Crawling around in Nizamuddin


Did a version of this for the TimeOut Delhi magazine as part of their cover story on Eid/Ramzan food. One of my most enjoyable assignments till date.

In his famous travelogue of Delhi, City of Djinns, William Dalrymple writes that the sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya would eat little, unable to bear the sight of starving people sleeping in the streets around him. The neighbourhood around his grave is still a beacon for Delhi’s homeless, but also for visitors with great appetites for kebabs and for qawwali.

During Ramzan, the area’s forking bylanes are filled more than ever with the smells of roasting meat. But listening to qawwali – essentially what “going to Nizamuddin” means in Delhi parlance – is less of an option. The roza is a time of sombre abstinence, and after the lifting of the fast, the Nizami family gives over their dusk singing hour to the reading of the Quran. For that reason, to visit Nizamuddin during Ramzan is to get a sense of the direction in which the neighbourhood may be headed, as a lodestone of Sufism in North India slowly gives over to the sway of more orthodox Islam.

The erosion of Sufi culture from Nizamuddin, where it has thrived for seven hundred years, is largely due to the rise of the Tablighi Jamaat, an international reformist Muslim movement that does not appreciate the company of syncretic Sufism. The Tablighis, who function out of a mosque near the Nizamuddin police thana, run several schools in the area. In contrast, the Nizami family – which claims descent from the saint himself – have grown aloof, locals say. They’ve given back too little to the community, building no schools or hospitals, despite the money dropped by visitors at the shrine. “On the pretext of conducting special prayers, the khadims [dargah attendants] extract money from visitors and pocket the cash,” said filmmaker Yousuf Sayeed, who has researched the life of Nizamuddin Auliya. “There’s never any money to maintain the 800-year-old shrine, so it’s in a bad state.” Recently, the Agha Khan Foundation was entrusted with the massive and controversial task of restoring the shrine to its former glory. They’ve restored the saint’s baoli (step-well), but restoring his true influence is not part of their mandate.

That might just fall to young locals like Sufi Kamaal Hassan Shah, convenor of the Jalali and Rifai Sufi Order Group. During Ramzan, Shah organises private qawwali nights, where they pray, experiment with zikr, smoke chillam and – of course – tuck into those tasty kebabs. Shah’s gatherings welcome visitors with an appreciation for the ethos and the music (which is usually qawwals sung in Bengali). For visitors who are less adventurous, or just seeking respite from the madding crowd and the late-monsoon humidity, it can be found in the air-conditioned interior of the local branch of Karim’s. It rides on the reputation of the Karim’s at Jama Masjid, so prepare your tastebuds for sikandari raan, burra kabab and other Karim’s-popularised meats. 

But the smaller restaurants of Nizamuddin are equally welcoming (and far more reasonably priced). No sooner has the muezzin signalled the end of roza, the fasting period, than floods of young men throng Nasir Iqbal Restaurant to devour its delicately spiced mutton qorma (Rs 60). The rough-edged Ghalib’s eatery has a following greatly out of proportion with its size, mostly thanks to its soft, mouth-watering beef shammi kababs (Rs 25). Diners who prefer their meat tough and crunchy should head to Yaseen’s Kebab Corner, which specialises in crunchy fried chicken (Rs 50 per piece) and roasted beef tikkas, locally called “bade ka meat”. Here, in the space between the Tablighi mosque and the dargah, it briefly doesn’t matter if you’re a puritan or a Sufi, a rozedaar (fast-keeper) or a lapsed Muslim or not a Muslim at all – if you have an appetite, you can believe Nizamuddin is paradise. 

Sir Sobha Singh: A Profile


My latest piece for the Timeout Delhi magazine

Among the maharajas and the English nobility who graced the Delhi Darbar of 1911, were two Sikh gentlemen. One of them – a 22-year-old contractor – had been busy working on the Kalka-Simla Railroad, but was awed by King George’s announcement that the imperial capital would shift from Calcutta to Delhi. Sardar Bahadur Sir Sobha Singh’s first job was to relocate the foundation stones from where the King and Queen had laid them, in Kingsway. Under cover of darkness (so it would not be taken as a bad omen), he moved them to the new site on Raisina Hill. Here, in the light of a petromax lamp, he personally laid the real foundation of New Delhi.

It was a fitting start. Sobha Singh became the original great builder of New Delhi, constructing at least 28 of its iconic structures, including South Block, India Gate, the Jaipur Column outside Rashtrapati Bhawan, Vijay Chowk, the National Museum and the Modern School on Barakhamba Road. Like Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, the principal architects whose plans he helped materialise, Singh was never honoured by having a road or building named after him – and isn’t popularly remembered today. Yet he acquired so much land in the new city Delhi that he was famously called 
aadhi nai dilli da maalik (owner of half of New Delhi).

Sobha Singh resurfaced in Delhi’s memory this month, with the release of Celebrating Delhi, a compilation of eight lectures given in the 2006 Sir Sobha Singh Memorial series (and three newer 
articles). The speakers at the lecture series were quintessential Delhi figures, including historians Narayani Gupta, Upinder Singh, William Dalrymple and Sohail Hashmi, environmentalist Pradip Krishen and publisher Ravi Dayal. The keynote speaker was writer Khushwant Singh, the son of the builder himself. “Rarely was a man so identified with the birth of a city as Sir Sobha Singh was with New Delhi,” he wrote in the introduction, “translating into sandstone and marble most of the imperial blueprints of Lutyens and Baker.”

Many of the essays in 
Celebrating Delhi unfold in this period. Khushwant Singh’s lecture, drawn largely from his own memories, revisits New Delhi when it was more brick kilns than buildings and “contracts were going a-begging”. It was the first generation of New Delhi builders getting super-rich, both legitimately (buying empty land) and otherwise (using surplus materials to build themselves large houses, Khushwant Singh recalls). Other chapters layer detail onto the city that Sobha built, such as how it was named (Narayani Gupta points out that the nationalist upsurge in the ’20s led to names linking British rule to forgone rulers: Prithviraj Road, Asoka Road, Aurangzeb Road) and how it was greened (Pradip Krishen: “No native species [were] planted on any of its avenues… Not a single species of tree that can be called a Delhi native.”)

Today, lecture series apart, the most prominent public remembrance of Sobha Singh is a nameplate at his former residence on Janpath, now the headquarters of the Sir Sobha Singh Memorial Trust. “Not only him, but even the contributions of Lutyens and Baker have never been duly acknowledged,” said Mala Dayal, editor of 
Celebrating Delhi and grand-daughter of the builder. “Politicians are only out to please some kind of vote bank.” According to Gurbaksh Singh, son of the builder and president of the Memorial Trust, the family – Delhi’s intellectual first family – once requested the NDMC to name a road after Sobha Singh, but “general laziness” crept in and the family didn’t chase the request.

It wasn’t just twenty-first century forgetfulness that served to efface Sobha Singh from New Delhi. In the years after Independence, figures who had been friendly with the Raj landed in the bad books of the interim government. “Liaquat Ali Khan [then finance minister] started an income tax enquiry commission against people who supposedly made money during the [World] War and hadn’t paid taxes,” said Gurbaksh Singh. “My father had to spend three years answering to that commission.” He added that Sobha Singh didn’t have time to worry about politics (or architecture). “He just kept constructing and building and making money.”

However, there was another side to this workaholic builder – that of a family man who was more liberal, and more humble, than most of the patriarchs of his generation. 
“A lot of his grandchildren, including me, married outside the Sikh community and he was completely okay with it,” said Mala Dayal. Sobha Singh named nothing after himself or his children. After his father, he named Sujan Singh Park, the set of spacious private apartments in the heart of the city where his descendents now reside. “He was very generous to those who did favours for him,” Dayal said. “At times he was over-generous, since he gifted flats in Sujan Singh Park to people who just did him a favour.” Still, that’s not a bad way to be remembered.