The Seducing Spaces; a Journey through the Streets of old Delhi

My first journey to Delhi ended with a drizzling rain at Nizamuddin railway station on the first of July 2016. I was in the city to attend CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) two month long course on ‘Researching the Contemporary.’ Shail Mayaram’s course on ‘Islamic Thought and Debates on Peace and Violence’ was the main attraction for me to apply for the program. Aditya Nigam, AnanyaVajpeyi, Hilal Ahmed and Prathama Banerjee were also there to teach other courses. The stories of Mughal emperors and independence movement I have heard from history classes at school had created a beautiful image of Delhi that I always wanted to see and experience. It was after I joined IIPS (International Institute for Populations Sciences) a different image became visible for me. Instead of a Delhi of power, beauty, and development portrayed in the chest thumping stories of old glory, my later encounters introduced to me the images of poverty, grief, and loss that sounded more real and poignant.

Nizamuddin railway station was filled with people that evening. They were running to find a shelter to escape the rain drops. There were some street dogs in between the running passengers as if they were looking for their imagined masters. I heard somebody shouting and kicking them for blocking their way. I rushed to a nearby store to get a free space for calling my friend over the phone. He had arranged my stay at Delhi office of Markaz, a Kerala based educational institution in Daryaganj. The office also works as a student hostel for Keralites who study in Delhi University. After cross-checking price on Ola and Uber I took an auto to Daryaganj presuming myself to be fighting an imaginary war against corporates to help poor rickshaw walas.

The people, rush, rain, and uncleanness at Nizamuddin station reminded me of Paul Ehrlich’s account on his first visit to Delhi. The opening paragraph of his much-celebrated book ‘The Population Bomb’ reeds: “I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a few years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People; defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened. It seemed that anything could happen—but, of course, nothing did. Old India hands will laugh at our reaction. We were just some over privileged tourists, unaccustomed to the sights and sounds of India. Perhaps, but the problems of Delhi and Calcutta are our problems too. Americans have helped to create them; we help to prevent their solution. We must all learn to identify with the plight of our less fortunate fellows on Spaceship Earth if we are to help both them and ourselves to survive”.As a student of population studies, this account has a profound impact on my understandings of Delhi life.

On my way to Daryaganj, I was trying to delineate between the two pictures of Delhi I had kept in my mind, one of the pride and the other of the peril; between the sophisticated infrastructures like smooth highways, gigantic flyovers, and spectacular skyscrapers and the street shops and small tents on the footpaths inhabited by the outcasts of ‘shining India’. The two edges of modern Delhi can be related to two poems written in two different times.

Amir Khusrow wrote:

“Noble Delhi, Shelter of religion and treasure

it is the Garden of Eden, may it last for ever

A veritable earthly paradise in all its qualities

May Allah protect it from calamities.

If it but heard the tale of this garden,

Mecca would make a pilgrimage to Hindustan.”

Bahadur Shah Zafar, sitting on the brink of the Mughal rule, wrote:

“Delhi was once a Paradise,

Where love held sway and reigned;

But its charm lies ravished now

And only ruins remain.”[1]


It was Ramzan and Eid was nearing. The old Delhi was all set to receive the Eid. The first thing I did after a short rest and Iftar was to explore street food. My friend took me to the nearest Afghani chicken shop. There were many in the street, making circles around different food stalls. These food stalls have a significant place in the Muslim everyday interactions with other communities in Delhi. These streets have witnessed many rises and falls and clashes and riots. The first war of independence happened in 1857 has changed the position of Muslim from the community of rulers to the ruled as it marked the commencement of Queen’s rule in India. All potential voices against the East India Company were brutally suppressed. The Jama Masjid was made refugee camp. Many were killed or injured. The minarets of Jama masjid remained quiet to mourn the plight the descendants of her nobleoriginators.

In 1947, the scenario was a bit different. India got her freedom from the British rule parting the country into two. Many Muslims chose to leave India, while many others opted to stay. When the community was preoccupied with confusions and tensions of partition the Minarets of Jama Masjid blamed them for their fate. In his speech at Delhi Jama Masjid held on 23 October 1947 Abul Kalam Azad told the gathered people that all the problem they are facing is due to their own mistake. He said: “Think for one moment. What course did you adopt? Where have you reached, and where do you stand now… Aren’t you living in a constant state of fear? This fear is your own creation… If your hearts have still not changed and your minds still have reservations, it is a different matter. But, if you want a change, then take your cue from history, and cast yourself in the new mould”. I was trying to picturize the moment while I was attending Friday sermon at the Masjid. My eyes flitted around the grand Mughal architecture. After the Juma prayer I waited for the Shahi Imam to return to his room with his bodyguards. I had seen and heard him only through media before.

We dispersed with the crowd to the Meena market to buy some goodies. Shail Mayaram had made a plan to take us to the Sufi Mazars and other important sites around Jama Masjid. Since the plan didn’t work out, I had to rely on Sadia Dehlavi’s‘’The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi’ to find very important but ‘not so tourist’ locations within the city. The acknowledgement section of the book start with a prophetic saying “I swear by the God who controls my life, He loves those who awaken the love of Him amongst the people”. It is indeed saddening thatall the epitomes of divine love are wrapped up in the eternal silence of melancholy. The streets of old Delhi are filled with ‘snacks and saints’[2]. Everywhere you will find colourful snacks and mouth-watering food items and Sufi Dergahs. Both are intermingled with the everyday life of the people in the city.

The social landscape of the old Delhi has evolved through communal tensions that often developed into frictions producing deadly riots. The war of independence in 1985, the partition of India, state emergency in the 1970s, and the pre and post-Babri tensions have restructured the religious demography and geography of the area. Many have come to the city while many others have fled from here to more secure and desirable locations.  Many Muslims who stayed in the old city during the time of partition left the area during the emergency due to anti-Muslim bias on the part of the state authorities. Officials demolished traders’ stalls in the Meena Bazaar and old areas near Turkman Gate. Many moved to Muslim majority areas in the eastern and southern parts of the city. The Babri tension and related communal violence accelerated this move out of the old city during the late 1980s and early 1990s. This vacuum has been filled by Migrants from north Indian cities like Moradabad and Kanpur.

One surprising fact that came to my notice from the interaction with co-participants at CSDS is that many of those who have been there in universities within Delhi don’t know much about Old Delhi and haven’t ever visited there. Pawan Varma has shared his deep felt pain on the issue. He writes: “Educated people who live Hauz Khaz have no idea what the monument which gives their colony its name is. The same kind of historical lethargy afflicts most of those who live in and around Masjid Moth, Chirag Dilli, Siri, or Hazrat Nizamuddin”[3].  After attending Shail Mayaram’s lecture, some of us made a plan to get down at Chawry Bazar Metro station and walk through the streets to Jama Masjid. Since the area, they intended to cover is near to my room, I agreed to join them, though I had already visited those place during my first week in the city.  The dilapidated buildings and screaming rickshaws welcomed us outside the metro station. Two-three foreign tourist groups passed us while we were struggling to dive through the hustle and bustle.

The time was around 5 pm. The masjid was filled with families who came for an evening time pass. There were small kids running and screaming while their girls and boys were flying kites. The whole sky in the neighbourhood was full of kites. Their mothers and fathers watched them play sharing food and chit chat. There were also people praying and reciting Quran. The picture we witnessed inside the Jama Masjid was quite surprising for my non-Muslim friends. ‘I expected something different, a much more gloomy and silent place and after all, I haven’t expected women inside.’ One of them didn’t hide her feeling. Jama Masjid seemed more like a tourist place than a place of worship for all of them and indeed it is both.

Jama Masjid was once the centre of Muslim politics in postcolonial India. The eleventh Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Abdullah Bukhari turned the masjid to a powerful political tool in the Babri issue. He installed a notice board in Urdu to make the people aware of the awful story of minorities, especially Muslims in India. The Imam closed the gates of Jama Masjid Jama for regular prayers in 1987 to demand that the gates of Babri Masjid should be opened for Muslims. Babri Masjid had been occupied in 1949 and opened for restricted worship for Hindus in 1986. After Friday prayer, the Imam delivered an emotional speech. The people returned, chanting slogans and gradually there came a communal clash in old Delhi. It was the first Babri Masjid riot. On 15 June 1986, a new Muslim organization, the ‘Adam Sena’ was launched by Ahmed Bukhari, the elder son of Abdullah Bukhari. Donation boxes were implemented around the masjid to collect financial support for the party. The main aim of the party was to protect Muslim heritage in India, including Babri Masjid. Old Delhi again experienced communal clashes in May 1987 following Meerut riots in which the PAC killed at least 35 Muslims. After Eid prayers on 28 May 1987, Abdullah Bukhari declared that Jama Masjid will be closed from 4 June 1987. An enormous black cloth was wrapped around the minarets and domes of the mosque to show the protest against the government. A large banner in Urdu, Hindi, and English, inserted at the main entrance of the mosque. The banner read: Protest against extreme atrocities & barbarism Jama Masjid, Delhi shall remain closed till guilty police officials are severely punished, all innocents arrested are immediately released. Not verbal but practical assurance for the security of life and property for future is made. May 28, 1987.

The closure of the Masjid sparked many controversies.   Darul Uloom, Deoband, issued a fatwa saying that the move is un-Islamic. The Imam refuted this charge criticising these fatwas as Sarkari Fatwas. On 13 June 1987, Jama Masjid opened as the government assured the Imam that a departmental enquiry would be initiated and those who were arrested would be released. Hilal Ahmed, analysing the whole event, has pointed out an interesting aspect of the target group of the closure to make the event impactful. He notes that Jama Masjid is surrounded by a large number of mosques that can provide enough space for offering Namaz for the local Muslims. The Jama Masjid is the main part of the Delhi tourist packages. A large number of tourists, including foreigners, visit the mosque. This was the people mainly affected by the decision. This also helped to send the message to the international community[4].

Delhi Metro has now been completed construction of its Jama Masjid station. This helps the visitors escape the congested and untidy street of Old Delhi. When the usual connotation of modern development links with height and upward escalations, it takes an opposite direction here; A downward movement from the above old decaying city to the extension of modern New Delhi.  Apart from the grant Mughal monuments, what remains in Old Delhi is the people with the nostalgia of glorious past. Raza Rumi in his travelogue ‘Delhi by heart’ writes: “The Old Delhi-walas cling to memories of their glorious past with a sentimentality that feeds into the melancholy. This clinging defines who they are and gives them a sense of identity and security within a world in which they have been left behind Similarly, all sad scenes of their daily lives such as the poverty, squalor, the human drama at the Sufi shrines, beggars, street scenes and lifestyle are perpetuated almost as if these are loved, their melancholy perpetuated as a collective statement of identity.”

It is interesting to note that it is still the residues of Mughal past that attract people to the streets of Old Delhi. People come here to see the Mughal monuments, experience the best cuisine, and pray at Sufi shrines. These three attractions mediate day to day interaction between socially and spatially segregated religious communities in the old city. Ajay Gandhi notes that the transgression to different communal spaces in everyday life makes the boundary porous. He finds Hindus who complain about the hygiene and smell of the Muslim area still come there to have food and haircut. He writes “This feeling was, among Hindu residents in Old Delhi, common: a sense that Muslims’ sensorial dispositions were radically incommensurable with theirs. Some scowled when noting the billowing smoke that hung over the Meena Bazaar, coming from charcoal used to cook pieces of goat meat and liver; others talked of their unease with seeing disembowelled carcasses of animals hanging outside butcher shops or bloody goat’s heads as they picked their way through Muslim neighbourhoods. And yet this did not stop Hindus from going to chicken-fry joints or kebab stalls located well inside the Muslim mohallas of the old city.”

On an evening I received a call from Nivedita, my batch mate at IIPS(International Institute for Population Sciences). She has been working in Gurgaon. I had posted on my facebook informing that I would be in Delhi for two months along with my contact number. We planned to meet up at Dariyaganj after her office hours. The next day she came to Daryagnaj and told me that she often come to this place to have cheap and tasty non-vegetarian food, especially the Kababs and butter chicken. Qureshi Kababs corner was my favorite Mughal food center ever since I got introduced to their Kabab. We decided to have Kabab and headed towards the shop situated near Jama Masjid. The rain had filled the road with murky water, and the footpath was occupied by stray dogs and beggars. “Mashkoor, do you know how Adam’s apple decides our movements?” She asked me while I was struggling to find clean spots on the road. I couldn’t make out what she is trying to say. “Our life is a struggle between two apples; one is Adam’s and the other is Newton’s” She continued after a pause without waiting for my answer. There is something that will pull you so hard so that you can’t resist yourself from getting them. Those are Adam’s apples. Newton’s apples are those things that will always fall on your head no matter how much to try to avoid them”. That was an interesting observation. We had reached the Kabab center by that time. I placed the order and waited for her to complete. “You know what” she continued “These Kababs are the Adam’s Apples of Old Delhi, no matter how  much the untidy surroundings, beggars, and stories about criminals in the area tries to stop you from coming here, these Kababs will tempt and pull so hard to this street.” Her statement made me wonder how the man-made spatial distinction between different communities are being deceived by the seducing Mughal cuisine in Old Delhi.

  1. Translated by Raza Rumi
  2. The phrase is borrowed from Samuli Schielke book ‘Snacks and Saints. Mawlid Festivals and the Politics of Festivity, Piety and Modernity in Contemporary Egypt’
  3. Varma, P. (1997, May 7). Imperilled Heritage. Outlook.
  4. Ahmed, H. (2013). Mosque as Monument: The Afterlives of Jama Masjid and the Political Memories of a Royal Muslim Past. South Asian Studies29(1), 51-59.Muhammed Mashkoor is a research fellow at Ma’din Academy, Malappuram. He has earned his master’s degree and MPhil from International Institute for Population Science (IIPS), Mumbai. His research areas are Muslim population and Islamophobia in India and Modernity and south Asian Islam. He is currently working on Muslim marriages in Kerala.
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