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Inside a Dilli straddling past and future

The recent beautification drive in a part of Old Delhi has left those who live and work there ambivalent. What does it take to rebuild a heritage city that houses the old world and the new?

The 1.3km pedestrian-friendly stretch, paved with red sandstone and granite, which extends from the Red Fort side to Fatehpuri Masjid—the main Chandni Chowk thoroughfare
The 1.3km pedestrian-friendly stretch, paved with red sandstone and granite, which extends from the Red Fort side to Fatehpuri Masjid—the main Chandni Chowk thoroughfare (Pradeep Gaur )

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Mohd Idris often feels like he’s stuck in a time machine. Sometimes, when he’s dusting strands of hair off a client’s neck or running a comb through their locks, his 75-year-old eyes wander to the entrance of the gali (lane) that houses his open-air barbershop. It’s one of the streets of the Chandni Chowk area, one of Delhi’s oldest and busiest markets, which finds space both in historical texts and modern-day tourist guides. When he was setting up shop at the same corner in the 1960s—complete with a wooden chair, a 3ft-long cabinet, a stained mirror and a snacks box full of nuts—a tram used to ferry people from near Red Fort to Jama Masjid. The men would be dressed in kurta-pyjama; the women in saris and salwar-kameez. The sky was bluer. People had time to chat. You could charge one anna for a haircut or a shave and still happily run a household of four (today, Idris charges 70 for a haircut).

Havelis, the sprawling old residences that were home to large families, were not hidden behind dangling wires. The hamams in barbershops were open to all those who could afford them. The Mughal-era area was known for its food: from a bedvin-aloo breakfast to daulat ki chaat in winter and the meat dishes of the Jama Masjid area. Its shop owners were courteous, offering cups of tea and snacks as you shopped in leisurely fashion.

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If Partition saw an exodus, it also saw an influx of refugees who made homes there for themselves. Over the years, the area became known for its wholesale markets: Kinari Bazaar (for anything and everything related to fabrics), Dariba Kalan (the “it” place for jewellery), Chawri Bazaar (for brass and copper articles plus wedding invites). You could buy everything from paper to mukaish, while relishing the flavours of a chaat-papdi or fresh-from-the-tandoor kebabs.

Mohd Idris, 75, at his open-air barbershop in a Chandni Chowk bylane
Mohd Idris, 75, at his open-air barbershop in a Chandni Chowk bylane (Pradeep Gaur)

The streets were not choked with traffic and encroachment. “Now it’s just smoke, rickshaws and crowds,” says Idris in Hindi, his smile rueful as he adjusts the flat cap that matches the blue jacket he’s wearing. His smile becomes wider: “I know you must be thinking I am such an old-fashioned person but there’s a piece of our history in every corner of Old Delhi.... But now everyone wants everything new, rebuild a shop, turn havelis into modern houses.”

He hastens to add: “There’s nothing wrong with it; you have to keep up with the times. But don’t you think these (modern) designs will one day take away what Purani Dilli is all about?” Without waiting for a response, he goes on, “I think it’s that road’s doing.”

He’s referring to the 1.3km pedestrian-friendly stretch, paved with red sandstone and granite, which extends from the Red Fort side to Fatehpuri Masjid—the main Chandni Chowk thoroughfare. Part of an ambitious redevelopment project, implemented by the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation and Delhi public works department, Chandni Chowk’s central artery—now peppered with benches, plants and CCTVs—was inaugurated on 12 September by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal in the hope of reviving this part of Old Delhi.

A walled city, Shahjahanabad (now known as Old Delhi or Purani Dilli) was built over 1,500 acres by emperor Shah Jahan in 1639; it had 14 gates. During the British Raj era, it was home to people from countries as far as Armenia and Portugal. Today, when Shahjahanabad has become a heritage quarter, it remains cosmopolitan. Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Christians—it’s the home as well as office address of over 300,000 people of many religions and ethnicities. But it’s no longer the city the Mughals built. Now, it is trying to sustain itself any way it can. In 2008, the Delhi government, in keeping with the requirements of the Master Plan of Delhi 2021, set up the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation. But change has been slow.

The swanky Zam Zam Perfumers shop near Jama Masjid
The swanky Zam Zam Perfumers shop near Jama Masjid (Pradeep Gaur)

Four months after the inauguration of the Chandni Chowk thoroughfare, the residents are ambivalent about the project: Some like it, others don’t, but everyone agrees it’s not enough.

Before the Omicron variant of the coronavirus forced everyone indoors again, the footfall in the markets here had gone back to pre-pandemic levels. New visitors, curious to experience the change, were drawn in to shop, eat and browse. Some shop owners remodelled their showrooms after September to resemble those in sleek, upscale south Delhi markets, in tune with the more sanitised, modern look they thought customers would prefer.

Wasim Illahi of Wali’s salon, a 130-year-old establishment in a lane near Jama Masjid, for instance, decided to introduce hi-tech chairs and tools in October to better serve a list of clients that had started including people from distant areas in and around Delhi, like Pitampura, Noida and Ghaziabad.

Swanky, colourful Parisian-looking cafés, with names like Ebony Cafe and The Delhiités Cafe, serving Mediterranean and Chinese cuisine, popped up in an area where even the most ramshackle shop could offer the taste of a lifetime in a 100 plate of mutton korma. Today’s customer, it is believed, wants variety, accessibility and comfort, and the younger generation wants their family business to meet those expectations.

“Yes, business became good (before Omicron hit us). Yes, footfall increased. But it’s just one road. Go inside the by-lanes and you will see how Shahjahanabad is falling apart,” says Chandni Chowk market association president Sanjay Bhargav. “The modern architecture many people are going for now, to stand out, is just hurting the aesthetics and the cultural heritage of our area. Imagine a stark white square building next to a Mughal structure.”

(Left) Mohd. Arshad, a tailor, at his 100-year-old family shop in Old Delhi
(Left) Mohd. Arshad, a tailor, at his 100-year-old family shop in Old Delhi (Pradeep Gaur)

Old Delhi is one of the richest centres of culture and heritage in Asia. Close to a decade ago, an attempt was made to make it part of Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites; the proposal was withdrawn by the government. It’s home to two worlds—one stuck in the past; the other, hungry for new. In one lane, you will find a century-old 3x4ft shop, where a 34-year-old tailor is resisting a smartphone because that could mean learning the modern way of living and working. Fifty-five steps away, you will land in front of a designer store that started using social media extensively to expand business after the pandemic hit. At one trisection, depending on which path you take, you might reach a grave that some residents maintain belongs to a beloved goat, stumble on a spot with five people toasting rusk in a wood-fired oven, or meet two brothers who are carrying forward a century-old family business of making fresh bread pakodas on a cart. The backdrop to all these scenes, no matter which street you are on, is a dilapidated Mughal-era haveli or the crumbling facade of a colonial building, dangling electric wires and residents who can trace their roots to the 17th century. It’s easy to get lost in the chaos of the narrow streets.

In effect, Old Delhi has been losing the race with decay for decades. Businessmen’s newfound obsession with what they perceive as modern aesthetics—a shiny all-white store with red square windows—in a lane of houses and shops that still carry the past in their facades can leave you confused; so can a Mediterranean-style restaurant that overlooks the Jama Masjid and offers the taste of waffles and mojitos. Omaxe is building a mall in the area.

“It’s like the government has put talcum powder on Chandni Chowk and called it redevelopment. It just stops at beautification,” says Divay Gupta, principal director of the architectural heritage division at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) in Delhi. “There has to be a mandate in terms of how people can build in a heritage place like Old Delhi. Yes, I agree it’s their private property and money but it’s coming at the cost of something so precious. We are staring at a complete loss of an integral part of Indian history. I don’t understand why the government is moving so slowly on this.”

The second phase of Chandni Chowk’s redevelopment plan, which includes a facelift of Netaji Shubhash Marg and the Jama Masjid Road, is stuck over budget approval issues. Despite repeated calls and mails to officials of the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation and Delhi’s public works department, there was no response to questions related to the project.

Can there be a way to rebuild Shahjahanabad so that there is space for both the old and the new?

Let’s step back in time

Na tha shehar Dehli wo tha chaman-i-Dilli

sab tarah ka tha wahan aman

wo khitab iska toh mit gaya

faqat ab to ujda dyaar hai

(Delhi was not simply a city— a garden it was

What shall I say of the peace that it had

They have erased all its repute

Now it is simply a place laid waste)

Today even Dilliwalas would find it hard to identify with these words of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, which find mention in writer-historian Rana Safvi’s 2019 book, Shahjahanabad: The Living City Of Old Delhi.

Shahjahanabad was built between 1638-49. It was home to a variety of specialised bazaars: a Meena Bazaar (dedicated to women); the Urdu Bazaar (once dedicated to literature; it was destroyed in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny and now survives only as a location); Jauhari Bazaar (housing gems and jewellery sellers); and Paranthe Wali Gali, famous for its parathas. The silvery glint of the stars in the flowing waters of a canal gave the square its name, Chandni.

After Partition, it became a bigger commercial hub, when many people appropriated abandoned havelis and turned them into katras (shops). Places like Lajpat Rai Market became a hub for electronics.

“What used to be the centre of the city has now been reduced to a slum. It could have been a (Unesco) Heritage Site but that would have meant taking care of it as one; the authorities wouldn’t have been able to build big structures,” says Swapna Liddle, a historian who has spent two decades studying the old city and is the author of Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City Of Old Delhi. “We are focusing too much on the aesthetics of a lane. Sandstone won’t solve the problem. That road was always broad; regulation was missing and still is. We need to look at the development as a whole.”

She adds: “The commercial aspect has expanded over the decades. It has been run down over the years. There’s also this impression that it’s a Muslim ghetto, there’s a fear of the other, especially in this polarised climate. There’s too much neglect.”

Intach’s Gupta suggests Puducherry as a model. The authorities there managed to retain the indigenous architectural design while making the French and Tamil quarters shine and sprucing up the adjoining area. “Rebuilding a heritage site takes consistent management and monitoring. It is housed in a traditional fabric. Even Amritsar is a good model but I am not a big fan of the Rajasthani look they employed. Internationally, the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham (UK) is a good example, where the government supports the local businesses to keep the heritage alive,” he says. “For any heritage redevelopment programme to work, you need to involve the community, ask them what they want. Else people will start leaving. And soon gentrification will start, which is a bittersweet medicine.”

Sanjeev Sharma often considers moving out of the Katra Kushal Rai gali, where his family has been living for generations. Sunlight barely reaches the street level as buildings crowd in from all sides. “It’s unhygienic, crowded, the infrastructure is falling apart. The conditions are pathetic,” he says.

“It’s difficult to leave because our work is here, our whole life has been here. The new road in the market has addressed problems of waterlogging and sewage but new problems have risen,” says Sharma, 47, who, along with three brothers, runs the famous Natraj Dahi Bhalla shop in Chandni Chowk. The problems he lists are shared by many other shop owners in the area: More homeless people have entered the area, making shelters even in lanes, defecating there, even allegedly engaging in unlawful sexual activities. Parking has become a bigger problem for some since the thoroughfare is now a pedestrian zone through the day; commercial loading/unloading can take place only at night. “They solved old problems and created new (ones). They should have consulted us,” he says.

“Even the CCTVs installed are not working. It’s a good thing that there are safai karamcharis (cleaners) all the time taking care of the space but what’s the point if our women don’t feel safe? We never had much crime here barring some pickpocketing but the homeless make us uncomfortable. And what about the rest of the lanes, who will fix them?” fumes Rajesh Thukral, who handles his family business of kitchenware at the 1940s’ Punjab Steel House.

Just like Sharma, who recently renovated his café above the Natraj shop, using only black and white aesthetics for a “Mediterranean look”, Thukral went for an all-white look to resemble an “upmarket south Dilli showroom”. “My son (27) suggested we should go for a modern look, customers will get more attracted. We, in fact, discussed for long with our interior designer whether we should go for a traditional facade or a modern one. But I think people will get bored of the same Mughal-type look.”

Even Noman Salman Kharodiya, 30, decided to open a new outlet of his 30-year-old ittar family business, Zam Zam Perfumers, four months ago in Jama Masjid, with white and gold as the theme. “We wanted to give a mall-like feel, grab the attention of the millennials who can get the joy of going to a mall in Jama Masjid itself,” says Kharodiya, who lives in south Delhi and comes to Old Delhi to work every day. “The little redevelopment that has happened has really made the place more attractive for tourists and youngsters."

Restaurant Shahi Mehfil near Jama Masjid combines the charm of the old and new world
Restaurant Shahi Mehfil near Jama Masjid combines the charm of the old and new world (Pradeep Gaur)

To make his café more appealing to younger customers, Sharma added sandwiches, shakes and mocktails to his earlier offering of chaat and south Indian cuisine and even ensured the cutlery was all “modern white”. “We can be easily spotted from outside, among the crowd of shops. Plus it’s the government’s job to take care of the city’s history and infrastructure, not ours. So I think the look works and we got good feedback.”

It is this kind of attitude among those who live or work there that once irritated M. Mehtab Raahi so much that he had a heated argument with a neighbour in Jama Masjid’s Sheesh Mahal area, home to about 100 families, who refused to throw their garbage in the community dustbin. “For two months, I ensured the colony garbage went to the designated dustbin but they just refused to listen. It might seem like a small thing but conserving a place starts with its residents,” says Raahi, who organises heritage walks and helped this writer explore the nooks and crannies of the old city.

Gupta agrees: “For example, you can have a modern shop on the inside but create a traditional facade that gels with the area you are in. It’s about taking the past in the present so that it can be carried to the future.” When it comes to heritage conservation in terms of architecture, three things are essential: infrastructural upgrades, minimal intervention to ensure the authenticity of the building, and socioeconomic benefits to the people living there so they continue to participate in its upkeep. “For instance, the government can offer shopkeepers some incentives to follow certain guidelines in terms of designing their properties and ensuring cleanliness in the area,” Gupta adds.

Liddle insists that the culture of a place depends on the way people interact with each other and the world around them, not just on the infrastructure.

Athar Nawab and Fahad Nawab’s restaurant Shahi Mehfil, in a narrow lane near Jama Masjid, is a good example. Started in October 2021, it now also has a fine-dining space, offering Mughlai food, with an ambience that honours the place it lives in. The scribbled poetry of Mirza Ghalib, who is associated with the area, old Jama Masjid photographs on the wall, a map of Old Delhi on the ceiling and an Afghan-style sitting area seamlessly bring together the era gone by and the sanitised demands of today’s customer. “We didn’t want to let go of the Old Dilli charm. That’s what makes us unique,” says Fahad, who, along with his brother, was in very different businesses, ranging from garments to spices. Both have been long-time residents of Ballimaran. “But yes, we did realise that the customer wants a place in the crowded Jama Masjid where they can eat without any worry about hygiene and comfort. So our focus was on those elements.”

The revamped 130-year-old Wali's Salon  
The revamped 130-year-old Wali's Salon   (Pradeep Gaur)

Wasim Illahi too kept this in mind when he renovated his family’s salon. Like Zam Zam’s Kharodiya, Illahi, 38, went for a white-gold design palette that offered “a bit of minimalism and extravagance”. “It’s more an Arabian kind of vibe,” he says. “People can relax while still feeling they are in Purani Dilli.”

Save for some extra car parking—a demand of everyone spoken with for this story—Illahi has given up on any hope of development of his part of the city, half a kilometre away from the redeveloped thoroughfare. “A few days ago, there was a spark in an electrical pole in our colony. Some people who were not from here started shouting and we kept standing there silently because we are so used to this chaos,” he recalls. “I think we have become numb to this chaos. Maybe we have given up hope that Old Delhi will ever be reconstructed.”

Mohd Idris hasn’t. After our interview, he took me to a gali with huge blackboards covered in Urdu text. It was a prayer, reminding one to have faith in humanity. After translating it, he said: “No matter how much we try to erase our past, we can’t erase the fact that our present exists because of our past and we carry it with us with every breath we take.”

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