Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 6

The posting of this series has been somewhat irregular, mea culpa. But I hope you are enjoying reading it as much as I did. Here is the next part: 

(Continued excerpts from The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple)

As the sun set, the churches, mosques and temples filled again: the ringing of the bells of the evening arti, the final call to prayer from the minarets, and the basso profoundo of the organ chords concluding Padre Jennings' evensong in St James's, all fusing together with rumble of British carriages heading out towards the Civil Lines through the bottleneck of Kashmiri Gate - where the bricking up of the second of the two arches was a cause of frequent complaints in the Delhi Gazette.
As then gloaming thickened, the lights were lit in the Red Fort by a procession of torchbearers accompanied by tabors, trumpets and pipes, while out in the city the streets were filling with the Delhi College students and the madrasa boys returning in the half-light, exhausted from a day's hard study and memorising. The two streams would rarely mingle, however.
For the English, sunset was the beginning of the end of the day. They had another vast meal to look forward to - ......... but there was little to look forward to thereafter. The French traveller Victor Jacquemont was particularly unimpressed by the after-dinner entertainments offered by the British society of Delhi: 'I have not seen the slightest exhibition of pleasure among the idlers at [Delhi] parties', he wrote. 'None of the conditions which make a ball a pleasurable thing in Paris exist in the European community in Delhi'.
It was certainly true that the British community in Delhi were an eccentric lot, even by the standards of Victorian expats.
Certainly, the British in Delhi were always to some extent looking over their shoulder to the more Anglicised station of Meerut, which with its huge cantonment and large English community was famous for its theatre and its lavish regimental balls. But Delhi could boast almost none of that: 'There is little society here, complained one junior Residency official, adding that after he had finished his court work, he had little option but to take refuge in the company of his classical library.'
For the people of Delhi, however, the best part of the day lay ahead. Chandni Chowk really came alive only after sunset, as the pavements swelled with wide-eyed boys from the mufussil or Jat farmers and Gujar herdsmen in from their villages in Haryana, ogling the gamblers locked in the stocks outside the lotwal or heading off to ask for blessings and good fortune  at the city's matrix of bustling Sufi shrines. Elsewhere could be seen gentlemen visiting from Lucknow in their distinctive cut of wide-bottomed pyjamas or tall, bearded Pathan horse traders fresh in from Peshawar and Ambala, spilling out of the sarais and in to Ghantawallahs, the famous sweet shop, whose laddus were supposed to be the best in Hindustan. The coffee houses - the qahwa khanas - were filling up now too, with poets reciting their verses at some tables, scholars locked in debate at others.

Photo courtesy: http://oldindianphotos.blogspot.com/
On the steps of Jama Maszid, the story tellers would be beginning their recitations, which could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break. The most popular of all the tales was the Dastan-i-Amir Hamza, a chivalrous epic romance....) In its fullest form, the tale grew to contain a massive twenty thousand  separate stories, and would take several weeks of all-night story telling to complete, the printed version filled forty-six volumes. As listeners gathered around the Dastango (the story teller), at the other side of the steps, Jani the celebrated kebab man would now be fanning his charcoal. Delhiwallahs used to like surprise visitors from outside by taking them to eat there without telling them of 'the pot of hot chillis' with which Jani would marinate his kebabs.

Also in the series:
Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 1
Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 2 
Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 3 
Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 4
Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 5

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