Nostalgia is a city to which we travel back, time and again. It may exist in the present in the form of sepia tinted photographs, but our memory usually brings alive places, people, and prominent moments from our beloved past in all their sensory peaks and with hundred per cent color saturation.
It is the same for me, with my Delhi.
My childhood was spent in two very contrasting neighborhoods: one comprised the spacious boulevards of the North Ridge, the other the tightly packed lanes of Old Delhi. Our house lay at the edge of the former, where it met the latter. My father, with a touch of humor, used to say, “My neighbors are rulers: the governor of Delhi is on one side and Emperor Shahjahan is on the other.” He meant the official home of Delhi’s lieutenant-governor on the gentle undulations of the Ridge, and the Red Fort, seat of the historic Mughal Empire inside Old Delhi, respectively. I moved happily in both worlds.
It was funny, how after growing up and living in other parts of Delhi, I not only missed the sights and sounds around my childhood home and school—one of the city’s oldest existing schools, dating back to 1899—but also my neighborhoods’ two pin codes: 110006 and 110007. These starkly different landscapes were then the heart of the city, and I am so glad that I grew up there.
A common question asked in India is “which place do you ‘originally’ belong to?” It means ‘you’re here now but where is your ancestral home?’ I proudly answer that I am a fourth-generation Bengali (an answer that sometimes elicits a deferential “oh” because people from this east Indian state have a reputation for intellect, artistic talent, and cultural finesse. I was brought up in a cosmopolitan yet traditional Bengali way of life. Being probaasi (Bengalis settled outside Bengal) ensured that my family wanted their kids to be completely rooted, yet to have wings strong enough to feel unencumbered by tradition. This made a big difference to how we came to view the world, and has been a major contributor towards building great adaptability without any feeling of loss.
Thanks to its spread around the official workplaces of the city government, Delhi-7, where my home was located, was like a small town: high on aspirations, beautiful, verdant, and spread-out. Many of the city’s oldest trees (still) reside here. The lush Qudsia Garden, an 18th-century palace complex built for a Mughal royal lady, had doub palm trees, and my father and I used to go there in the early morning hours to gather fallen fruit. Sweets and pancakes marinated with coconut were then made at home and distributed in the whole neighborhood.
I remember when I accompanied my mother to her friend’s place on Bela Road, opposite the Yamuna riverbanks. The back garden of the bungalow, full of flowers, rabbits, a lotus pond, and ducks, was perfect for me to run around. So much color and fruit filled my heart with a big smile that expressed itself on my face. Because I’d been made to believe that only the evil pluck flowers from trees, I collected just those that lay on the ground, and made a huge bouquet for myself. The enjoyable moments spent playing with ducks next to the water sparked a dream to have a lotus pond in my own house one day. To my good fortune, I managed to engineer one 30 years later!
The Delhi-6 streets near my home were dotted with food vends. Many of these are considered mashoor (famous) for the sole item they sell. Mitthan Lal Halwai’s aloo puris, served in terracotta cups and topped with tangy pickle and dollops of curd, were a breakfast special. Another favorite was the amazingly crunchy, freshly baked naan-khatai cookies. With my father, I got to know the narrow lanes and mashoor food outlets, some of which are getting explored now by Delhi’s food-walk specialists.
My Marwari (a Hindu trading community) school friends introduced me to kanji. This is a tangy drink that aids digestion and immunity. It is made of sliced black carrots, which are kept in a pitcher filled with water and spice mix, and fermented under the sun over many days, resulting in an oh-so-lovely texture and aroma. The Delhiwallah’s drink for pepping up a placid day, kanji is my all-time favorite. I love making it and keeping the whole pitcher to myself—absolutely not shareable, much to the resentment of my family.
Kishore Kumar’s (a legendary Bollywood singer of yesteryears) song breezed into my life as a lullaby through my father’s voice: “Aa chal ke tujhe main le chalu ek aise gagan ke tale …” (“Come walk with me, I’ll take you under such a sky where …”). It was only after some years that I came to know the original tune of the song, which turned out to be quite different from how my father sang it! But the composition in its totality? … What a masterpiece indeed! Meena bazaar, an old market near Shahjahan’s Jama Masjid (Mosque), was where I used to search for long-playing vinyl records of Kishore’s renditions, and a lot of my time was dedicated to hearing this one voice only. In fact, I used to change the record’s label from HMV to MMV, that is, “My Master’s Voice”, by attaching a sticker! Many of my memories are thus not only about places but also the mood evoked by those songs.
Our home, with huge ceilings and stone floors, had a verandah which was way bigger than most homes these days. The house was not fancy, but it was warm and full of laughter, especially when all the neighbors came to play badminton. My parents, extremely social, had many gatherings that were simple yet made remarkable with lifelong friendships.
The horizons of the city as a whole have expanded, and the landscape has changed massively. In some areas, the trees, flowers, birds, and jackals of the past have disappeared. Homes and shops were then fewer, and there were many barren patches of land onto which we could wander off. Most schools that have come up later cannot dream of having playgrounds as large as my alma mater. We walked, or took a public bus which came after a long wait—but always did. We roamed the city like kings with just a tenner in our pockets. Life was simple, and I was blessed to have both the brown of mud and the green of leaves around me in ample amounts before much of the cityscape turned gray with concrete.