A labyrinth of narrow lanes leads you to the crumbling walls of an enclosure that was once a gher, an integral part of any farming family. Walk through the gher’s imposing carved-wood doors, and you reach the more-than-a-century-old house of Ashok Chauhan in Khampur village near Patel Nagar.
“Cattle and farming equipment were kept in the gher earlier, but today it is used for parking our cars,” says forty-something Ashok. An explanation that comes across as an apt metaphor about how Delhi has adapted to changing times.
Ashok Chauhan is a member of the Rawa Rajput community that first came to Delhi when the Red Fort was being built and chose to stay back. Members of the community spread over five villages around the Old Delhi. Present-day Khampur is one of them.
An advertising professional, Ashok toggles back and forth between the modern and the traditional. He has renovated his house to suit contemporary needs but ensured that its old beauty remains intact. The first floor still has balustrades, now faded.
But the balance between old habits and new realities is easier talked about than attained. “Drinking milk twice a day was a habit for all of us. We had cows and buffaloes. I still remember the day we bought milk. It was atrocious… since then we have shifted to tea,” recalls Ashok.
His father Choudhary Phool Singh joins in the conversation: “All this was farming land. But over the years the government acquired it piece by piece and housing colonies sprouted everywhere leading to farmland shrinkage.” Sitting in a closed verandah replete with arched beams and a wood-cum-railed ceiling, the octogenarian head of the family asks, “Khet nahi rahe toh kya khilate? (With no farms, what do we feed the cattle?)”
For more than a century since they came to Khampur, it was a cluster of around 50 families — all Chauhans — surrounded by acres of farmland. Kartaridevi, Ashok Chauhan’s mother, says she vividly remembers those days when the area was dacoit-infested.
The inevitable change began when the first land acquisitions happened during the early 20th century. Pusa came up on chunks of lands acquired mainly from Khampur and Narayana. The ’60s triggered the process of turning a typical villagescape into city space with another round of land acquisitions.
Says Rajkumar Chauhan, Ashok’s elder brother, “This time around land was acquired in installments, hence the compensation too came in installments. It left many a people frustrated but at the same time, many of them, being simple farmers, were flabbergasted to get the huge sums.”
These changes also brought in an influx of migrants into the Capital. Over the years, as people changed from farming to different professions and vocations. Khampur too slowly changed from a typical hamlet to a congested colony with addition of civic amenities like piped water, electricity and telephones. But the Maruti boom brought about the worst changes,” Ashok rues.
“The changes also affected our lifestyle. My children refuse to sleep on hand-woven charpoys. Same is with the old hand-woven warm clothes yarn for which was spun by my dadi on her charkha,” Rajkumar says.
But the family has maintained the old-style structure of the house with an open chowk (open space surrounded by rooms) inside the premises.
The old-fashioned rooms on the ground floor now serve as personal gym, library, dining rooms. Those on the first floor are living rooms and bedrooms. “But the best part is our terrace. We flew kites from here, slept here in the summers and winters with all my friends flocking to eat the baajra rotis made by my mother on chulha. Oh those were the days!” remembers Ashok.
Even today, he claims he is a farmer at heart, “It’s in my genes … I dream of returning to Mother Earth some day. But I will be a progressive farmer.”