Old Delhi Tales: How I Found My Old House and A New Family
In 2005, we sold our ancestral house in old Delhi. A house built from scratch in the early twentieth century, when my great grandfather migrated to Delhi, it held the precious memories of five generations. Though I never lived in it, I felt connected to it as it was the site of my summer vacations.
The demography of our predominantly Hindu alley was changing, and this led to fear and insecurity within my family. I believe that while their fears were primarily based on the communal and polarised mindsets that we grew up with, these fears also drew on experiences during Partition, and post-Independence communal turmoil. We never discussed the house after that. All we knew was that a Muslim family had bought it.
Yet in all those years, no one ever went to see the house or even the lane. This was when my relatives still had business or had some reason to visit old Delhi and roam around the lanes surrounding the house.
A few months ago, my friend Madhulika and I went to old Delhi, and decided to eat at a popular eatery. We were walking by Jama Masjid and I recognised the banyan tree that marked the lane to my house. I asked my friend if we could just go and see my house once before going to eat. She agreed, and we took the narrow lane, dodging rickshaws, scooters – walking behind people. We turned, walked and turned again. Suddenly, my friend asked me if I even knew the way.
She asked, “When was the last time you walked this lane?”
I calculated and realised that it had been 15 years since I had walked this path. Yet, I was confident that this was the path. It was only at the lane adjacent to the lane that reached the house that I was confused and I started asking people for directions by telling them the house number. We finally reached but I could not locate the house though this was where I was directed to. There was a small, open workshop where some people were sitting. We asked them and they pointed to a house just behind us. I looked at the house and realised that indeed it was the same house.
While I was clicking a photo of the house, one of the workers asked us, “Who do you have to meet?”
I said, “Actually we used to live here” To which he responded, “you should go inside the house then.” I hesitated, thinking why would the current owners allow us into their home. It was after all, not my house anymore. I shared my thoughts with the worker, but he said that it would not be an issue. He shouted “Mohsin bhai” and I got nervous. A girl shouted back that Mohsin bhai wasn’t there. The worker then told us, “ring the bell. They will open the door.”
Old Doors, New Experiences
We were nervous and unsure – this was not part of the plan. For a few seconds after we rang the bell, I kept struggling to find the right words. Suddenly, we heard a woman’s voice asking “whos’s there?” I was silent but my friend replied, “Assalaam Walaikum”.
The door opened and there she was, a polite, middle-aged woman. She said, “Ji? Who do you have to meet?” I hesitantly said, “uh..this was once my nani’s (maternal grandmother) house”. She looked at me for a few seconds and responded, “I understand. Please come in.” I was surprised by her reaction. We followed her up the stairs. Taking those stairs, touching the walls again was a beautiful experience. It was like going back in time, re-living the memories. But as we climbed up, I was back to reality, to the present. I saw a young woman who was curious to know who we were.
She had even told her children that they lived in the house of the founder of the school. She talked about the neighbours – both good and bad. It was as if we were meeting a relative after a long time, and I began to feel that it was much more than the house that connected our families.
Mi Casa, Su Casa
Several times during our conversation, she remarked, “this is your home. You can always come here.” This was what touched me the most. As we were leaving, two of her children came back from school and she said, “look who has come! She is the grand-niece of the Gupta family who lived here.”
It was a surreal experience. I hadn’t just gone back to the house, I had come home, to a culture that nestled in co-existence, in harmony.
In the evening, when I flooded the family WhatsApp group with photographs and my experience, while all rejoiced, reliving their memories, one of my relatives remarked, “Why did you go? Didn’t you feel scared?” To which one of my cousins responded, “fear of what? Those were our lanes and still are. Fear is in our mind.”
(Devika Mittal is pursuing a Ph.D in Sociology at Delhi School of Economics. She is the Convener (India) of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a joint Indo-Pak friendship initiative and a core committee member of Mission Bhartiyam. She tweets at @devikasmittal. This is a personal blog. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)