Delhiwale: Walk in a poet’s basti

A journey into an enclave tucked in the heart of Delhi which is also home to the grave of an 18th-century poet.

delhi Updated: Jul 30, 2018 12:59 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times
delhiwale,Khwaja Mir Dard Basti,Shakur ki Dandi
The tomb of 18th century poet-saint Khwaja Mir Dard lies in a locality in central Delhi which is named after him. (HT Photo )

It is just a five-minute drive from Connaught Place, but a different world. Girls are playing kikli, and cats are prowling around for scraps of meat. This is a universe of narrow alleys where the sun barely enters. In summer, the lanes stay cool. In winter, they keep the cold winds at bay.

Khwaja Mir Dard Basti, or Shakur ki Dandi, looks ramshackle. Yet it has poetry and music. It is sandwiched between the city’s tallest high-rise and a college that traces its origins to the 17th century.

In 1947, this 2.5 acre land was a graveyard. Now, according to locals, there are thousands of people here. The Basti flanks Zakir Husain College. Its shabbiness is made starker by the Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Civic Centre, a 112m skyscraper of grey concrete and glass, the headquarters of the North and South Delhi municipal corporations. It looms over Khwaja Mir Dard Basti as commandingly as the national flag in Central Park does over the Connaught Place.

Do not be surprised if walking down a lane, you suddenly hear the sound of tabla or harmonium. The basti is home to the Mirasis, a community of musicians who perform at Sufi shrines and sometimes also in red-light districts.

The basti’s great landmark—the tomb of 18th century poet-saint Khwaja Mir Dard—is rarely visited by Delhiites. “And still, the man who has found his final resting place in this modest tomb was, in his time, one of the great mystical leaders of Delhi and was, at the same time, the first to write mystical verses in Urdu,” wrote Sufism scholar Annemarie Schimmel in one of her books.

One afternoon, goats were grazing inside Mir Dard’s circular mausoleum, hopping across the tombs. The mausoleum is hemmed in by residential blocks. Until a few years ago it had no roof and the tombs—all done in ceramic tile—were exposed to the elements.

While walking along the lanes, it is impossible not to come across scenes of domestic intimacies simply because many of these houses are so small that the dwellers play out their lives right in front of the lanes, sometime a tattered curtain barely hiding their privacy.

In any case, the rhythm of street life itself is too hypnotic to care for anything else. Tombs crisscross the lanes. A few alleys open into cubicle-like intersections that look to the sky. Goats are tethered to almost every door, passers-by pat them lovingly.

Unlike other poets, musicians and scholars who fled to towns like Lucknow in search of a new livelihood when Delhi was ravaged by invaders, the basti’s patron saint, Mir Dard, never left his city. He famously said: “Delhi which has now been devastated, tears are flowing now instead of its rivers; this town has been like the face of the lovely, And its suburbs like the town of the beloved ones.”

Today, there are invasions of a different kind. Instead of writing sad verses, the people are trying to get on as best they can; finding jobs and opportunities, moving into the neighbourhood and leaving it forever, in search of a better life. Khwaja Mir Dard Basti may survive, but in a different form.

First Published: Jul 26, 2018 14:00 IST