Vowels of the street in Old Delhi’s Chatta Sheikh Mangloo
In one famous scene of the Arabian Nights, a thief paints a mark on Ali Baba’s door so that his companions can visit later at night to murder him. But Ali Baba’s wise maid notices the mark and paints a similar one on each door of the neighbourhood to confuse the robbers.
It is this scene that one feels transported to while walking in Old Delhi’s Chatta Sheikh Mangloo. Each door on the long winding street is marked with an ‘O’ or ‘E’ painted in yellow.
“O stands for odd and E stands for even,” a chai stall owner, across the lane from a guesthouse named Just For You, explained.
While easing up the Coronavirus-triggered lockdown, the Delhi government had announced that shops could finally open for business on an “Odd-Even basis”, which meant that no two adjacent shops would be open at the same time, as a way to avoid crowds. “Our market’s pradhan got these signs painted,” the tea seller said.
That was in May. It is now September and all the shops are free to open even as Covid-19 remains a part of daily life. The hand-drawn signs have remained.
One early morning in August, the street is empty. Many shops in the neighbourhood deal with spare motor parts and open only around 11 am. Dismantled car doors, steering wheels and rear view mirrors hang from the top of shuttered fronts, making for a sight as fascinating as the Mughal-era Jama Masjid, just a few steps away. The lane is full of other distractions—beautiful or ugly depending on your aesthetics. Curiously, some of the signs of odd and even are drawn on doors of residences. “It’s because the man painting the signs just went along without bothering with what kind of door it was,” said an elderly man, gazing upon a green doorway painted with an O.
A few beggars are sitting right under these signs, some are breakfasting on chai and bun. The elderly Sab Begum is asking for money from passersby under an E. Under another E, stands a goat.
The yellow shade of these signs hasn’t faded over the months; instead it has acquired a darker hue, seemingly enriched by exposure to the elements. They look like guests who have permanently settled down in their host’s house.
What will happen to these signs, in that longed-for future when pandemic has passed? Will they be allowed to stay on as souvenirs of these unprecedented times? In any case, you ought to take a walk past these Os and Es, just to see for yourself how history is made: by the addition of new layers over older ones. Go in the morning when the shutters are down, obviously.