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From a ghost town to a favourite hub

It took 20 years to build New Delhi and a few more years for its new residents to warm up to the Capital.

delhi Updated: Sep 01, 2011 11:15 IST
Sidhartha Roy

It took 20 years to build New Delhi and a few more years for its new residents to warm up to the Capital.

Between 1911 — when Delhi was officially made the country’s Capital — and 1931, when it was inaugurated, the imperial government functioned from an area called ‘Temporary Delhi’. While the government machinery functioned from the present Civil Lines area, the social life of the nascent Capital revolved around Kashmere Gate from 1910s to the 1940s. “Kashmere Gate was India’s Piccadilly Circus, where the elite of the city went for shopping,” said Sydney Rebeiro, first Dean, Culture of Delhi University. Rebeiro, whose family moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1909, said the present New Delhi was a fairly dense forest area with graveyards scattered across it.

“It was the original Connaught Place with famous shops like Blue Bird and Spencers,” he said. “The elite lived at houses in Nicholson Road and Hamilton Road and the staff who had just moved from Calcutta, were put up in barracks at Timarpur and Khyber Pass.”

“The social life of the elite revolved around the Delhi Club in Ludlow Castle, where dances and tambola were organised in weekly get-togethers,” said historian RV Smith. “Ritz near Kashmere Gate was the popular cinema and the area had famous shops like Carltons for confectionery and Keventers for milk products.”

“Most of the lower rung staff who moved to Delhi comprised Bengalis who first settled in the Walled City and then moved to the Kashmere Gate,” Smith said. “Later, more people shifted to Delhi and started living in Timarpur, Rouse Avenue and Minto Road areas.”

The family of Indra Bhushan Roy (90), a retired government official, moved to Delhi in the 1920s.

“Even after New Delhi was inaugurated, not many people wanted to move there because things of daily need like milk and vegetables were not available,” he said.

“Connaught Place was still a forest where jackals roamed.” Cars in 1920s were few and tongas were the most-popular means of transport. “We used to pay five annas for a tonga ride to Chandni Chowk from the Gol Dak Khana area, where I stayed with my uncle Satish Roy, who worked in the military finance department,” Roy said.

There were a few buses, too, run by the Gwalior Northern India Transport. Special bus services were later started, called the Delhi Motor Service, to ferry babus from the Secretariat to Kashmere Gate and Walled City, where they lived.

“We would pay two annas to hitch a ride on the two rickety buses that plied between Gol Dak Khana and Kashmere Gate,” Roy said.

“Even in the 1930s, New Delhi would become a ghost town after the office hours,” he said. “Street lights were run by gas and a man had the job of lighting them up every evening.”