The Dehlvis were Delhiites at a time when Meena Bazar at Jama Masjid was strictly for women; it was impossible for a man to enter it. Then, mothers of prospective grooms searched for prospective brides in a quaint manner. “From time to time, a woman, addressed as kachchan, used to visit different mohallas selling things like chaat paapri etc. The woman would herd all the young girls in one place, and interested mothers-in-law would zero in on a girl of their choice, and then follow her to find out where she lived. A payaam (proposal) was sent the very next day!” Zeenat Kausar Dehlvi remembers.
When she was a young girl, Mehrauli used to be the most popular picnic spot for Dilliwalas; it was also the place where anybody with tuberculosis was sent for recovery! At that time, affluent families would rent out or buy farmhouses there to spend weekends and holidays.
“For young girls like me, Mehrauli meant an open ground where we would colour our dupattas and exchange them amongst each other, much like this generation exchanging friendship bands,” says the 71-year-old Zeenat with a youthful excitement in her voice.
Zeenat comes from one of the oldest families in the city, the Dehlvis, ‘someone belonging to Delhi’ as the name suggests. “We have a shejrah (family tree) that traces our lineage back to at least 500 years,” she says. “We’ve witnessed the city changing from Dehli to Delhi.”
However ‘Dehlvi’ became part of their identity some time in the 1940s. “In those days, places where you lived was very much part of your identity especially if you were a writer. My father-in-law Hafiz Yusuf Dehlvi had started a film and literary Urdu journal called Shama, which went on to become one of the top magazines of those days,” she says.
Growing up in the Walled City had its own charm and Zeenat becomes nostalgic as she remembers the days when the vegetable vendors sold subzi, singing and luring housewives to buy them. “They also employed parallels like Laila’s fingers with long kakdis,” she recalls with a twinkle.
Most of the girls got married by 16. “My parents had a lot of trouble getting one of my sisters married as she was 18 and considered a bit too old,” she laughs.
Her own marriage was a complete culture shock: it took her from the Walled City to a house on Sardar Patel Marg in New Delhi. “We were one of the few Muslims to live in New Delhi during the 50s. Our house was more a cultural hub with regular mushairas and parties being attended by eminent people.”
The old ‘Dehlvi House’ no longer belongs to the Dehlvis. It is now Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati’s official residence. “I see this landmark Muslim house in a VIP area changing hands with BSP as a metaphor for the state of the current Indian polity. Muslims have slipped down and the Dalits have moved upwards, both economically and socially,” feels Zeenat.
And yes, “Delhi was at its best in the pre-Partition days.”