The story of a bazaar inside Delhi Gate, of going back to revisit memories
‘Delhi Gate’ reads the Urdu lettering in dull gold above the massive archway in the brick wall. I cross the arch and step into another time, another world.
But just before I do, I stop a moment to look at the familiar, beloved lettering on the arch before stepping in. Which Urdu script is it that forms the metal letters, I wonder. My grandfather, resident of a lane a stone’s throw away from where I stand would have been able to tell me in a jiffy. But he, and the worlds he inhabited, are no more. And this is why I am here today, to remember, to revisit, to pay homage to the days that are long gone.
It is a late Sunday afternoon in May. The weather should be prohibitive. And erstwhile, it was, too. But today, the gods are smiling down and conspiring with me. Until just yesterday, a merciless sun beat down on the earth, but today it is very pleasant indeed, and I am swept into Delhi Gate on a gentle wind.
Here I pause, on the brink of all that is too familiar, almost afraid to find out how much has changed in the world beyond the massive entrance, in the span of 10 years or more that it has been since I last walked down this road. So far, the signs are comforting enough. The scattering of shops just outside are the way I left them, nothing has changed; the goods they sell are still inexpensive shoes and plastic ware. And inside, too. As far as the eye stretches, the shops, and the merchandise displayed have remained unaffected by the passage of time. Nostalgia beckons the moment I step into the bazaar: it is a strangely bittersweet instant when I spot the rather fancy Tobacco Shop/Tambakoo Waley signboard in an elegant chocolate brown. This shop, hitherto unadorned by such a signboard, is where my grandfather used to purchase his tobacco.
I am relieved, indeed, that the years have been kind enough to leave much unchanged. Even the ubiquitous rehri peddling pink biscuits, rass and bakarkhanis is parked under the arch, in the shade. As if it never moved from here as the years rolled by. But then, I am the outsider, I am the visitor.
The stretch of bazaar from here to Chowk Sunehri Masjid, known as Kashmiri Bazaar, is best known as the area that has the Masjid Wazir Khan situated in it. Of late, with the conservation projects undertaken in this area, there has been upsurge in touristy footfall. And interestingly, footfall of another kind too - the Wazir Khan Masjid has also become a chic spot for holding nikkah ceremonies. All this is a bit too la-di-da for me, though. I hold dear my rather commonplace memories of this being the go-to bazaar, in close proximity to my grandparents’ place, for purchases like bewitching, multicoloured khussas that shimmered magically like something out of Aladin for me, a child who lived in Africa. Summertimes could not be complete without a couple of visits to this bazaar. If it was nani who was to take me to the bazaar, out came the white shuttlecock burqa, through which she held my hand. I wander lazily back in time. It is, after all, an unhurried afternoon.
On either side of me, right and left, are the same shops, selling shoes, clothes -- all kinds, household plastic ware. You will not find many odes to sophistication; in fact, it has been a while since I saw these garish floral blankets and shiny trousseau bedsets, and velvet gao takiyay in red, navy and plum, studded with little gold beads. There is a pan shop, with a newly-painted signboard, but which, nevertheless, displays ice-cream cones that are even today of an oddly orange hue. There are a few surprises, too. I cross an ATM machine point, and the sight is odd - it seems so out of place here. There is a fellow vending a variety of earphones, and another one who has a cellphone cover stall. Reminders that no matter how much you may want to turn a blind eye to it, time does not stop moving.
The changes that I do see, put in place by the authorities, are a cross between rehabilitation and modernisation. The road is a little wider, it is certainly cleaner than I remember, and it is paved with what seem to be tuff-tiles; fortunately, these blend in and do not have an obtrusive effect. The Shahi Hamam presents an exterior that is rather spotless, with its small-brick, pale sandy walls. The facades of the double to triple story houses have been given a monochromatic wash of sawdust-hued paint. While this certainly gives a neat appearance, it also feels uncharacteristic of these lanes, which are a jumble of colour and form, merging and growing organically. Order has no place here. Even today, women stand chatting in the narrow alleys, and men can be seen playing cards. I remember, back in the day, being told in a conspiratorial tone by an older cousin that they were playing ‘jooa’, the implication being that some nasty business was going on. The curiosity of what was going on faded later; adulthood has its way of taking away the mysteries of life.
Still further down the road we go. While most of what I see is what I remember, the sights and sounds remain the same, but the flavour has changed, subtly. Through the second, much smaller arch - this one has not been taken notice of by the conservationists, it is derelict, the small bricks crumbling -- and I am taken entirely by surprise. The Wazir Khan Masjid, in all its splendour, now stands proud, extending as far as you can see, bereft of all the encroachments to its glory. It is a magnificent sight, indeed, and one that I am glad to say, still transports one back in time… as far back as one wants to go.