Old Delhi, new tales
THE STREET of Ballimaran near Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi is not just famous for the house of Mirza Ghalib in Gali Qasim Jan. Long before the poet came to live there, it was the colony of boatrowers. Hence the name Ballimaran. The Nawab of Loharu was one of the illustrious inhabitants of the place. It was his property that came to Ghalib as inheritance after marriage with Umrao Begum, sister of the Nawab.
In later years the famous writer Hali resided in Ballimaran, having the pleasure of meeting Mirza Ghalib as a 17-year-old callow youth from Panipat. Hali, grandfather of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, gleaned a lot from Kallu, Ghalib's servant, after the poet's death. Among those who also lived in Ballimaran were Hakim Ajmal Khan, whose dilapidated ancestral haveli still exists, and Hasrat Mohani the creator of the ghazal, "Chupke, Chupke'' sung by Ghulam Ali to great popularity after its long hibernation since 1928.
Dr Zakir Husain was fond of having his meals in Ballimaran, specially at Hafiz hotel no longer in existence. Zakir Husain liked good food and invited himself to the house of his friends when he came to know that something special was cooking there. But at Hafiz Hotel the food, though wholesome, was not rich and one could afford to eat it every day, as this scribe realised during his salad days in the early 1960s.
A thin, old man, known as Mianji used to sit on a side bench as a perpetual companion to the owner and his brother, regaling the customers with spicy stories of the big and famous who had patronised the hotel. One evening Zakir Husain passed that way in his car. He was the vice-president then. He neither stopped at the hotel nor waved to anyone but Mianji came out with the story that Doctor Sahib wanted to make sure whether the hotel was still there so that he could send his servant later for a lot of khana.
Mianji had his meal at the hotel thrice a day, morning, noon and night, free of cost for his good-mouthing the eating house to all and sundry. Mianji must be dead now but there's still much of interest in this street of oarsmen, who once rowed the boats on the Yamuna, though not on the canal that flowed through Chandni Chowk in Moghul days. That's just a figment of the imagination. Have you heard the song of the silver-beaters? They tick-tack-too in Ballimaran the whole day before pulling down the shutters of their shops and going home to rest their weary backs. They are the silver-leaf -- chandi-ka-varq -- makers who have been plying their trade for centuries, beating a silver wire until it becomes a dainty leaf fit to adorn the best of sweets -- gulab jamuns, barfi, kalakand, as also fruit like louqat, pomegranates and mangoes. Gold leaf, however, you'll find only at the weddings of aristocrats and the neo-rich.
The story goes that a henpecked silversmith who could not find work got disgusted with life and went away to the forest to end his life. But he waited too long for the opportune moment to blow off the vital spark and night caught him in an evanescent moot. Soon he heard a strange sound from a hollow and tiptoeing over a hillock espied a group of fairies beating out little whisps of silver in the moonlight and blowing them like this thistle down in the night air. This went on till dawn and by the time the fairies departed the silversmith had wrested the secret of making silverleaf from them. It is said the discovery excited him so much that he hurried back to the city to ply the trade and become a rich man.
Only the very naive might believe the tale but still it adds some romanticism to a backbreaking job that does not fetch much to those who make a living by it. The beating of silver or gold into the thinnest leaf is an offshoot of the belief that consumption of precious metals acts as an elixir. This belief is not baseless, for in the ancient systems of medicine certain illnesses could only be cured by the intake of gold and silver. And the easiest way to do it was by eating things coated with silver or gold leaf. Even now Unani and Ayurvedic practitioners prescribe `anwala' coated with silver- leaf as the best tonic for the heart and mind, and as cure for palpitation.
In the feudal days, rajas, maharajas, nawabs and zamindars employed hakims to prepare elixirs which were invariably taken with silver and gold leaf which is still available but at a much higher price than early days. The poor worker who beats out the leaf has benefited little over the years. Whole families are employed in the profession which is hereditary and binds down son, father and grandfather to the arduous task.
Talk to these men -- Kallu, Langra, Faqira, Alimuddin -- and learn about the loneliness of their lives. To pass the tedious hours they tell tales. And what tales they are! Of Hatim Tai, Alif Laila, Rustam and Sohrab, the legendary Persian warriors, of the old Baba who lives under the tamarind tree and the three pretty women who visit the distant shrine every Thursday for weekly vows -- may be for good marriage partners!
The silver-beaters' clothes are tattered, their hands pain because of constant friction with the hammer, their loose teeth ache with the strain of chewing betel-nut, and when they go home, there is a sea of troubles awaiting them. While putting a silverleaf-coated sweet in your mouth the next time, spare a thought for these odd-job men.
They share the same street that is associated with some of the famous men of Delhi -- Nawab of Loharu, Ghalib, Hali, Ajmal Khan, Hasrat Mohani and Zakir Husain. You could add some more names like those of Bhai Sadiq and Ahmed Ali to complete the galaxy of the denizens of Ballimaran. Ahmed Ali mentioned a sabeel -- water-hut -- at the entrance of the street in his novel, `Twilight in Delhi'. It's still there.
Take a deep drink of water before venturing to explore the mysteries that lie beyond it and the row of shops selling the cheapest shoes in Delhi. Mohammed Mian Akbar is no longer there but the men who Akbar Bhai trained are still around. Some of them live in Phatak Punjabian, one of the oldest Muslim localities who came from Punjab as traders in the 18th Century. They even have a cemetery of their own at the side of Raj Niwas Marg. And so the Civil Lines too in a way is linked with Ballimaran.
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