Old Delhi


How is it like to live in Ballimaran, an Old Delhi neighbourhood?

The dominantly Muslim mohalla boasts winding alleys, decaying havelis, crumbling balustrades, half-lit carom-board clubs, and crowded chai stalls, where people gossip over milky tea and a local dessert called habshi halwa. Ballimaran is most famous for being the final address of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. More recently in 2005, film star Aishwarya Rai swayed her hips to the chartbuster Kajra re song (in the film Bunty Aur Babli), the lyrics of which included the word Ballimaran.

Be it morning, noon, evening or midnight, Ballimaran is always toasting up in hyper energy. Madrassah children skate down the streets, bakeries send out fumes of fresh baked breads, Bihari laborers hobble along with heavy load on their head, stunningly beautiful girls shop along with their sharp-eyed mothers, and on every street, shop, corner, lamppost, you find young men huddled together, talking girls or cricket. Most of these boys are college drop outs. Most of them aren’t either employed. Yet, they all are well-clothed and all look happy. The bazaar’s background prop is made up by stores selling stylish goggles, silver chains, leather sandals and multi-coloured glass bangles – all imports from China.

Such are the scenes in Ballimaran. An ignorant outsider may mistake it for a club where no one grapples with a mean day job and where life is carefree.

Not true.

“There’s no peace here,” says 25-year-old Muhammad Asim Khan who lives in Ballimaran and had a day job till a few months ago when his company shut down its Delhi operations. I met him one late evening last week in the courtyard of Fatehpuri Masjid, a 17th century mosque built by one of Shahjahan’s wife.

“Some of those who live in Delhi’s suburban apartments harbour romantic vision of the Walled City,” Asim told me. “But here is much noise, less romance.” Asim’s house, as it happens, is in Gali Qasim Jaan, just 200 meter from Ghalib’s haveli. (The poet spent his final months there. The haveli has been turned into a memorial. Until a few years ago, it was functioning as coal storage.)

And yes, Asim knows his Ghalib.

“I’m fond of Ghalib’s verses,” he says. Young men like Asim are perhaps rare in Ballimaran. I’ve talked to quite a lot of them during my earlier strolls here and have always put the same question – “Do you read Ghalib?” Most had shaken their heads.

It’s understandable. In these times when the Urdu language has been left to rot in Muslim ghettos, when a bastardised form of Hindi (Hinglish) is celebrated in Bollywood films and when English is looked upon as the tongue of the successful, Ghalib has been justifiably exiled into the musty drawing rooms of old world fuddy-duddies who, for some reason or the other, did not go to Pakistan after the partition.

Blame Ghalib, too.

“Ghalib’s language is difficult and there are too many Persian words,” said Asim. “It’s not just the vocabulary but also the complicated way he presents his ideas.” Asim then gave me an example which, according to him, is a classic example of Urdu-Persian mishmash:

Harife matlabe mushkil nahin phusune niyaz,

Dua kubool ho ya rab ke umre khizra daraz.

[Sorry, no translation; Asim himself didn’t know the meaning!]

However, what jolted me out of my stereotyped idea that if someone is living in Ballimaran then he must only be reading in Urdu was when Asim confessed his attachment to Afro-American novelist Toni Morrison. Fancy someone walking down a Ballimaran alley carrying a Toni Morrison novel. “I read her Beloved in my college,” Asim said. “It was difficult to get a copy since there’s no bookshop in Old Delhi that sells English novels.”

In fact, Asim, who speaks flawless Urdu and almost-flawless English, is the only one in his family who reads English language books. He has a library of around 600 books. His cousins read “only a bit of Ghalib and lots of Urdu magazines”.

Asim was recently thrilled when he spotted Arundhati Roy at an event in the city. “She had poured all of herself into The God of Small Things,” he says, referring to her first novel.

But the author closest to Asim’s heart is Joseph Conrad.

“Isn’t the mood in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness very far from the kind of bustling place you’re living in?” I asked. After giving a deep thought, Asim answered: “I don’t desire the terrifying loneliness that Conrad evoked in that novel but I’ll be happier with some solitude. We have a joint family of 12 people living in a house of five rooms. Even if I shut off my room, the noise and the intrusion never stop. I’m unable to read in peace. Whether I’m inside the house or outside, there’s always a little too much of life when what I seek is a little bit of quiet.”

A long pause followed. We fell silent. Soon the muezzin’s call filled the empty courtyard.

As we were getting ready to perform the namaz, Asim told me: “When I go to other parts of Delhi like Connaught Place or the Citywalk mall in Saket, I’m awestruck by their cosmopolitan glamour. But these places shut down by late evening and they have no inner life. That nightlife and soul can, however, be always found in Old Delhi, in Ballimaran.”

I’m in complete agreement.


Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.