Sydney Rebeiro strolls around the lawns of St James Church in Kashmere Gate, a quaint fondness written all over his face. A fondness that’s the result of a very special bond he has with the church. If St James Church, established in 1836, is the oldest place of worship for Delhi’s Christian community, the Anglo-Indian Rebeiros happen to be the oldest worshipping family.
A plaque on one of the walls of the 170-year-old church bears testimony to that. Being a fifth-generation Delhiite now in his sixties, Rebeiro has seen an era when Kashmere Gate did not mean the Inter-State Bus Terminus. It used to be, he says, “the Trafalgar Square of Delhi”.
“The church with St Stephen’s hostel, the Nicholson Cemetery, the houses and everything around was the centripetal body for Delhi’s Christians, and Kashmere Gate its hub. The land on which the ISBT stands, too, was owned by Christians who would gather there on Sundays,” he says.
Like most big cities in India, Delhi also has had its share of Christian communities influencing education and administration. Rebeiro’s uncle, Theo Isaac for instance, oversaw the electrification of the brand new city, New Delhi. His mother, Mary Isaacs Rebeiro, was India’s first postmistress based at the Telegraph Office in Old Delhi. Rebeiro himself was the first Dean-Culture of Delhi University.
The Rebeiro house called “Rehman Manzil” on 1, Hamilton Road, was quite a landmark, playing host to much fanfare in Christmas, Easter, Diwali and Id. “Neighbours included writer-scholar Nirod C. Choudhury and...,” he tries to recall names of other Christian families who were contemporaries. “... there were the Harrisons, the Dias, the Heatherleys, the Scotts, and others.” All these families moved out over the years. “The Scotts, now with 75-year-old Pearl Scott, live in Sahibabad. The Harrisons live somewhere else. Several are settled abroad,” says Rebeiro, who lives alone in a flat in the DDA-built Sarita Vihar in South Delhi. Like the other families, most of Rebeiro’s relatives, too, are settled either elsewhere in India or abroad.
“Unwilling to pay the steep property prices here, my nephew and niece have shifted base to Jaipur,” he says. Robin, Sydney’s Jaipur-based nephew, is aware of the heritage his family’s name signifies in the history of Delhi’s Christian community. “After uncle Sydney, the city’s link with that heritage will be lost. But nothing can be done about it. We have all moved out for good,” he says. Robin does not share his uncle’s love for the city. “Delhi is very different from what we earlier knew it to be. And frankly, I don’t like the change,” he says.
But that has not stopped the annual gatherings on Christmas and Easter. At the Sarita Vihar home, the old photographs are polished; a Christmas tree is merrily adorned and a plum cake baked. “Our Christmas in Delhi is always a high point for the family,” Robin says. Rebeiro thinks the city is currently going through a transition. “Right now we are experiencing a phase when many cultures are constantly interacting with each other to arrive at an evolution of the city’s character and ethos. Delhi has changed throughout history. It will again,” he says with the air of someone who has known the city for longer than you or I have. But for a man who has seen part of his beloved church lawns turn into a bus terminus, perhaps no amount of change can take away his fondness for Delhi.