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Strolling in Mirza Ghalib’s street.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Global economic meltdown is also melting down the mood in Gali Qasim Jaan, Delhi's Stratford-upon-Avon. This street in Ballimaran is home to the haveli of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib -- our Shakespeare, our Basho, our Hafez.
Start your tour from the open-air chaikhana (6 am to 6 pm, Sunday closed) of Mr Sharif Hassan. “Earlier my daily customers were around fifty," he says. "No longer." Shukriya, recession.
Two months ago, Mr Hassan needed 15 litres of milk daily to run his establishment. Now, it's 10 litres. Not far away is the paan stall of Mr Naeem, who hails from Darbhanga in Bihar. His spirits, too, are subdued. "My clients who would have two ghutkas or cigarettes are doing with just one," he says.
Don’t let the blues beat you down. Come back to the chaikhana. Mr Hassan's elaichi-flavoured chai, served in a proper china cup, will cheer you up. Ask for malai, no extra charge.
Since Ghalib's haveli is a five-minute walk away, this chaiwalla must be reciting Ghalib's verses on the drop of a...tea. No luck. He doesn’t know a single verse. Neither does Mr Syed Faqir Hassan, his 22-year-old son.
But, boy, Mr Faqir is a casanova. A fan of Kajol and Katrina Kaif, he has girlfriends in Pharash Khana, Kucha Pandit and Lakshmi Nagar. "The one in Lakshmi Nagar is the prettiest," he says, loaded with tashan.
Since Mr Faqir can't recite Ghalib to his girls, why does he take them to Lodhi Garden and Purana Quila? "There are other things to do," he says with a knowing smile.
Soon, a discovery: an old man joins us. Mr Ramma Babu is the authentic Ghalib guy. He walks Ghalib, talks Ghalib, sings Ghalib. For me, he sings -- “Ishq par jor nahi...” What performance. Wah wah. Museum-item, bhaijaan. Available between 11 am and 1 pm, daily in the chaikhana.
I walk ahead. On the right is Rabea Girls Public School, established by – if you really care -- some Hakeem Abdul Hameed.
Who’s he? How do I know? I couldn’t even find out who was this Mr Qasim Jaan after whom this street is named. One guy said that he was a hakeem while another revealed – “He wasn't my uncle.”
This uncle-less young man, however, is interesting. His eatery, Shafiq Naimat Kada, is known for its nahiri and paya (buffalo, not cow).
Despite his oily gravies, Mr Mukarram Ali has no paunch, no heart-problem but he has the recession problem. “Labour class make for the biggest chunk of our clients,” says Mr Ali who is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Jamia University. “But their numbers have gone down.”
Once done licking the nahiri, it’s time for the next-door store selling American Standard Melamite crockery, Made-in-China of course. Pick anything – plate, bowl, tray, whatever – and the price is always Rs 120 for a kg.
Awwwww, a brown cat outside – under the barber’s chair. Meew.
I follow her, down the lane, and walk past a happy-looking woman ironing a long, long cloth, being held in place, not by one, but by three people. What sight.
And why so many goggle stores? I storm inside Unique Opticals and demand an answer. “Ballimaran is an old mandi for goggles and shoes," says Mr Mohammad Saeed, the owner. “We get stuff from Bombay, Malaysia, China, Korea, Italy and prices range from Re 1 to Rs 1 lakh.” Really. “But have you read any Ghalib?” I ask. “Naheen.” I repeat the same question to street vendors, including a fruit seller, and it’s always – “Naheen, naheen, naheen.”
Finally, I’m at the other end and now -- inside Ghalib’s haveli.
Though Ghalib lived in several Delhi neighborhoods, he died here. I’m excited.
But there's just a little dark museum, a little courtyard, a little verandah, a few books and, across the partition, a telephone booth! Ghalib, the master of ironies and a great boozer, must be rolling out in laughter in the heavens. I, too, giggle and come out.
A dignified-looking gentleman, sort of a Mughal-era relic, is guarding the haveli's entrance. Is he the guard? Nah. He’s the haveli’s landlord.
“Have you read Ghalib?”
“If I were that literate, would I have been sitting here?”
Mr Syed Faqir Hassan, the casanova of Ballimaran
No crowd in Mr Naeem's stall
A cat under my chair
Girls, any Ghalib? (Rabea students)
Sir, any Ghalib?
He knows his Ghalib, Mr Ramma Babu
The iron lady ironing her long, long cloth
Madam, any Ghalib?
Must be Ghalib's haveli
No haveli this
The landlord who knows no Ghalib