In 1955 I was in my late teens and it looked like as if I had been somehow put on travel mode. I had just been to Bombay where I had spent most of my two- month long summer vacation. And now it was October and there was a chance of visiting Delhi. An uncle of mine was a touring officer of the C & E Morton, the confectioners, and he was going to be in Delhi for a week. He wanted my sister and me to visit him.
Getting into Punjab Mail that used to run those days between Bombay and Amritsar we were off for Delhi. In those early days the more important trains wouldn't go to New Delhi station for the simple reason that it was still in the process of coming up. Delhi Junction or the Old Delhi station used to be the scene of most of the railway action. Gwalior to Delhi was a distance of only 200 miles and the train used to take a little more than 5 hours. As the train slowed down at Old Delhi a few coolies jumped into the compartment. Tall, well-built and fair, some with even thick beards with red turbans, were intimidating characters. The Bombay coolies were no patch on them. However, soon I spotted uncle. He got one of the coolies to pick up the luggage and promptly asked him to show his token number. It was only eight years after the partition which induced a two-way traffic of millions between the two newly-independent countries. Many of those who migrated this side of the newly created borders had chosen Delhi for making a fresh start in life and a large number had settled down as coolies to convey passengers’ luggage to and from the station. It was laborious work as we didn’t know till then of the concept of travelling light. Instances of disappearance of coolies with luggage of an unwary passenger had seemingly assumed alarming proportions and hence the need to check the token number.
Once outside we came across a veritable jam created by tongas. Looking for fare all had almost converged in front of the station exit. My uncle was staying in a hotel in the Old Delhi area. Those were early days and most of the towns had only one or two really good ones, the star system had not been introduced till then. Delhi was no different and had The Imperial and the Maidens, the two reputed high-end ones and the rest being ordinary. My uncle had a biggish room in one of the ordinary ones in which three of us could accommodate ourselves pretty comfortably though it was nothing much to write home about. Surely there were better “ordinary” hotels in the same area.
Our first tripin the town was inevitably to Connaught Place. As soon as our uncle left my sister and I climbed into a Tonga and went there. Autos had not arrived on the scene yet and the tongas could go all over the town. Their movements were later restricted and they are now an endangered species, confined only in the Old Delhi area. Connaught Place was an immense largely vacant circular colonnaded market with very few cars running around. The shops, however, were impressive - big and holding most of all the goodies that one could conceive of. We were happy to see the Scindia House, coming as we did from Gwalior – the erstwhile Scindia capital. On another of our excursions we went to Chandni Chowk which we found very dusty and crowded. Tongas in fair numbers were plying on the main road kicking up a lot of dust – not like the Delhi of our imagination. A few trams that looked ramshackle after the ones of Bombay were plying on the crowded street.
We had not been in Delhi for even a couple of days when we got a call from one of our Gwalior acquaintances who used to be the manager of Gwalior Potteries in Delhi. Promising to come and fetch us, he arrived one afternoon and much against the wishes of my uncle he had us piled into his car to be taken to his bungalow in the Potteries complex. It was far away in South Delhi and we had to go past the Red Fort, on to Darya Gunj, past Raj Ghat and India Gate through the leafy avenues of New Delhi and then had to wait at a level crossing. Curiously, the traffic of cars tongas and cycles was stopped here to allow an aircraft to land. The Safdurjung Airport was then the airport for Delhi and the one at Palam was still a few years away in the future. After going past the INA market we got into a dusty road that went past a government colony called Vinay Nagar (which is now Kidwai Nagar) running for about a kilometer and a half to get to the Potteries complex. It was a big complex with a pottery producing ceramic tea sets and other table-ware. At that time Gwalior Potteries was a well-known brand, particularly in North India. Now, of course, it is not to be seen or heard of. There used to be two bungalows one of which was lying unused. The whole property – quite a large one of tens of acres – belonged to the Maharaja of Gwalior, as did the Pottery. All of it was surrounded by what looked like a rural setting with a few scattered villages.
It is interesting to reflect back on this South Delhi area of 1955. The dust-laden road that we took has now virtually disappeared. There were no colonies on either side of it till it met its end at the Gwalior Potteries. There was no Sarojini Nagar or All India Institute of Medical Sciences or Safdurjung Hospital and there was no Ring Road. The road to Mehrauli continued as a narrow strip of asphalt and tongas used to ply on it right up to Kutub Minar and Mehrauli. Green Park colony was coming up a few kilometers down the road to Kutub.
The nephew of the manager, Vimal Majumdar, who passed away recently, and I used to move around in buses that we had to catch at the INA Market. Our favourite haunt was Darya Gunj which was always full of traffic of all kinds. Both of us also once took a tonga to go to the Kutub, supposedly a lonely place then and not quite safe. It was generally devoid of foreign tourists, who now flock to the place in large numbers. Bus and tonga fares used to be in annas and paises – the rupee had not been changed over to the metric system till then.
The October 1955 trip was rather uneventful apart from the fact that it was the first time I happened to be in Delhi. Soon, thereafter, in late December a friend, Ramesh Tiwari (now retired from University of Manitoba and living in Winnipeg) persuaded my highly-reluctant mother to agree to my my accompanying him to Delhi for the first Industrial Exhibition to be held at the then newly-built Pragati Maidan. While two of Tiwari’s cousins also came along, we were to put up at the house of another of his cousins who was working in the field of civil aviation and was living alone. One of Tiwari’s cousins, Suresh Dube, excellent at cooking, took over the kitchen and fed us all. Because of his innate talent he later made a career in catering after obtaining a degree from Anand in Gujarat. As everyone good in his calling looks for greener pastures, he too went away to America to work with multinationals and eventually ended with the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the UN. An excellent company; he used to make fantastic scrambled eggs.
I had never before seen anything like the Pragati Maidan and the Industrial Exhibition held in it. It was a massive complex and there were numerous tall halls of fancy architectural designs housing the exhibits of several countries participating at the Exhibition. I remember stalls of two countries – of China and the US. The Chinese was perhaps the largest, exhibiting China’s rudimentary industrialisation. But there was practically a full display of their amazing crafts. I happen to remember their amazing kind of ceramic ware. They were just out of this world. We had never seen such beautiful bone china tea sets manufactured in India. At home, however, we used to have a few fine bone china cups with saucers made in Japan which were perhaps bought before the imports were banned during the World War. What was perhaps more remarkable at the Chinese pavilion was that the Chinese girls were not only friendly, they could also converse fluently in Hindi
The other pavilion that was interesting was the one of the US where we saw a TV set for the first time. People would wave at themselves as they saw themselves on the screen. The camera would be kept pointed at the crowd and boys would try to muscle in into view. Another interesting item was the Cinerama tent which showed on 11 television screens in a circular tent the films taken by a like number of cameras mounted on top of a vehicle as it moved through a street. One got a 3600 view of the street – of the two sides, and of the front and the rear sides – giving the impression as if you were moving down the street in a vehicle.
Those were the heydays of India when many world leaders used to come to visit the country. Pandit Nehru, the Prime Minister, had acquired a cult status as a champion of peace and the country still had a reputation of being an ethical force in the world where while the ‘hot’ war had ended a “cold war” had set in. With his socialistic inclinations he had naturally built up a good rapport with the leaders of the now-defunct Soviet Union. Two of its leaders, Nikita Khruschev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Union and Nikolai Bulganin, the Premier of Soviet Union, came on a visit to Delhi during our stay. A huge crowd had gathered on the then King’s Way (now Raj Path) lawns to welcome them. All of us also joined the crowd. It was a sight to see. Numerous trucks laden with people had collected on the lawns and, as happens, inevitably hawkers had flocked in large numbers selling roasted groundnuts by weight or Coca Cola (available then) at 4 annas (just a quarter of a rupee) a bottle.
Soon it was time for us to leave for home. As I remember it, Delhi was still somewhat primitive, not like Bombay I had seen a few months earlier – more glittering and glitzier. It looked more like a sub-urban town, with ramshackle buses loosely run and bus-stands generally non-existent. After dusk the streets would be dark with very little illumination from the street lights because of either low voltage or low wattage of the incandescent bulbs. The streets were not yet fully paved or asphalted – much like our own Gwalior, barring areas where roads had already been concretised. Nonetheless, we had a good time and came back home – but not before we spent a night unrolling our bed-rolls on the platform of the Old Delhi station having missed the late night-train – richer in knowledge and experience. At that time it never occurred to me that in the future not only would I be visiting Delhi several times, I would also live and work there for as many as 14 of my 34 working years.