Becoming a Delhi-Walla: Building a New Life in an Old World
Jama Masjid, Old Delhi.
Jama Masjid, Old Delhi.(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Becoming a Delhi-Walla: Building a New Life in an Old World

(This excerpt has been taken with permission from Biswin Sadi Memoirs: Growing up in Delhi During the 1960’s and 1970’s by Jamil Urfi, published by Cinnamon Teal Publishing. The book is available on

My father (whom I called Abbu) was aspiring to become a lecturer in the newly-started medical college in Aligarh, the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, and settle there for good, but fate held otherwise.

In spite of having a wide ranging experience in medical research, with degrees MBBS and MD degrees from KGMC Lucknow, an MS from McGill University etc, the coveted faculty position eluded him. Therefore, in 1966, he decided to leave Aligarh for good and settle in Delhi, giving up all hopes of becoming a university faculty.

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Small-Town Boy in a Big City

I don’t know what sort of experiences Abbu had when he went about hunting for a house to rent in Delhi. I also don’t know how he ultimately zeroed in on East Nizamuddin and Mrs Mehta—a kind genial lady, a partition refugee, who agreed to rent out her house in East Nizamuddin while she continued to live in another of her properties in Defence Colony. From 1967 till 1988, ie, for over twenty years, Mrs Mehta’s house was to become our own. Meanwhile, other things were also settled. My sister and I would be enrolled in the Delhi Public School (my mother who had done an MA and a library science course, gained employment as librarian in the same school, subsequently), located just a couple of kilometres away. Abbu, being the complete family man, had arranged for everything.

I remember the day of our hijrat very well. All the house furniture and belongings were loaded onto a truck. Abbu owned a small, black vintage car—a Standard Eight Saloon, which was also loaded onto the truck. In it sat the three of us, Abbu, my sister and me. The truck drove along the Grand Trunk Road from Aligarh to Delhi on a wet, cold wintry day, and from that day onwards, we became Dilli-wallas or Delhi-ites.

One tends to think that life ought to be a trajectory of progress, in small incremental steps. Coming to Delhi and leaving the small town of Aligarh behind, it seemed that we had moved forward and progress had been made in our lives. However, it seemed that a whole lot of other people too were engaged in a quest for seeking a new and better life in newly independent India. And indeed, many were rebuilding their lives from scratch.

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Purani Dilli

What was Delhi of the past—of the Mughals, Ghalib, Zauq, Sir Syed, Hali, Dagh Dehelvi, Deputy Nazir Ahmed and later, the Delhi of Ahmed Ali – as depicted in his famous English novel Twilight in Delhi – was all but gone and referred to as the ‘walled city’. Any traces of the upheavals which Delhi had seen a decade or more earlier in the form of communal clashes, witch-hunts, refugee camps and people taking shelter in Humanyun’s Tomb, Old Fort, etc, were barely perceptible. A brand new Delhi was coming up, with new buildings, housing colonies and residential areas. In Nizamuddin, even newer building activity was going on at a rapid pace.

Jamali-Kamali’s mosque. 
Jamali-Kamali’s mosque. 
(Photo: Abhilash Mallick/The Quint)

One was constantly reminded of the fact that much had happened already in the new century – the Biswin Sadi – as the previous one had yawned to a close. Though people of my cohort were not around when the country was partitioned, yet as late as 1960’s, tell-tale signs of the upheaval were visible for all to see. One encountered people who had directly experienced the horrors of Partition, seen the bloodshed and violence with their own eyes, the trauma of being uprooted from their homes and losing loved ones. Everyone, it seemed, was stoically rebuilding their lives, trying to make that ‘incremental progress’, make a difference for their families, stage a comeback. And we too had come, from a small provincial town to the capital city, to begin a new life and become a part of the burgeoning Indian middle-class.

The view from the rear end of the tomb, Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
The view from the rear end of the tomb, Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
(Photo: Abhilash Mallick/The Quint) 

Dilli on a ‘Phat-Phatiya’

Delhi, in those days, looked very different from the urban nightmare it has now become. I remember there used to be very little traffic on the roads. Moving out of Delhi via the Mathura Road, one saw sparse vegetation, open spaces with gnarled Acacia trees. On the roads of Delhi grey coloured Delhi Transport Undertaking (DTU) buses plied, alongside which also roared a peculiar mode of transport called phat-phatiya. These monsters were old Harley Davidson motorcycles refitted to a carrier which could easily accommodate 7–8 passengers. The reason why they were called phat-phatiya was due to the noise made by the Harley Davidson engine, which could be heard almost a mile away. Manned by elderly Sikh gentlemen, dozens of phat-phatiyas could be seen parked outside the railway station, Karol Bagh, Connaught Place, and at the Nizamuddin bus stand. With a dozen people packed together, clutching on to whatever support they could find and holding on to their shapeless baggage which protruded from all possible angles, the phat-phatiya presented a funny spectacle, and as they roared along the road, they were a sight to behold. However, with the passage of time, these road monsters disappeared and so did those elderly Sikh’s who used to read Urdu newspapers and work these machines. In 1998, with considerations of air pollution in mind, the Delhi government stopped phat-phatiya’s altogether. They were replaced with brown-coloured Mahindra jeeps, which till today go by the name ‘Phat-Phat Sewa’.

Memories of Partition

Partition of India, 1947
Partition of India, 1947
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The arrival of Punjabi refugees in large numbers in the wake of partition must have appeared as a cultural shock to the original Delhi residents, and has been much written about. Remembrance of places which now lie in Pakistan was the order of the day and, among the older generation of Punjabis living in Delhi, nostalgia about Lahore runs high even today. How else can one explain, so many decades after Partition, the continued popularity of the Hindi/Punjabi play, ‘Jis ne Lahore nahi dekhya uh jamaya hi nahi’. This play runs to packed audiences every time it is staged in Delhi and people emerge with tears rolling down their cheeks.

Prominent writers and journalists still continue to fill pages with nostalgic memoirs about Lahore. While several accounts exist about how Delhi received the influx of Partition-displaced persons, on the other side of the border, people also noted the vacuum which existed in Lahore when the Hindu population fled to India. Tariq Ali, the veteran Left intellectual and activist, was in school in Lahore in 1947 and in his memoir ‘Street Fighting Years’ he makes mention of how deserted and silent the streets and restaurants of the city remained for some days when the Hindu population suddenly left the city.

For us new-comers, what was striking was that so many shops and buildings were named after places in Western Punjab and other areas which now constitute Pakistan. It seemed that everyone had brought a little bit of their homeland with them.

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