Delhi at 100!

Today is the 100th birthday of Delhi and I believe there is some kind of a birthday bash going on. The print media has been very active over the whole year, highlighting the history, the transition, the present conditions etc. There have been essays, reminiscences, photos and as I read them I realized that I have been part of this history for more than half of those 100 years.
My introduction was in 1955 summer, when I arrived from Kerala, with my mother and 2 younger brothers to join my father. He was a civil servant who had moved from Kerala to Delhi a year earlier, to be part of those early days of nation building. After struggling to find his feet, he had managed to get transit accommodation and had arranged for us to join him. It was no mean journey for my mother, to travel from a remote village in Kuttanad, all the way to Delhi with 3 children of 8 and 4 years and 6 months. I don’t recall the journey from Kottayam to Madras, but recall vividly the GT Express journey from Madras to Delhi, escorted by a young male cousin.

And for the first few months we stayed in a one bedroom ground floor flat in South Avenue and then we moved to the D-II flats in West Kidwai Nagar. I don’t remember the details, but have many impressions and memories of those times. Those who know me would have heard me recounting these many a times. For those not familiar with Delhi, South Avenue connects South Gate of Rashtrapati Bhavan with the Viceroy House at Teen Murti, which was where Jawaharlal Nehru lived. There was no traffick to talk of and, the children were allowed to play on both sides of the road. On many a cool summer evenings and sunny winter days Panditji, the then Prime Minister of India would leisurely proceed home from his offices at the South Block or Parliament House in a horse drawn buggy with a driver and a footman. And often, he would stop and pick up a few of us children, and give us a ride before dropping us off a few hundred yards down the road. I don’t remember anyone else except us children lining the roads to see him, or parents showing any surprise when you went home and declared that you had had a ride with the prime Minister of India!!

Kidwai Nagar was a less interesting locale as it was newly constructed, and “remote” location. Beyond the limits of Lutyen’s Delhi, where Prithviraj Road, Tughlaq Road and Safderjung Road meet, there was only the Safderjung Tomb, Safderjung Airport (the only civilian airport in Delhi) and a couple of miles beyond, the Safderjung Hospital. In fact, when we moved there, the colony was called Safderjung Colony and had 64 houses, of which ours was the last. Across a single lane road lay the hospital, a maze of single storey barracks. So, for that short period, we lived in probably the last house in Southern part of Delhi. There was the famous railway crossing just beyond the airport, which seemed to always close as we were due to arrive – it was there till 1982 and that was one of the first fly overs built for the Asian Games. My father was told to be careful not to come home late as the dark, forested stretch between the airport and the hospital was deserted – I am talking of the stretch that now has Laxmibai Nagar, INA market and Dilli Haat.

Across the road from our house in the distance, we could see the chimneys of various pottery works. One of them Bawa potteries, used to be quite famous. These would be about where the AIIMS trauma Center is now located. Our childhood games of ‘Stapoo’ and ‘Seven tiles’ used the flat, colorful pieces of ceramic that we picked up and there was competition amongst us as to who had the most colorful collection. The prominent landmark of that part of the town, the AIIMS hospital complex, was under construction.

My father and a friend would drive to Sabzi Mandi on some Sunday mornings 9took him 30-40 mins) and share the purchases of veggies and fruits. On their return a stopover for a glass of cold beer at Volga or Gaylord was part of the routine. I checked and these restaurants are functioning at the same locations – have not heard of anyone visiting them for ages, though!  As children we were seldom taken out anywhere except to visit friends or to Kwality on Parliament Street for an ice cream when visitors came. That, too, is still alive and kicking.

In early 1957, we moved to Satya Marg or Chanakyapuri as it is better known. These were flats that were constructed as part of the preparations for the UNCTAD meeting, which was the first major international meeting hosted by independent India. The Ashoka Hotel and the Vigyan Bhavan were two other buildings that were built in time for this meeting.

By this time my father had acquired a second hand Fiat and the outings were not so rare any more. The best remembered ones were to Khan Market, the nearest shopping center for us, and a visit to Faquir Chand or Bahri and Sons, again Institutions which have survived the huge changes that Khan Market has seen in recent years. The highlight of the year used to be to select a book on special occasions like birthdays. The left hand corner shop used to be an all purpose grocery store (the name I forget, probably Modern House) which had a small branch on the round about where Teen Murti Marg, Race course Road, Safderjung Road, Ashoka Road and King George’s Avenue (now called Rajaji Marg) converge. All that has disappeared and Race Course Road has been lost to house the current Prime Minister.

The highlight of winter was always the picnics – Qutab Minar, Tughlaqabad, Humayun Tomb and Badhkal and Dum-Dama lakes. The road to Qutab Minar took you past the village of “Yusuf Sarai’ and some of these other destinations were far outside the boundaries of the city.

The bus trip to school at Goldakana (Convent of Jesus and Mary) took only 20-25 minutes in those days in the early 60’s. And then I graduated to Pre-medical at Hindu College – the U special to North Campus took 45 minutes or so in 1964-65. I spent the latter half of the 60’s in the Maulana Azad hostel and our leisure at week ends included walking to Bengali Market for chaat and to Connaught Place to see movies. The matinee at Regal, Plaza and Rivoli was at 3.30 pm and cost Rs 3.50 for the balcony seats. The first mess bill I paid in 1966 was for Rs 63 and I think in 1971 I was paying Rs 110.

I moved out of Delhi in the early 70’s and thereafter visited it sporadically. Each visit had a purpose and it was often, to and from the railway station to fulfill the purpose the trip. For a brief period in the late 70’s my parents moved back to Delhi from Hyderabad and there were a few longer trips. Later, one saw the airport  (Palam which became Indira Gandhi) more often thatn the railway station. Recently, I have returned to live in the national capital area (NCR) after many decades.  I venture into Delhi only on occasions – the ridge has almost disappeared and many landmarks look different or have been lost. On a recent visit to Delhi, I took my mother to see the houses where she had lived, at South Avenue, W Kidwai Nagar and Satya Marg. While the first and the third are remarkably unchanged over almost 50 years, she could not relate to the Kidwai Nagar flat – sitting now on the 6 lane super-busy Ring Road. However, many areas have been preserved and some have even improved. It is still wonderful to drive through Lutyen’s Delhi and see how little has changed. Every part of New Delhi hold memories of yesteryears and for me it is the closest i have to ‘roots’!



7 thoughts on “Delhi at 100!

  1. This is wonderful and inspiring me to write my own little post on Dilli, where I have spent most of my adult life!! I find your memory is sharp and precise…you really should write more and get published. a book about the delhi of your childhood backed with research and all the colourful people of the time would be great!!

  2. I came to Delhi Four years back, before that I have visited many times…… Roaming around the city has always been very exciting, and now reading this on how it was almost half a century back was amazing……really loved reading it..

  3. Very nostalgic! This prompts me to record my memories of Delhi, too, which I will do in good time. I too happened to visit Delhi for the first in 1955. It was so different.
    I agree with the comments of Meena.Autobiographical writings are always so interesting.

  4. It was good to know where all you spent your childhood in Delhi. Some of the best places I must say!
    It is easier to know Delhi now. It was not so easy to move around in the sixties and seventies. It was like a Leviathan and one couldn’t dream of knowing it from end to end. I think we are living in the best time of Delhi. The Moghuls may have had it better but I am not sure.

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