The old quarters of any ‘World Class City’ are always beautiful and clean. Then why is the touristy Old Delhi, also called Delhi-6 due to its pin code, so chaotic and dirty? Tourist websites are full of unflattering descriptions of Old Delhi. Sample this comment by a user called ABD: “Old Delhi is unruly and filthy and there is nothing to remind of its former glory.” Another tourist writes, “The best way to describe Delhi would be dirty and chaotic, particularly Old Delhi.”
We are at Chitli Qabra chowk, the heart of the walled city. From this intersection, one lane leads to Matia Mahal bazaar, another to Daryaganj and the third to Turkman Gate. Drains are overflowing. Banana peels on roadsides. Paan stains on walls. Electric wires blocking the sky view. Instead of a cop, there is a fishmonger at the intersection — not managing traffic, but selling his catch. The result: traffic jam. Rickshaws, scooters, bikes, pedestrians. Honking. Rickshaw bells ringing.
Three boys are hanging around at one side of the chowk. “Why is Old Delhi so dirty?” we ask them. “There’s filth for sure,” says 20-year-old Kamran Khan, a school dropout. “But unlike other parts of Delhi, here shops remain open till midnight and it’s festive whether there’s a festival or not.”
We then cross the lane to talk to a man called Raja. He has been selling Bollywood postcards at this spot for more than 20 years. “Why is this place so dirty?” we repeat the question. “Too many people live here and municipal workers are too careless,” he says. We jump over the open drain to enter Mansoor Ahmad’s readymade garment store, called Taj Fashion. He, too, says, “Too many people!”
We then look up at a four-storey mansion. It is said that in the 19th century, this was the residence of a popular dastango, an oral storyteller in Urdu. That art is now lost. The entrance is from a side lane. We enter. Unlit stairs going up to a first floor courtyard. On one side, a drawing room. A middle-aged man lounging in white kurta pyjama.
“Sir, why is Old Delhi so dirty?” “Do you know there are around eight lakh people living in a radius of 1.5 km?” the man says in flawless English. An alumnus of St Stephen’s College, Nasirul Hassan Jhinjiaani owns this house, including the pigeons on the rooftop. He takes us up to show the Delhi-6 skyline. It is a zigzag line of concrete structures on all sides, looking as if an invading army is inching closer. “No parks here, no sports complexes, no banquet halls,” Hassan says. “Here, people live like mosquitoes.”
Does this place have to be so dirty? “It’s corruption,” he shakes his head. “If this place still resonates with beauty, it is because of its heritage, for we have spared no efforts to ruin it.” In 1990, Hassan’s father, an Urdu poet, had a heart attack. Since there was a traffic jam outside, there was a delay in taking him to the hospital. He died on the way. “People don’t have space to walk,” he says. “Shops have eaten up the roads.”
Back in his drawing room, he says, “There are nice things about Purani Dilli too. We still haven’t lost our tehzeeb, mohabbat, traditions.” Perhaps. But our question is still not answered. We shall have to come back another time.