Delhi Through Their Eyes: Connaught Place with Sohail Hashmi

Sohail Hashmi, the most eminent heritage walk leader, in Delhi, took us around Connaught Place, last Sunday. What draws me to his walks, is not just an admiration for his knowledge about the city, per se, but his persona in totality. There’s a gentleness and an intensity, about his demeanour, that draws throngs of people to his walks.

This was the first time, Mr Hashmi conducted a walk in the heart of Delhi- Connaught Place and though he said it required a bit of tweaking, all the participants, really enjoyed walking around, listening to historical facts juxtaposed with his personal anecdotes.

Connaught Place, steers many childhood memories. This hub of New Delhi, is practically where one grew up. Convent of Jesus and Mary, my alma mater which is opposite the Gole Dhak Khana- the octagonal, New Delhi General Post Office Building, is a stone throw away from where all the business and partying take place. Many a birthday parties, dates, class bunks and mishaps have happened in CP. Even now, since one detests malls, many a weekends are spent, enjoying a live concert within these iconic corridors.

Check out Heritage Walks with Sohail Hashmi, on FB, to remain updated on the schedule.

14 th September- 40 days later in Soura

A woman showing the press the wounds the JKP inflicted on her, while she was returning from the medical institute.

The women of Soura, are as passionate as the boys about ‘azadi’

An older woman narrates the happenings of the past month.

A spokeswoman from the locality tells me, ‘mein protest mein kabhi nahin jaati, interview deti hu, lekin jati nahin hu.’

A young boy who became handicapped in 2018, after pellets hit his skull.

They thought I was an agent of the GOI. The people of the locality, were suspicious of me, on Friday- the day of the Jumma Namaz but on Saturday it was a whole different story. The day before, they saw many local photojournalists and assumed I was with one of them. For the first time, I saw them, the female photojournalists of the Valley. Two of them, accompanied by a male photographer and a photojournalist from some part of India, pretending to be Kashmiri. When I was introduced to her, I did tell her it was obvious she wasn’t from there but she totally denied it!

These tactics make it hard for people to trust someone who is there all alone. My gaffer had promised to only drop and pick me up, from Soura. ‘Mein nahin ja sakta, they will pick me up and send me to some jail, in another part of India! I hope you understand?’ Of course I did. Hummare peeche koi rone wallah nahin he, other people have families that would be devastated. With hardly any trasportation running in this part of town, with no mobile connectivity and with no one in my family knowing that I was entering this place, I was by myself, shitting bricks in my pants, in a locality where neither the JKP nor the Army could enter, so I did what I do best, just say it like it is. ‘ I am not Kashmiri and do not mistake me for being Muslim, just because of my name. I don’t want you to feel I entered your houses, by telling you all a lie!’ The truth mostly works like a charm in Kashmir, trying lying to them and you are jacked, for sure. I am glad I did because the female photojournalists went around announcing to all and sundry that I wasn’t with them and I wasn’t Kashmiri, which ultimately lead to a sort of friendly interrogation by the locals- my ids were checked, they wanted to see my father’s photograph on my phone to make sure my Aadhar card was genuine, I was constantly accompanied by these two adorable girls, who took me all around but I had a gnawing suspicion that they had been asked to keep an eye on the stranger.

Whatever, it was, I told the truth, so I hung around practically the whole day. A boy had been caught, by the JKP, the previous day, from the protest . This was while I was interviewing someone in another corner of the locality, on Friday. Apparently, his sister went to the police station to check on him and she too was beaten up and had been detained. To protest against that, the women went to the Soura Medical Institute on the 14th. I was there while, they stopped people and told them their woes. Ultimately, three army men came to beat them up as I hurriedly went, hid my camera and sat in the corner with the patients. If any armed personnel would have seen me entering or exiting Soura, my cameras or chips would have been ceased. The girls ran back and some got hurt.

After twenty minutes, I snuck back into the locality. I interviewed people, hung around in the park and was invited over for lunch by plenty of women, which I politely declined. This was the Kashmir, I was used to, these were the people I was used to ( kind and hospitable) not the one’s who had been giving me dirty looks on the roads since the abrogation. Ultimately I went for tea, with the local girl who had chosen to accompany me. Her family was really hospitable and kind, feeding me lots, while they warned her to be careful about what she tells me.

I left a little later, than the time assigned by my gaffer. The girls still by my side, ‘Didi we want to make sure, you are safe!’ ( or what they didn’t say- we want to know who brought you here). People hung around in front of their shops, while I walked past, the shutters down, chatting about the terrible events of the day. ‘Now they will beat up our women, too!’ they discussed. There seemed to be more barricades by the end of the same day and a lot more boys hung around at the unofficial posts, protecting their locality and their women!

Solo Date # 64-Hunger Club

On an afternoon in March, when I had a couple of hours between two appointments, I went to Hunger Club. The previous night, I had eaten at my favourite haunt in Kashmir-a small dhaba called Paakezah and opposite that is this newly opened, swanky restaurant in Rajbagh.

Post lunch it was fairly deserted- too late for the locals to eat and no tourists in town. The chicken was delicious, but it was the company that was quite interesting. No, I didn’t go with someone, it was while I was there, by myself, enjoying my meal, that I met the owner. I was just going about my routine, eating, chatting with the waiter, in this case making a few suggestion about the place, when the owner overheard the conversation and asked if he could join me. Anywhere else in India, I will look a man up and down, think ‘what the hell does this one want?’ and utter something quite obnoxious to make the man split. In Kashmir, I’m someone else, quite chatty, unlike my usual porcupinal ways.

The conversation of course remained about Kashmir, we were joined by a friend of the person who sat opposite me. Before I knew it a couple of hours had passed and though I was asked very subtly, if I was a Khalistan sympathiser (which is the the rudest thing I have ever been asked. I didn’t want to stay in Hemkunt Colony and I definitely would never move to Punjab…so I don’t need a Khalistan, thank you very much) it was a fairly engaging, well spent afternoon.

Solo traveller in Kashmir

I took the flight day before yesterday, hoping the journey would be less frightening than last times. More than a month ago, I got on an Indigo flight to Srinagar. Due to turbulence, the journey was so uncomfortable, that the thirty people who were returning from Umrah, started chanting Allah’s name, a woman started vomiting and I too was left feeling sick to my stomach. Due to my general absentmindedness, I told my Dad I was flying Go and throughout the misadventure, I kept thinking that if the plane crashes, my parents wouldn’t even know I was on this particular flight. But this was better, we landed ahead of time. Comfortably? Nothing about flying makes me feel comfortable, in the first place!

The lamba chauda Jat ( reminded me of the ex) who I met at the hotel last time, had sent me photographs of the tulips from his official, weekend trip. Assuming, I too would be able to find some, I dropped my bags and rushed out. I got on a shared cab, which took twenty bucks from me and dropped me, close to the garden. I walked, bouncing away to glory, as I usually do, listening to something cheesy, while the uniformed men, eyed me suspiciously. The sign at the door said, ‘closed to general public’. Since, I don’t understand signs, I end up pulling where it says push and pushing where it says pulls, invariably I’ve headed right into the men’s loo more times than you can imagine (absolutely sober,fyi) I just pushed the door and walked in. Once, I walked in, then they couldn’t throw me out. I searched for tulips and found a few, which had withered. Two older gentlemen working there, then took me to the official area, where I found the last tulips of the season. As I was walking out, there were a lot more men at the gate, who looked at me curiously. One tried stopping me, ‘aap aayee kaise, andar madam?’. ‘ Jadu, se sir, aur ab jadu sai ja rahee hu!’ Off I ran.

In the evening, I went for the Urs of Batmaloo Sahib. My experience with the boys of the area, hasn’t been pleasant. That’s the only place in Kashmir, where the stone pelters have hurled abuses at me and I genuinely feel scared of them. Not having any of the boys, who have worked with me earlier, doesn’t help. I no longer have a mediator. My main man, is sitting in a far away land, trying to earn money for his entire family and should hopefully, be back on vacation, before my next trip.

As soon as I walked towards where the Ferris wheels were, I wanted to crawl underground. There were so many young boys there, some who I recognised and most who recognised me. They stood there, pointing towards me, all their heads turned in my direction. ‘Mar gayee, aaj to tu mar gayee’, I hummed to myself. Tried to make some photographs but the constant surveillance, hassled me, too much. I called one of them over to clear things, ‘kyaa hua?’, I asked. ‘Kuch nahin, hum aap ko jante he!’ replied the eighteen year old. ‘I’m not here to take pictures of any of you, I’m not looking for trouble, I’m just here for the fair!’ I said, feigning a sternness, only SB can pretend to have. He nodded, smiled and then went to inform the rest. I took some pictures, went to the Dargah, to which I was followed but by then I knew, they weren’t going to do anything, for now. Made some more pictures, walked out of there, knowing I was being tailed, caught an auto and stopped at the Boulevard, went to a restaurant to eat (hide) and then came back to my hotel.

You would assume, this would stop me from going back but a girl’s got to do, what a girl’s got to do! So, last evening I went back. The rain kept most people away and the boy from my hotel reception, came to check on me. He took me around, showed me his family graveyard and then we stood in one corner, in plain sight, chatting as it rained. Once enough people saw me with a Kashmiri man, I knew I was safer. As soon as it stopped raining, he went away and I went back to my business. Made a live video, distributed my card, by the time I return today, hopefully, they will be rest assured, I am not an Indian spy!

Solo Date #60- pushkar

One is travelling for leisure, for a change. Three days without the camera, away from home ( In Mumbai too but over there it was a family emergency) is a first. Ofcourse it lies in the room with the many books that lie on my bed. I don’t sleep alone, you see.

As I wandered around aimlessly through the market place, picking up gifts, I heard the sound of the Nagara coming from the ghats. It pulled me towards itself as my body moved with the rhythm. A group of foreigners played the nagara with two Indian drummers. I was invited to join them. So there I sat with drum sticks after ages, playing away with the rest of them as the sun set infront of me. Jamming with Nathulal Solanki’s boys on the ghats of Pushkar, is a first. Starting the year with that priceless.

Notes from the road- Guzarishe or Shikayate

Random thoughts that run through my head while driving…incase you are wondering what I do by myself. Mein aur meri tanhai aksar bateein karti he…

Here we go

‘Aap Ko Dar Nahi Lagta?’, they keep asking the coward of the century. The coward smiles, ‘lagta he!’ and answers the slew of questions that follow a reply like that, all the while feeling like a hypocrite. The long list of things she’s afraid of include- even the slightest mention of ghosts, using any toilet at night that’s not her own, sometimes the dark, intimacy, that everybody she loves is going to die before her, heights, closed spaces, crowds, hurting her legs, going blind…it’s an endless list.

Chatted with a group of women from Diu, while I sat on the steps of an eatery waiting for the man of the hour, to make me his famous sandwich. They told me how green and beautiful it was. As per my plan, which you know by now, I follow to the T, not:I was supposed to be there. But my gut, which will get me killed one of these days, wanted to bring me to Chhattisgarh and since I keep feeding the beast, here I am! From Daman to Raipur according to the Baba is around 1,153 km. From Daman to Delhi is around 1, 254 kms. But Raipur to Delhi is another 1,228 kms. So effectively, my butt is screwed.

Spent the night before leaving, listening to a song from Dangal on repeat for 20 minutes, as the gaurd at the Hotel, wondered why I wasn’t stepping out of the car. ‘Kuch nikalna he gadee se madam?’ he asked. I just shook my head and kept listening. As I got off the car, I chanted ‘Sava lakh nal ikk ladava!’, all the while shitting bricks in my pant. After all, I was heading towards one of the most dangerous places in India. All the threads on the auto sites, suggested not driving at night. Apparently, the border between Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh is a bit unsafe. Self hypnosis works well on the coward!

I left Daman the day before, to drive through pothole after pothole till Dhule and then the route got better. I halted after almost 400 kms at Jalgaon. The next day, the Great Eastern Highway, made my life easier, as I drove to Raipur. The sun had set and I had still not reached the border but the route was good enough to keep going, so I did. At a particular stretch, it was like driving through the Western Ghats, greenery, the stars twinkling in the skies, a two lane highway, which was thankfully not deserted. Till Rajnandgaon there was enough vehicular movement.

Honestly, I expected some drama but nope, nothing. No searches, no cops, no check points, nothing! It was smooth sailing. Checked into a hotel and spent the day shooting. Even contemplated driving to Bastar but decided to put a lid on the adrenaline rush that courting danger gives me.

Anjuman

‘I am Anjuman. I am a mehfil, I am a gathering. Of everybody and nobody of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.’-from the ministry of utmost happiness. ‘Iss anjuman mein apko aana he bar bar.’-Umrao Jan comes to mind.

What is it about characters that live on the fringe of normalcy and society, that fascinates me I know not! With all their shades of black and grey, whether fictitious or real, they are oh so wonderful. Though, I barely get any time to read (my -7 and -8 eyes can only be strained to a point), the pages that will resonate, always do find me. Books, unlike people, find you when you’re ready.

Anyhow, the trailblazing that I am upto is going well. I drove into Indore the other day but unfortunately, as it was a Monday, most of the places I wanted to visit were closed. From there I drove to Mandu. In my early 20s, the exact opposite of my early 30’s , I surrounded myself with older men. One of the most interesting, I met at that point, who now runs a gallery in Goa, went from Delhi to Bombay via Mandu. I don’t recall what he said but I remember yearning to go. As I drove into Mandu, it was like revisiting a lover.

There are plenty of sites, which are protected by the Archeological Survey Of India. I did visit a few, the names and even the images of which will be erased from my memory, in a day or two. I’m not trying to undermine them in any way, it’s that my brain has very little storage capacity. It’s running on a 1gb pen drive, which is erased every few days. There are very few things which get automatically locked and therefore are protected from erasure.

The way a place feels, the breeze, a meeting with a random stranger, a few glimpses I take away for solitary nights, a few smiles and a few tears I leave behind for posterity. Roopmati’s Pavillion, leaves a lasting impression and makes one long for a simpler time.

Yesterday, I began my descent towards Dadra, later than I should have. It wasn’t a smart move. Though, Google baba predicted it was a 9 hour journey and Map my India, 12 hours. The latter, for a change was right. Bhai Sahab, peeth turwane ke liye, ye galiyaa aur chaubare, khuub he. Closer to Surat, the highway was a pleasure to drive on, though by that time, my feet had gone numb and my reflex actions were slower. So, I stuck to the better side of a 100 and reached Dadra at the ghastly hour of half two or was it three?

Our favourite app doesn’t come handy after twelve, so as I wandered the streets of a sleeping city, looking for a place to crash, which had it’s gates open, when a PCR that was doing it’s rounds found me. ‘Brilliant’, I thought to myself. During my last wandering, the Gujarat police searched and made a recording of my car, as if they were suspecting to find a rocket launcher. A day later, the Bomb Squad stopped me on the street. ‘Madam bag dikhao’, they said. Due to the frenzy of the crowd, at the procession of Lord Jagannath, I thought they were telling me my bag is open. I thanked them politely. ‘ Bag check karao, bomb squad se he!’. A part of me was so pissed and the other just thought, ‘well my cousins insist my children will become suicide bombers because their mother is crazy, maybe I have the vibe of a fidayen. Manisha Koirala , popped up in my head. ‘Let’s hope no Jihaadi group, thinks that!’ I thought as they searched and questioned me.

But since, I look like a woman (very rarely behave appropriately) after dark, the cops were not going to search my car but that did not quench their curiosity. So, as one feigned concern and asked me if I required any help, all the while trying to read my face and me his, two just peered and peeped into my car from all directions. ‘Akele ho?’, He asked. ‘ Nahin paltan he saath me, dikh nahi rahee,’ wanted to say my Father’s tongue. ‘ Haanji Sir’ said the adult ego state, that rarely surfaces. They stood around for a while making small talk, as I waited for the guard at the hotel, to open the gate. By that time, I just didn’t care where I crashed. As usual…the men and the streets felt unsafe when a woman loitered!

Bhopal

Though I was supposed to leave a day before, the gut said-‘ not today’. (The gut is always right, unless it is a matter of the heart and in that case it leaves it all to the head!). So I listened and left last morning. The alarm rang at some God forsaken hour, though I did haul my ass out of bed, I still only left at half seven.

After spending a couple of hours on the Yamuna Expressway, I realised that the Rs 415, you spend on the route is worthwhile. I did take the same route while returning from my last adventure but leaving Delhi at dawn, my dear, always has me grinning like a Cheshire cat. It’s freaking magical!

But the minute I got off the expressway and on to something called the Ab Road all hell broke loose. Mind you, despite the 54 days I spent driving through the best and worst highways this country has to offer, I have yet to get accustomed to traffic coming from both sides, on all the lanes of a highway. If you want to test your patience, your driving skills and your Gk of cuss words, try driving from Agra to Bhopal! Almost 13 hours later, I reached the city of lakes.

Delhi- Agra-Gwalior-Shivpuri-Guna-Bhopal route that I took, had me driving on potholes and being diverted towards villages as the Highway is under construction. The almost 800 km journey only offered some respite, when I reached a district, about a little more than a hundred kms from Bhopal called Rajgarh. Though, my butt and my back will beg to differ, the journey was worth it. Bhopal is an incredibly beautiful place, with the right mix of traditional and modern and I absolutely loved the vibe. It has one of the largest mosques in India, which I spent the afternoon debating over and the evening researching to come up with no conclusive answer. Let’s say there is a tie between the Jama Masjid, Delhi and the Taj Ul Masajid, Bhopal and thankfully we shall soon be able to put the matter to rest as the largest Mosque is being built in Kerela.

I navigated through the city painlessly today and other than a couple of fussy women I chanced upon, near a statue of our dear Mother India (yes there are those too), the people seemed open and welcoming. If you like me enjoy being a Single, Single, Tanha Begum, this is the city for you.

P.S- I still have to update all my solo dates from the previous adventure, so give this one some time.