Tuesday, May 23, 2006

This cowboy song is all I know...

When it’s as hot out as it’s been, the sky bleached bone white by the sun, this is a Western town. The weary cowboy walks down an empty street past the shuttered shops of Malcha Market, as the sheriff in khakhi and his deputies play cards in a patch of shade.

The cowboy walks a lonely road, which becomes lonelier still, when he leaves behind the big white houses of the goddamn Yankees and past the crossroads, enters the wilds. The road is a thin track now through thorny Mexican acacia and thick undergrowth. Even a town sleeping in the heat of a Sunday afternoon makes noise, but nothing carries through the trees in the stifling dry stillness. The road is long and he is thirsty, dreaming already of water. The road crosses the dry bed of a vanished stream, and then a well appears by the side of the road. Excited, he jumps up on the old stone of its rim, only to see a few car tires in the dried mud at the bottom of the six hundred year old structure, and pigeons nesting in the arches.

But from atop the well, he can see past the trees to some flags, limp in the heat. The flags flutter over a dead man’s grave. People are paying their respects. The cowboy climbs up the steps to where the grave is, and walks up and down, and realizes that the grave is atop a massively thick stone wall, half buried, and stretching further than the eye can see in both directions, well into the undergrowth. If he wasn’t a cowboy he’d say ‘cyclopean’.

- That’s a tall wall, he says, to the man with the cracked spectacles who sits smoking.

- Yep. It is.

- What is it?

- Used to be a dam. Stretches all the way from Dhaula Kuan to Karol Bagh.


Mirages are known to occur in the heat, and now I can’t get images of a Delhi filled with water out of my head. The laconic man’s statement about the dam stretching from Dhaula Kuan to Karol Bagh wasn’t much of an exaggeration. In Firoz Shah Tughlak’s time, there was a whole chain of check dams, embankments, tanks and wells along the length of the Ridge, storing the water running off the slope of the Ridge, and channeling it to a series of orchards and gardens. Some names survive – Talkatora, Jor Bagh, Karol Bagh. I look out wistfully at the dry land behind the dam. Perhaps when it rains one can get a glimmer of what it would have been like to have so much water in Delhi. These days, with the pump running four hours a night, growling through my sleep, the overhead tanks run dry every day.

Beyond the mazaar, a massive orange and white dish antenna rises through the trees. This is the ISRO earth station, listening to satellites up in orbit. Right next to it is an old Tughlak hunting lodge known as Malcha Mahal, occupied for the past twenty years by a family claiming descent from the rulers of Oudh, and their dogs. Wearied by the constant attrition of journalists arriving to chase an interesting feature, they are, to put it mildly, anti-social.

But that’s another story. The cowboy turns his back to where the space age and the royals out of time are neighbours, crosses a dryness dancing with the mirages of remembered water, and returns to the grave. On the side of which is written –

Aagah apni maut se koi bashar nahin

Saaman sau baras ka, pal ki khabar nahin.

No man is forewarned of his death.

Enough baggage for a hundred years, and not a moment’s notice.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

new delhi railway station 2

We stood halfway up the busy stairway leading up from Platform 5 of the New Delhi Railway Station, looking at a pile of blankets in a nook formed between the angled asbestos roof of the platform and the concrete walkway over head, throbbing with the passing of a thousand feet. ‘I used to sleep there’, Javed said, ‘I had two quilts, three blankets and five friends.’

I was part of a group on a walk through New Delhi Railway Station and Paharganj by Javed and Shekhar, both young men in their very early twenties(?), both of whom had been ‘street children’ for several years, having run away from faraway homes to come and live and work and dodge policemen among the trains and tracks and roofs and platforms of the station. They were now with the Salam Balak Trust, which had given them, and hundreds of other children like them, and opportunity to move on from that life. But they were revisiting that life now, and showing it off with a fierce pride.

The children at the railway station make their living mostly as rag and waste pickers, pouncing on the detritus of journeys, on the discarded plastic of mineral water bottles and food packaging. Their biggest threat is the policemen (With You, For You, Always) who thrash the children every chance they get. So the kids don’t wait on the platforms for the trains to come in, they want in the spaces between the tracks, and jump into the carriages from the other side. All of this is recounted to me with a certain glee. Come Friday and and with the week’s money they buy cheap clothes from Sadar Bazaar, bathe from the conveniently inaccessible hoses in between the railway tracks, and go out to watch movies, at Sheila, Khanna and Imperial. Most are obsessed with films. Shekhar has traveled ticketless to Bombay thrice to catch premieres. He’s not alone. Many of the children have wandered all over India, intimate as they are with trains, and not being encumbered by much baggage.

“Most children run away from home because of poverty, physical abuse, sexual harassment,” says Shekhar. Some have other reasons. Javed ran away from home to see Delhi’s monuments.” Javed smiles sheepishly. He was fourteen then. I have a strong wave of empathy. I had been twelve when I had insisted on being taken to Delhi for the vacations. In textbooks, history happens only in Delhi. The first monument he saw was the Red Fort- but the years since coming to Delhi were not only pleasant. The life of children on the railway station is full of violence and exploitation. Javed has been stabbed in the stomach, and has lost a friend to electrocution by the wires that power the electric trains. Many of the children sniff correction fluid for a high. “But even after being stabbed, I came back to the station. Do you know why children keep coming back to this place and this life despite all the hardship here?”

Long pause, as he looks at us.


“Freedom”, he says.

Salam Balak Trust has begun fascinating weekend walks through everyday life in New Delhi Station and Paharganj. This column just gives a brief glimpse. Contact Shekhar 9873130383, or Javed 9810975284, or mail them at javed_khan475@yahoo.com and shekhar_saini41@yahoo.com

New Delhi Railway Station 1

This is a story Shuddha once told many of us, and we dismissed it as the most far fetched bull.
Then, three months later, I heard it again and started asking around. The facts, then, if you will -

A woman known to us as Begam Wilyat Mahal, who claims to belong to the Oudh Royal Family (this is disputed) appeared on the New Delhi Railway Station from about 1975 (from presumably before the Emergency, but it would be even more interesting if from during), and squatted there for ten years in the VIP Waiting Lounge with her two grown chidlren - a son and a daughter - and about a dozen large dogs. (No one is quite sure of the breed.) In 1984, Indira Gandhi visted her at the station, and in 1985, the family was moved to the Malcha Mahal on the Ridge, a derelict hunting lodge dating back to Tughlak times. The mother , Wilayat Begam, has since expired(committed suicide by swallowing crushed diamonds), but the son and daughter, 'prince' and 'princess', still live in the Mahal, which has been declared out of bounds. (Trespassers will be shot, a notice declares. Those of my frieds who have ventured towards the place have had the aforementioned large dogs set upon them.)Their few appreances in the Press since then have been largely through foreign journalists. They are, by all of these accounts, ravingly eccentric.

I want to investigate this story further, and write about it, because of the range of things it invokes. The railway station as an entry point into the city, the strange generosity of a draconian state to those who claim Royalty, the ruin lost in the forest next to Delhi's most elite residential colony (Malcha Marg, Chanakyapuri) and a military sattelite station, the strange reappropriations of Tughlak Monuments in Delhi by the ghosts of 1857.

From the material availible on the internet, it seems that this was among the first acts of geneoristy carried out by the Rajiv Gandhi Government, with letters passing back and forth in November and Decmeber 1984. Given the times (the Anti-Sikh riots) this seems particularly bizzare. The shift seems to have happened sometime in June-July 1985. There is a letter from the 'authorised' descendant of Wajid Ali Shah, from Calcutta (a pensioner of the government) claiming that the woman is a hoax. Am attaching links below.

I would be really grateful if all of you could come up with ideas, suggestions, leads on how to take this forward.

Links here -






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