Independent: Celebrations and Myth-Busting in the Old City

In the monsoon of 2012 we visited Old Delhi almost every week for a group research project at architecture school. We were trying to understand the Old City’s complexity and see how it was different from the Delhi that we lived in. Over many visits to the same mohalla (neighbourhood), we had effectively invited ourselves over to the home of a family we had befriended, for iftaar and flying kites. Our families remained skeptical about us going there on Independence Day – perhaps it is human nature to be wary of what one doesn’t understand.

Although, not too eager to sacrifice a holiday for what seemed like work, our curiosities still got the better of us and we pushed ourselves to just go. From the moment we emerged out of the ground from the metro station at Hauz Qazi Chowk (popular as Chawri Bazaar Metro Station), we realized that it was indeed a special day. This Chowk, where the crowds were usually dizzying, was almost deserted. We hopped on to a cycle rickshaw and started making our way to Sharif Manzil in Ballimaran, a place we had frequented ever so often over the summer.

As we entered Ballimaran, we realized that the streets that were usually bursting with people and commerce were silent – just long rows of closed shutters.  Some men were selling goats for sacrifice – Eid was coming up in a few days. For a fleeting moment one assumed that with Ramzaan going on, all shops being shut and the weather being sultry, most people would be indoors- just another holiday like it was for most of ‘New’ Delhi. Little did we know.

The emptier-than-usual lanes near Hauz Qazi Chowk. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

Crossing Ghalib’s haveli, we ventured into the gate of Sharif Manzil. We spotted our friend and host, 27 year old Amir and his cousins on the terrace, five floors above us, from the chowk in front of their building. Amir’s ground floor garment shop that also sold kites during the season and the neighbouring cyber cafe were both shut. Amir had asked us to make our way up to the chhat. The first flight of steep and long stairs took us directly to a generous balcony on the second floor. We went up the rickety spiral staircase, passed through a passage and climbed a ladder to reach the fourth floor. Finally we walked up a narrow staircase to the terrace and we were engulfed with sounds and color.

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The courtyard at Sharif Manzil. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

 The terrace itself was not so much a flat plane but a collection of distinct rooftops connected to each other. The highest of these had been appropriated by the patangbaaz. We arrived just as the motley crew of boys and young men were helping Amir set up a kite, thread the ribs and roll the manja on to the pin. Their undeclared captain wielded the huge kite, maybe five times the size of a normal one, tugging at it, waiting for it to catch the wind. Middle aged uncles looked on endearingly, calling out advice as they deemed fit. It was a grand production.

Amid the shouts of “kati, kati, KATI!” , we could hear some Bollywood music playing in the distance. Amir told us that mohalla usually hired a DJ and it was almost an open air terrace party on Independence Day. However, with the month of Ramzaan being observed, it was only correct to be respectful. Most of these people hadn’t eaten or even had a sip of water the whole day and still they were flying kites, shouting out to each other and just generally, being happy. There was an electric buzz in the air. The sky was a brilliant blue canvas against which hundreds of kites were painted. The emotion was building up like the heavy humidity that was so common this time of the year, though Amir pronounced it a clear afternoon. “As long as it’s windy, and kites are flying, it won’t rain.”

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Dotted with Kites. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

Interactions with Amir and his family, who have been residents of the mohalla for generations, revealed that even though the closeness between neighbours had reduced over the years, there remained an implicit feeling of mohalledari. Children were jumping across parapets from chhat to chhat , and everyone was a chacha, tau or bhai – there was an overwhelming sense of familiarity.

The visual connection across terraces enhanced the interaction, both within and between mohallas, at a scale which is not imaginable on the street. Though the terraces belonged to individual families, they were not distinct from each other, making them a common resource for the mohalla. The chatt was a whole new realm of public space.

Hop, skip, jump! Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

Occasionally, one would see, a flock of pigeons collide with another and then circle back to their masters. The sport of kabutarbaazi is still prevalent in many neighbourhoods in the Old City, where a kabutarbaaz trains his pigeons to not only come back on call but also steal a few from other flocks on the way! The Khans themselves had many pigeons, some of whom were bought at prices as high as 20,000 rupees a pair.

The sky was mesmerizing as the sun started to set – the tricolor, backlit by the waning sun and the approaching clouds, and was fluttering against a sea of terraces. In that light, even the monstrous MCD building suddenly looked quite harmless. The patangbaazi was starting to wind up and Amir’s kite, which had soared high up and attacked fiercely at first, had met its end as the winds changed.

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Symbolism at its best. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

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From Jama Masjid on the left to the slightly obscured MCD Tower on the right. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

Soon the azaan was called, one mosque after the other. There were fireworks at the Jama Masjid as the sky went pink. We helped spread some mats and bring out the food and sat with the entire family on the chhat. They opened their fast (roza) with dates and fruit. It felt private, but they were genuinely warm and welcoming. We joined in the feast of hot pakoras and gulped down some Fanta for good measure.

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Fireworks at Jama Masjid – time for Iftaar. Photograph by Varun Bajaj ©

 Being a part of that spirit made us realize that in this part of the city, 15th August is so much more than just another holiday, it is truly a celebration, not just of our independence but also the monsoons, the winds and togetherness. This day was all about collectively appropriating the sky, which belongs to all of us, with hundreds of kites and flags, by people, young and old. And there is a strange sense of freedom in just this awareness.

This post is co-written by Bhavika Aggarwal, Rohan Patankar and Varun Bajaj. It is a recollection of their visit to Old Delhi on 15th August, 2012 as part of a research project with Ammani Nair and Vani Sood. Their research paper ‘By the People : Complexity in the Commonplace’ can be found here.

A version of this post appeared on the August 15, 2014 issue of The Scribbler.

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