It’s 5 pm The sun has just gone down and there is a nip in the air.
Standing on the second floor balcony of Khorshed Italia’s home, one gets a bewitching view of Connaught Place (CP) and New Delhi’s dazzling skyline — a sight that will inspire any urban landscape photographer.
But Italia finds this razzle and dazzle of the capital’s central commercial district pretty disturbing. The reason: Italia, 86, the oldest resident of CP today —she moved in 1939 — believes that the place has lost its old charm and glory.
“When I moved in about 70 years back, the outer circle was still being built. Connaught Place used to be such a quiet, beautiful and stately place; there were no offices, no traffic, no crowds, no tall buildings,” she said, pointing to the cluster of skyscrapers that surround the place now.
Ten minutes into a chat with her and you realise Italia is a great storyteller, at least when it comes to stories of Connaught Place. And her stories have an interesting cast of characters: her friends, family, myriad CP shopkeepers, barbers, fish-sellers, etc.
They take you to the CP of 1940s, when the city’s central business district also used to be one of its most famous residential addresses, with hundreds of families living on its first and second floors.
Though most families were Anglo-Indian, CP had families from all communities, including 14 Parsi families. “All the families used to go out for parties very often. The exodus began in the mid-60s, thanks to growing commercialisation,” she said, her voice laced with regret. Today, there are a few families left in CP, and hers is the only Parsi family.
The picture of the CP of the yore is still very clear in her mind: pristine white façade, empty streets with beautiful lights, central park with a variety of trees and flowers…. Ask her about some of the famous shops of the 50s and she instantly rattles off a litany of names: Davicos, Empire Store, Bhavani Books, Manohar Bakery.
“They were all big and beautiful shops. The Empire Store sold everything from liquor to provisions. The Central Park used to be much more beautiful than what it is today; the streets were quiet and empty, except for horse-pulled tongas. I was madly in love with two horses, and often used to take joy rides in the tongas they pulled,” she giggled.
Today Italia lives without neighbours — and this is one of the most difficult aspects of life in CP. But the absence of neighbours is more than made up for by her daughter Shernaz, 52, and her two dogs.
A loud bang
Italia seems to be as agile as ever even at 86. Almost everyday she goes down stairs (and there are no less than 56 stairs) to chat with some of the old shopkeepers. “I spend quite a while with them talking about the good old days. At times I also go for shopping. When I was young I used to buy a lot of bangles, now I often shop for footwear from CP,” said Italia, who displayed the passion of a garrulous girl when she talks about her teenage years in CP. If there is anything that the grand old lady likes about the CP of today, it’s the metro train. “It is really fabulous. I have taken a couple of joy rides in it between CP and Chandni Chowk stations.” But she does not explore CP anymore because of the milling crowds and traffic. “I rarely stroll around the CP these days. Once I was hit by a scooter and broke my hand,” she said.
The recent bomb blasts in CP came as a big shock to her. She was in her living room when the blasts occurred. “I heard the loud bang and was shaken. I never thought such a dastardly thing could happen in CP,” she said, pain writ large on her wrinkled face.
Italia is quite pleased with the restoration work carried out in the C block of CP. Every time she looks at the renovated façade, she feels a surge of emotions.
“The renovated façade very much looks the way it used to. It takes me to the good old days and gives me hope that my CP will regain its lost glory. But the renovation work is going very slow.”
A movie buff, Italia is keenly waiting for Odeon cinema — which is right in front of her house and currently under renovation — to reopen. “When I was a teenager I used to go for matinee shows in Rivoli and Regal, which only showed English movies. When I moved in CP, Odeon was still being built. I would love to hop across the road and watch a movie the day it reopens,” said Italia. She may not have to wait long as a banner at the Odeon said ‘Coming Soon’.