Bunu, my wife, and I reached Delhi by Utkal Express, one hour ten minutes behind time, the same as when we had boarded the train at Jamshedpur some thirty-two hours back. That made us one hour short for the evening’s doings, for which, though, we had no clear plan yet. After checking in at the hotel and freshening up, famished as we were, we decided to give lunch the go-by and hurriedly came out of the hotel around 5 PM, only to pause and ponder aloud, “Where to?”
Bunu said she would like to trace her childhood place, the railway colony at Shaktinagar. I had often heard her reminisce of her halcyon days of childhood at Delhi. She would nostalgically speak of summer evenings when the day’s torrid heat gave way to light cool breeze; of rose water dipped sugarcane pieces in bowls of dry leaves; of eating shahatut (mulberry) fruit with black salt, on the way to school in wire-mesh covered rickshaw; and of friendly Punjabi aunties of the neighbourhood, always ready with a smile to help.
I had no idea where Shaktinagar was, or what a travel to that place would entail. However, she argued, this might be the last time we came to Delhi in a long time to come, which seemed probable. Anyway, we had sponged dry the few places we knew – Connaught Place, the malls at MG Road, Khan Market, Quatab Minar, Carol Bagh. We had exhausted the remaining charms of Delhi – the Parliament, India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, and all other worthy edifices of Lutyens’ Delhi – on the TV, of course. Moreover, I loved trips down the memory lane. We had often spent hours in strange cities, looking up people we knew from hoary past, with little to go by.
We inquired with an auto driver, who, after hearing our vague description of the destination, demanded Rs 150. This, from my experience, seemed to be at least half as much more, as what could be the right fare. I approached some traffic wardens lounging nearby. They were of little help, with only one of the three men recognizing the place. He suggested that we take a prepaid auto. This cost Rs 100. Then the traffic wardens summoned an auto. I requested them to advise the driver to take us to the ‘railway colony’ at Shaktinagar. I do not think their advice had any effect on the driver. He still wanted to know where exactly in Shaktinagar. Bunu described that on the way to that place there would be a ‘Ghanta Ghar’ (clock tower). The auto driver agreed. She said, he would have to pass through a big market. The driver mumbled, “Sabji Mandi”. There should be a park (or playground). This elicited a vague response from him. Finally, she asked him to look for a Radha-Krishna temple in the vicinity. This ended in his resigned silence for some time.
Frankly, I was ready to bet just on the temple, being the only relic capable of surviving in a booming city like Delhi. I observed that everything else must have changed in the intervening fifty years. This did not seem to enthuse the auto driver, but he drove on rigidly.
Going from the Ajmeri Gate side of New Delhi station to Pahar Ganj, over the bridge across the railway tracks, there was a big jam, which extended to at least a mile. On the inner most lane of our side of the road, I saw an unusually large bull leisurely pulling a bullock cart loaded with goods. Once we cleared the jam, the auto moved briskly. Gradually, as the distance from the station increased, the cityscape started changing into mediocre neighbourhoods. Finally, we came to pass a clock tower. Bunu exclaimed in recognition, even as the driver pointed to it. Then we were in the midst of a busy market that the driver informed was ‘Sabji Mandi’ (vegetable market). By now, the driver had become wary of our vague destination. Bunu was confused by the bustling market, and there was no sign of any park or temple. Obviously, the place was unrecognizable from her memory of fifty years. We stopped the auto to ask some people, and they told us to go further on.
Finally, at a crossing, we stopped, and I got down to inquire. An old fruit vendor said he knew about the railway colony, and asked us to turn into the lane on the left and proceed. A person sitting by idly got into an argument with him over the existence of any such colony. To resolve, I approached a Sardarji (a turbaned Sikh Punjabi) starting his scooter in that lane. He said, yes, we should turn into the lane and keep going beyond the first roundabout that we could see, until we had passed four crossings, and reached a temple of lord Hanuman. There we would find the colony. Relieved, we drove into the lane, and after some crossings, we found the end of the road blocked by a house. Just before it, on the right side, stood a deserted temple. A few men sat on the low verandah in front of the temple. One of them said we should take the narrow passageway by the side of the dead-end building, to reach the colony. We handed over the prepayment slip to the auto driver and entered the passage.
The passage went round to the back of the building and met a road running from the right to the left. On the right side, we saw two face-to-face rows of nondescript small, whitewashed single-storied houses. We asked a passing boy, and he asserted that was ‘the railway colony’ of Shaktinagar. Seeing the neighbourhood, plainly of low working class, dismay gripped Bunu. She said, vehemently, no, it could not be her childhood railway colony! Thus challenged, the boy, pointing to the area behind the rows of houses, claimed that the railway tracks ran there, as if to buttress his assertion.
Seeing our reluctance to buy his argument, he added that there was one more colony some distance away, indicating vaguely in the direction from which we had come. Turning around, we could only see the road ending up against a low wall. Behind that, across some open space, old buildings with red brickwork and warehouse like appearance seemed to be railway buildings. Covering the short distance to the wall, we found that the road turned to the left and ran beside the wall, parallel to, before joining it, a thoroughfare coming up from an underpass below some railway tracks on the right. The tracks, thus, lay alongside and behind the rows of railway houses that we had just seen.
Nonplussed, Bunu called up her ‘Didi’ (elder sister) in Benares. She being several years older could be relied upon to have a better memory of the old place. Roused from her afternoon siesta (at some six o’clock then), when Bunu asked her for the address of the old place, incoherent Didi replied ‘Ashok Avenue’. That was, of course, their last address in Chittaranjan, West Bengal, some twenty odd years later, just before their father retired! Bunu told her to go back to sleeping.
Clueless, there we stood at the intersection of the railway track and the road, in the 6-to-9 o’clock quadrant – in a manner of speaking – with the track forming the 12 – 6 o’clock axis, and the road forming the 3 – 9 o’clock axis.
There was a two-wheeler repair joint just where the underpass came up to ground level, and next to that, a small boutique of what appeared to be a travel agent. The person at the latter confirmed that there was another colony, for which we would have to reach the railway track and go along it, toward the 12 o’clock direction. This being out of the question, we asked the mechanics at the repair joint. After some argument among themselves, one of them came out with some useful advice. He said, we had to cross the road; turn left, and enter the first crossroad on the right. Then keep going, he said, till you come to a gate. Pass through the gate to the railway track and follow it to reach the railway quarters.
I recognized that the nomenclature had changed from ‘colony’ to ‘quarters’!
We crossed the broad road, and slightly to the left, we found a road in the 12 o’clock direction. We followed it until we came to a crossing, where, beyond it to the left there was a park, sort of, behind a high wall. Beyond, we could see high-mast lamps of a stadium. We asked a man in religious attire squatting on the ground. He said we should proceed further. After the park on the left ended, with a line of small temples of various deities along its wall, we came to a fork in the road. A very old man of a bygone era, in the protection of layers of archaic warm clothes (Delhi was cool, but far from cold), was directing some youngsters on some chore. With equal flourish, and a benign smile, he directed us to take the right fork that went beyond some luxurious cars parked haphazardly, with one that had been left to sink on its deflated tires since long. The road curved to the right through rich and silent neighbourhood, until it ended at a small iron gate under low hanging bougainvilleas in full bloom. Beyond that, we caught a glimpse of the railway tracks.
We exited into a wide railway yard with couple of tracks, and on the left, we could see a station at a distance. Would that be Shaktinagar station?
Didi, having finished her siesta by then, called and urged Bunu to call her back as soon as we had found the place. Obviously, she had become excited at the prospect of a rediscovery, though experienced second hand.
Enthused, we charged along the track, ignoring the difficulty of stepping from slipper to slipper, until we saw a path along a slum across the tracks. We crossed over and took the path. I asked two men on a charpoy (a light hammock like string-woven bed) and they said a little further on, we would find an opening in the wall by the side of the track. We should exit there and proceed further. A group of boys playing further down the path pointed to the gap. Here the ground was a few feet below the track level and behind the wall, still lower, ran a road that, coming along the track from the right side, moved away from it on the left. On the same side, further on, we could see some identical multistory houses.
Between the tracks and the wall ran a low dry channel few feet across, probably a storm water drain. Stepping carefully over the track stones, I gingerly climbed down the side of the track at an angle, gathering speed as I reached the bottom of the channel. As I stepped on the rising side of the channel, my foot suddenly slipped on the gray cinder-like loose earth. With my body spinning, I fell fast, sideways onto the wall. I hit a pillar-like projection on the wall, first with the back of my head and then my right shoulder. I tried to arrest my fall by my right hand, and fell on the knuckles of my right ring finger. Grimacing with pain, I spontaneously thought, ‘I have been stunned. I should faint!’ As I yielded to this urge, feeling excruciating pain on my head, shoulder and the ring finger, I heard Bunu scream in horror. I slowly sank down, and a momentary unconsciousness engulfed me.
However, in a moment, my daze had passed. I was lying flat on my back. Bunu was bending down over me, moaning some comforting words for me. She helped me up on my feet. I saw my glasses, cell phone and camera lying on the ground. My head had a dull throbbing pain. Tenderly, I probed the spot and was surprised to find it dry. I had not wounded myself. Oh! What a relief! My shoulder ached and burned, and my ring finger was badly bruised at its first joint. Shaking more with excitement than hurt or pain, I stood up, put on my glasses and dusted the camera, and then myself. I climbed into the gap in the wall and found a pavement more than a foot below, on the other side. I carefully lowered myself and then helped Bunu down.
The quarters further along the road looked old and uninhabited. We saw a fellow selling tea on the pavement. Dusk was falling, and he was winding up for the day. To our question, he pointed along the road, which veered to the right, and at a distance, met with a road coming from the left. He said the way to the colony was just after the intersection. At the intersection there was a triangular no-man’s-land, sort of, and no pavement. Walking in the middle of the road, where there should have been a divider, and carefully avoiding the rushing cars, we went past the triangle and then saw some small shops on the left. Between them, a lane entered to the left. One shopkeeper told us to take the lane. It was crowded with residential buildings, not very well lit, and had, here and there, small shops of no consequence. At one of them Bunu asked for an antiseptic cream (for my bruises) without result.
Didi called and Bunu told her to wait. Nothing much had happened, and we were still on the way.
After quite some distance, the lane started curving to the right and the houses started getting bigger, but also darker, with walled gardens of large shady trees. A Sardarji was standing with a large, very adorable dog. We asked him and he waved us on. At the end of the curve of the road, we came to an entrance on the left, which seemed to be a way going into a compound of quarters, relatively better lit. Inside, on the first street running across, from left to right, there were single storied houses with some open ground in front. Bunu immediately felt that this should be the place. However, we saw that the blocks had numbers in the eighties and nineties. Nonetheless, we moved along until we came to a group of girls standing around chatting excitedly. One of the girls said that in that area there was no block of number thirty, what we were looking for. She said, however, there was one colony in Kishan Ganj, where we might find such a block. She told us how to go there, reaching and passing under the overhead metro lines, and then turning right to reach Pratibha School. By the side of it, we would find the colony. She said it would be a long way, and we should take a rickshaw.
Bunu now recalled that the old place was really at Kishan Ganj, which she had completely forgotten. She called up Didi, who now remembered and confirmed the fact.
We came out of the colony and continued on the road by which we had come. It gave into a wider street with motley shops. We saw some rickshaws, but they asked for Rs 30, which did not feel right. I bought some fruit juice, and sipping it, we walked on. There were some eateries displaying tempting half-roasted fowl, but better counsel prevailed, seeing the hygiene and the ambiance. Finally, we took a rickshaw that agreed for Rs 20. We told the driver where to go. He rode on and gathered good speed. The distance was considerable, and feeling the cool evening breeze on the face, we were glad that we had taken the rickshaw. After several minutes, we came to a two-way street, with the metro line passing overhead along its centre. Streetlights were off, and the traffic was moving with blinding headlamps. Scaring us to death, the rickshaw sped on, crossing the street with god-speed, and entered a broad road with a divider. On its right side, there was a compound with rows of identical two-storied houses. We passed them, reaching a place where some shops appeared on the left side. Here the driver halted the rickshaw, and pointing to an opening between the shops, he said that was our place. We felt doubtful, as we could not see any building that looked like a school. We asked the driver to go inquire about the school. He came back, saying he had left the school behind. We asked him to turn around.
We were back to where the compound was. Seeing a woman enter it through a turnstile set in the wall, we stopped the rickshaw. Bunu inquired with the woman and learned that this was a railway colony, and its main gate was further on, where we could ask for the address. Meanwhile, an old man in formal dress, with a single large white radish in his right hand and other purchases in his left hand, had stopped out of curiosity. He said he was going that way. We followed him to the main gate, paid off the rickshaw with a good tip, and entered the compound with the old man. Immediately, he spotted a young person coming towards us, and asked him in a familiar tone to help us with our address. This person, in the twenties apparently, wore long shorts of indeterminate colour, a green T-shirt with yellow collar, and short-sight glasses. Greeting us with a very friendly smile, he asked for the address. Hearing that we were looking for block number thirty, he said that would be in another colony. Luckily, he said, he was going that way and offered to take us along. We started walking with him, and soon fell into a friendly chat. He said he lived there, and was going to buy grocery. I informed that we had come from Jamshedpur and the place we were looking for was Bunu’s childhood place. Then we opened our heart on how we had been traveling since 5 PM, looking from place to place. He listened with affable tolerance, drawing us out with explanatory remarks. We walked to the end of the colony and then crossed the street to move further on. Bringing us back to where the rickshaw had first stopped, he said that was the colony!
Oh! At last!
In silent amazement, we entered the colony. At the entrance, a sodium lamp threw orange light that was mostly blocked by large leafy trees, lighting the place in a maze of myriad bright spots and shadows. Again, across us ran a street of double-storied houses. Our guide read off the block numbers and they started with thirty-something. Bunu was not elated. She objected to the houses being two-storied, instead of being single-storied. The buildings faced the rear of the shops on the main street outside, as they did in her recollection, but the empty space in front of them was not as large as she remembered. Our guide, however, was emphatic and soon found out the unit number twelve of block number thirty. It happened to be upstairs! Now Bunu said that was quite impossible, because they had lived on the ground. There was no way to settle the disagreement between the past and the present. We debated whether the construction of the upper floor could have happened afterwards. But, the staircases ran between the ground floor units, as if they had been there in the original building plan. Was there any other colony, then? We retraced our path back to the entrance to the colony, Bunu and our amiable guide still trying to make each other see their individual viewpoints.
Finally, the guide conceded that there was one more railway colony in Kishan Ganj, further on, which might meet all the criteria of block number thirty, unit number twelve being on the ground level, with a grassy patch in front, and a Radha-Krishna temple and a park or playground nearby. A propos, he let us know that the railway quarters of Delhi were spread over a vast area, forming the largest railway colony in India.
We realized that it was getting late, and we were miles away from our hotel. Going back the way we had come was not possible. Our guide wanted to know where we wanted to go, and then explained that we could take either the metro or an auto. We expressed preference for the metro. He said for that we would have to go back to the colony from where he had come. Would we wait for him to buy his grocery, he asked, so that he could walk us back? We agreed.
He went to a couple of shops and soon he was done. We started back for his colony. He asked us what each of us did. I said I had retired from service. Bunu worked as a biology teacher in a high school. We asked in turn about him. He said he was a wedding planner. Just remembering the hit film on wedding planners, and thinking I had never foreseen meeting an actual wedding planner, I excitedly grabbed him and asked, “Band, Baajaa Aur Baaraat?” He said, yes, and we all had a good laugh.
The disappointment of the long search yielding no result began to ease. We talked on, exchanging small details. He revealed that by education, he was a graduate in electrics, electronics and communication engineering, but had had to take up his family business. No, the formally dressed old man who had introduced us to him was not anyone to him. He seemed well adjusted to his situation. To my query, he explained how the business being seasonal, he had to earn enough in season to break even for the whole year. He talked of how, over the years, weddings had become more ostentatious, and how tradition had fallen by the wayside. We chatted away like people of equal age and common interests, and he rather befriended us to talk about ourselves. I started telling him about my pastimes and hobbies, and finally came to telling him about my amateur writing.
We had, by this time, returned to his colony. Getting ready to part, I began to tell him how lucky we had been to meet him. Suddenly, halting near the spot where we had met him, he asked a dramatic question, “Do you know that, but for a small unfortunate incident, we would not have met?”
Then he narrated that about half an hour before we met him, he had come out to buy groceries. On the way, he realized that his cash was missing. He returned to search for it, but could not find it. He went home, got the money, and as he was going out again, he met us. This really impressed me as I remembered the friendly smile with which he had greeted us. There had been no sign of his recent misfortune.
Reaching his house, we exchanged parting pleasantries, but he said he would see us off at the metro. Carrying his grocery, he took us across the colony to the rear side. We emerged through a small gate, onto a narrow street with a large school on the other side. That was the Pratibha School, he told us. The metro station was nearby. We wanted him to go. But, again with some real concern, he said we should take an auto. For one, the metro would be crowded, and another, we would require changing on the way. The auto would cost us about Rs 50, but be faster and more comfortable. We yielded to his concern. He asked us to wait, and after haggling with a couple of auto drivers, finally managed to find one who agreed to charge by the meter.
Before parting, we exchanged our names. We learned that his name was Akash. I requested him to let me take a picture of him. Laughingly he agreed, saying he knew he looked good in photographs. That is true, he looked quite cherubic.
Then we climbed into the auto and waved at him.
We alighted at the traffic signal at the end of the bridge over the New Delhi station on the Ajmeri Gate side. Checking into the hotel, we had dinner in the cafeteria downstairs, and then returned to our room.
Before going to bed, I made notes on the day’s story, making several sketches in my scrap-book, of the route of our bumbling journey in search of a childhood spent in a city now lost in oblivion.
Writing this story now, an outline of our next caper is already forming in my mind. Will we not go to Delhi next year, visit Kishan Ganj and find Bunu’s childhood home? Will we not then go and look up Akash to tell him of our finding?
May be he will then invite us to one of the weddings arranged by him. May be, his own wedding …
Indroneer / 01 April 2014
Acknowledgement: Google Maps