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When the Yamuna seemed clear and still

Sixty years ago, Delhi was a calm and peaceful village where time moved slowly and even waters of the Yamuna seemed clear and still, writes our reader Gokal Khanna.

delhi Updated: Jan 07, 2008 12:06 IST
Gokal Khanna
Gokal Khanna

Sixty years ago, Delhi was a calm and peaceful village where time moved slowly and even waters of the Yamuna seemed clear and still. We lived at 17 Alipur Road, Civil Lines, in a century-old bungalow, which was recently given the Heritage Award by the lieutenant governor.

Across our home in Old Delhi (which then was the only Delhi) was a bungalow from where All India Radio functioned. Security and terrorism were unheard of then and the place was an open house. On Sunday mornings, I would walk into the studio when the children’s programme was on.

<b1>I vividly remember Sir Stafford Cripp’s visit to our neighbourhood to address an anxious nation. The place to shop, in Old Delhi, was the Exchange Stores, which opened in the mid-thirties. Shops remained open till late and even on Sundays.

Crystal Cold Drinks and Carlton Café were other regular haunts. Maidens Hotel, of course, is still there. They have survived time, unlike others such as the Swiss & Cecil Hotels, which is now St Xavier’s School. Banks functioned till late, in those days the staff were polite and hardworking. One of the city’s oldest clubs, Roshanara, was in its glory days. It was the place for the elite.

The bar has not changed its motto, an Oscar Wilde quote: “Work is the ruin of the drinking classes.” In the forties, the balls and banquets were fabulous. Irish linen jackets and bow ties were compulsory. Rummy, fortunately, and golf, unfortunately, had not arrived on the scene.

Connaught Place was usually deserted, except for some cinema halls, which attracted crowds. There were no traffic jams and we often cycled down for an evening show. The university and Ridge area was all forest and a prohibited area after dusk due to the danger of dacoits and animals. Land was dirt-cheap, no pun intended.

My father used to say that the drumbeater would announce a sale in Civil Lines at 4 annas a yard but there were no buyers. Our bungalows went a begging for tenants and ‘To Let’ posters were pasted on most gates in Civil Lines. One Afghan prince who retained our bungalow for a whole year paid rent only for those months when he stayed in Delhi. Our family tailor (who later tailored Nehru’s Achkans) used to drive down in his car to take measurements.

The ice creamwallah and pastrywallah provided both home delivery and pleasure. The stuff was called ‘Yum Today’, whatever that means! My father had an interest in a bakery. His foresight and experience helped a multinational in the mid-fifties to introduce sandwich bread in the country.

For the first few weeks, one car was enough to make supplies. Today, it is the largest bakery in India, if not Asia. There were no unions in those days and the working class including, lawyers were a conscientious lot. Prices? Suffice to mention one item of luxury.

My father’s monthly requirement (delivered by Spencer’s) of one case of Scotch cost less than what a bada sahib pays today for a chotta in a five star hotel. A visit to the Qutub Minar was a full day’s outing. One had to return by 4 pm lest we encounter dacoits in the deserted area near Yusuf Sarai now known as Panchshila Park, AIIMS, etc.

Flyovers, dual carriage-ways, traffic jams/lights, three wheeler nuisances, the nightmares of today were then not even dreamt of. In Chandni Chowk electric trams were fast means of transport. Most of the well-to-do families had buggies or carriages and an evening ride was a must.

GNIT Bus service came later. Fortunately it had not met DTC, which parks itself whenever, wherever and howsoever it likes,besides getting away with the plea of having drivers who have developed colour blindness.
But let’s forget today and tomorrow for a brief while ( if we can ), and go back memory lane, remembering those good old days when gold was in our veins and laughter in our hearts. Yet may be, as they say, today’s trying times are tomorrow’s good old days.