. And suddenly he whipped out a grubby handkerchief from his pocket, wrapped one finger in a part of the cloth, swiftly bent down, his finger went inside the patient’s open mouth and a tooth promptly flew out, landing near the famous dentist’s feet.
The patient looked completely surprised, put a finger in his mouth, probed the place and nodded his head in wonderment.
Someone asked him: “Does it hurt?” “No,” he said. “Is there any bleeding?” another asked. The man spat on the ground – not even a speck of blood. The dentist smiled benignly and said, “Go my son. Do not eat sour stuff and avoid too many sweets and take this tooth powder, this too is free for you.”
The patient was immediately forgotten after his 15 seconds in the spotlight as the dentist turned to address the crowd. “Raise your hand if you want this magical tooth powder. Five rupees for the large bottle, the smaller one for three rupees and two rupees for the littlest. I don’t have any change so give me ready cash. Come on now. Today is my last day in Delhi, tonight I leave for Bengal and you won’t see me for another year.”
All this while he was brandishing the bottles, handing them out and collecting money. Shortly thereafter, the crowd started to disperse and the famous dentist began to wrap up. I too left to finish my errands for the day.
A couple of days later, I returned to the same spot and the dentist was there again, weaving his magic. Wondering why he hadn’t gone to Bengal I stayed back to watch. He went through the entire routine again and when he got to the part where he asks if anyone wants a tooth extracted, from either end of the crowd, two hands went up. He asked the one to his right to step forward. The one on the left looked like someone I’d seen before. My thoughts kept going back to him, then suddenly, I recognised the man. He was the patient from a few days earlier.
This was a nice operation. “Famous” dentist, two or three assistants, a tooth hidden in the hanky, a signboard, some broken teeth, animal or human – who cares – some discarded dentistry instruments, probably bought from a junk shop, and bottles filled with some concoction that the audience believed to be magical tooth powder.
As I later learnt, the famous dentist was only one of the many fascinating and colourful performing con artists who lived by their wits and made a quick buck playing on the superstitions of the naïve and the gullible.
An account of Delhi dating back 270 odd years shows that similar performers to those that I saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s also existed back then. A most remarkable young man named Dargah Quli Khan travelled with Asif Jah I, the first ruler of Hyderabad, to Delhi and left behind a great record of daily life in Delhi between 1737 and 1741. He was there during the sacking of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739, which contributed greatly to the decline of the Mughal Empire. In the chronicle, he writes about the activities that took place at the peshgaah, the forecourt, or the area immediately outside the Delhi Darwaza – one of two main gates of the Red Fort – known then as Chowk Sa’adullah Khan, from which ran the path to Jama Masjid. It was this route that the king took whenever he decided to offer prayers at the mosque.
Sections of the chronicle were published in Persian in 1926 and translated into English in 1989 as Muraqqa-e-Dehli (The Mughal capital in Muhammad Shah’s time) by professors Chandra Shekhar and Shama Mitra Chenoy.
The muraqqa, meaning album, presents a lively description of the goings-on at the chowk, a ten-sided polygonal structure with a fountain in the middle where a “sizeable crowd” that came from all over, congregated daily, and among the “beautiful lads dancing” and those plying their trade – the geomancers and astrologers in their tents, gem sellers, storytellers, magicians, sleight-of-hand artists and others – were the hakims, the traditional physicians and medicine men. Dargah Quli Khan writes:
Even the doctors and Hakims, wearing expensive clothes and conical caps sit on their colourful carpets at their respective places and sell multi-coloured pouches which are supposedly a variety of medicines but are in fact just muck. [...] There are medicines which help join bones, cure pimples and arthritis, rheumatism, and venereal diseases especially gonorrehea and bubo, the talk of which generates a lot of excitement. Then, there are special potents to make people virile. People are willing to pawn everything they own for the sake of these magical cures and the Hakim, by the sheer force of his words is able to make them part with their money and hands over to them medicines of membrum virile which will increase their [the buyers] power of sensuality and these cuckolds leave for their houses in a state of euphoria. [...] Ointments of crab and sanda, sand-lizard fat [used as an aphrodisiac] which form a part of an antiseptic cream [can be seen] hanging from threads and is being sold to whosoever requires it.
When I would visit this locality, sande ka tel, the fat of the sand lizard, a rather lazy and slow creature that was incapable of righting itself if it fell on its back, was a common sight among the goods for sale. The presence of the sand lizard hanging by its tail also signalled to passers-by that the fellows dealing in aphrodisiacs could not be far. The line of fake doctors who sold the so-called aphrodisiacs, were the most prevalent, and probably the most lucrative of these crowd-pulling enterprises.
The fairly widespread sexual ignorance, absence of sex education in schools, the privilege granted in Indian traditions to celibacy – Brahmcharya – all fed into this ignorance, and those selling sande ka tel cashed in on the insecurities this situation bred.
These artists were much like the “famous” dentist when it came to setting up their stage by displaying their wares and tools of their trade: bottles filled with all kinds of concoctions, a couple of snakes preserved in alcohol, a magnet covered in fine iron shavings, some twisted bits of wood, charts displaying the male genitalia, things that you might find in Gray’s Anatomy.
I remember one such purveyor of these potency drugs who would mobilise his customers by sharing a simple formula with the crowd. “The human sperm,” he’d announce, “is the most difficult thing to create in the human body.” He’d describe the process thus: “You have to eat 40 rotis to get one drop of blood, 40 drops of blood form one drop of bone marrow and 40 drops of bone marrow make one drop of sperm.”
Having established this rule he’d look at his male audience accusingly: “This is what you lose when you masturbate, when you think bad thoughts before you sleep and have wet dreams. You become weak, your cheeks sink in, your ribs begin to show, your back aches, you are afraid of getting married and if under family pressure you do agree, you are not capable of performing and your wife begins to hate you. There is no peace in your life and you do not know what to do, suicidal ideas surround you all the time, you have no interest in studies, business or your job. All this is your own doing.”
The crux of his pitch came down to, like the dentist, an age-old secret recipe he’d acquired.
He’d tell the crowd: “Do not worry. I have the secret formulas of the Mughal kings and the maharajas. Each one had several wives and yet they had no problems. This happened because an army of physicians worked tirelessly to ensure that the king was never found wanting in this department.”
Scores of rare and mysterious ingredients went into the medicine, he’d say, before divulging some of them – saffron, shilajit or mineral wax, raisins, roots, ash produced from the burning of gold, silver, iron and copper and powdered pearls.
Whereas the dentists relied on hard and fast sales, the aphrodisiac apothecary had to make provisions for the bulk of his customers, who were likely too ashamed to buy his product in front of a crowd, so he told his audience that anyone wanting the special medicine should hang around for a bit or come by later on. In the mean- time, he peddled a cure-all ointment that could help with backaches, joint pains, dizziness, shooting headaches and insomnia. “Do not forget,” he’d remind those gathered, “I will be here till sunset and you can come back for the ‘other’ medicine.”
The men who sold these power potions have now been replaced by many sex clinics in the area, indulging in spreading the same kind of superstition but making more money than the street performer. For a short while, right after the Saur Revolution in Afghanistan in 1978, there was an influx of burly Pathans, dressed in white shalwar kurtas and black jackets, who would arrive every morning, spread out a carpet and neatly arrange a large number of big and small jars, filled with a dark, almost black halwa. They spoke a strange mix of Urdu and Persian but managed to communicate through gestures and through pointing constantly to their bulging biceps that the stuff they sold would produce the desired results. They managed rather well, but were soon to disappear.
But you can go to this area today, more than 270 years after Dargah Quli Khan described the scene, where I saw the now absent performing dentist in my youth and college-going years, and the activities continue, although in a much more modified form.
Cross Netaji Subhash Bose Marg, take a right at Dangal Maidan and walk down the path that leads to Jama Masjid. To your left will be the Akbarabadi mosque, demolished by the British in the aftermath of 1857. Continue towards Jama Masjid and you will find people sitting on both sides of the path, most of them nomadic tribal women, from states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, dressed in their traditional attire. It was probably their forefathers that Dargah Quli Khan was talking about. They are people whose ancestors have, likely for centuries, specialised in selling herbs and all kinds of traditional medicines that they gather from forests, and sell what pass for aphrodisiacs now.