The name suggests it is some place in Britain or at best in one of the numerous British colonies. It is said that the sun never set in British rule. The exact meaning of this phrase is the sun was always visible in one country or the other where Britain reigned. The Victoria Mess I am writing about was right here in the heart of New Delhi. Just a stone’s throw from the finest examples of British architecture i.e. the monumental Assembly House (Parliament), Viceregal lodge (Rashtrapati Bhavan) and war memorial (India Gate).
Why just Victoria Mess, there existed this Edward Mess on the same road, a little distance away. The road was Dr Rajendra Prasad Road. These two mess were situated opposite and behind the National Archives of India, the imposing building at present day Janpath (Queen’s way) just before it cuts historical Rajpath (King’s way). As you pass the cross section of Janpath and Rajpath you have National Museum at the left side if you are travelling from Connaught Place end. Behind National Museum you have offices of Archaeological Survey of India and the famous Vigyan Bhavan, the official venue for those big sarkari events. The Vigyan Bhavan also Ashok hotel were got built fondly by Nehru ji for the first ever Non Aligned Meet. Those were the heady and dreamy days of Pt. Nehru, Gamel Abdul Nasir and Marshal Tito, of Non Alignment Movement, Afro - Asian friendship and awakening in Asia remembered as Nehruvian ideology.
Geography at its place, lets go back to our Victoria Mess.
In our childhood we used to often wonder why the complex has bungalows number 15, 17 and 19 and not logically in continuity i.e. 15 (where we lived), 16 and 17. It was much later we came to know that the bungalows were numbered as odd and even No. All odd ones at your left and even at your right (if you are entering from Rajpath end). So that is how you have 10 Janpath at the right hand. 10 Janpath once was the official residence of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Prime Minister of India. We are a nation of hero-worshippers. Teen Murti House official residence of the first Prime Minister of India was promptly converted to Nehru memorial museum after his demise on 27th May 1964. I am sure Nehru ji would not have liked the idea one bit. After all Gandhi ji was killed on 3oth January 1948 in New Delhi’s Birla House and it’s not a memorial. The road on which Birla house is situated was named Tees January lane nevertheless. After Lal Bahadur Shastri’s untimely demise on 10th January 1966 in Tashkent, (capital of Uzbekistan) then part of USSR. (We used to have fun, asking full form of USSR, five out of six times one was bound to miss a word, and by the way it stood for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The bungalow was labelled as evil omen and none dared stay there for years. It remained office of Youth Congress during hey days of Sanjay Gandhi. Later Rajiv Gandhi showed the courage and shifted to this bungalow after he was no more the P.M. The big round about at your right, if you are facing the 10 Janpath was named York Place by the British, later rechristened Moti Lal Nehru Place. Let’s come back to Victoria Mess. The Victoria Mess was an Air force officers Mess. There were whole lot of double storied tenements in row. These quarters had occupant with shops of sweet meat, mutton shop, general store, cycle repair shop, washer men and what have you.
Evenings were full of such a din and fanfare. The round about of Dr Rajendra Prasad road and Janpath There did exist one, I felt sad when found it dismantled and levelled to make way for seamless tarmac ride to Parliament House. There would be these Pan shops and opposite a shoemaker sat. Right across the road four-five barbers sat with their apparatus in funny looking iron boxes, though some did have cute leather kit too.
In my childhood, a large slice of my free time was spent going to and fro Victoria Mess for everything big or small. A milk booth selling bottled milk of DMS (Delhi Milk Scheme) was there. One could buy milk against empty bottles after showing the aluminium token similar to the smart card used these days to access your hotel room. There was this ration shop too. Those were the times of Indo-china and Indo-Pak war, scarce crops and stringent rationing. We will get Australian, Canadian or American (PL 480) wheat under some agreement between the two govt. It was widely believed that the wheat they shipped to us Indians was the one which their pig ate, at times; critique retorted, the wheat was actually the one which their pigs too refused to eat, hence, exported to India. However, the wheat was much redder than our own wheat.
Victoria Mess was abode to all sorts of people. Hardly any one was studying. They were busy carting their wares. Be it colour, balloons (during Holi) crackers and sparkling sticks (during Diwali). The population largely was either of utility workers, chefs, cooks, stewards or of small time shopkeepers selling knick-knack and items largely consumables of daily use. There must have been hundreds of quarters on both sides of cross section of Dr Rajendra Prasad road and Janpath. Edward Mess stood once, where we have Shastri Bhavan today. There is a row of M.P. bungalows opposite Shastri Bhavan. There was this austerity type school running in one room, kind of play school. The teacher – a beautiful Christian damsel would take her tuition classes also side by side. I was one of her few pupils. I recall once we were addressed by a simple dressed bearded guy in white asking us to note down names of specific Christian Saints for a specific task e.g. snake bite.. Prayers should be directed to so and so Saint so on and so forth. I admit I was highly impressed. So very simple he made it sound.
The beautiful teacher used to come to our house also for taking classes of us brothers. No sooner she came, some smartly attired boy too would come (different boy, every time) and then both will go away abruptly ending our class. Some case of ‘class cutting’ was this, where teacher was bunking. Later, I got to hear so many tales of her escapades but that’s another story.
As I said, opposite Edward Mess were M.P. bungalows, still there. Great luminaries like Firoz Gandhi and Tarkeswari Sinha resided there. Latter acted as agony aunt for a children’s magazine ‘Milind’ The column also carried her beautiful picture with a strand of hair carelessly falling on her forehead like Mala Sinha, the cine actress. Dr Rajendra Prasad road once boasted of great leaders. Deen Dayal Upadhyay, most revered leader after Dr Shyama Prasad Mukhrji, (the founder of Jansangh, later renamed Bhartiya Janata Party) stayed there till his untimely death in a train fall somewhere in Bihar. I remember long queue of people who came with flowers and garland to pay their respect and have last glimpse of their leader. Dr Rajendra Prasad road was also the address of SK Patil, Morarji Desai and Babu Jagjivan Ram. Later one of the bungalows was converted to office and served as CVC office for several years. Just at the end of the road (India Gate end) we had Hyderabad House, now known as AP House where good quality mutton could be bought. Today one can have tastiest Andhra Pradesh delicacies in ‘Andhra Thali’ at reasonable rate there.
Opposite Hyderabad House is located Dr Rajkumari Amrit Kaur Nursing College named after our first Health minister of free India. She was a spinster, scion of princely family of Patiala. In the vicinity, shrouded in mystery is Bahai’s House. Now they have the swanky address -- Lotus temple. Next building is Pataudi House of Nawab of Pataudi, a small princely state at the border of Rajasthan – Haryana close to Delhi. My father’s mentor in Delhi late Shankaranand Shastri ji lived in the officers’ accommodation there. He was Director Employment Exchanges. Sat at Rafi Bhavan, opposite Mavalankar Auditorium. Yes Dr Rajendra Prasad road’s story can not be over without sharing what happened to me on one summer afternoon. While returning from school I saw a tree in the bungalow laden with half ripe orange like fruit (Malta). There was this gap in the bushes, I entered the lawn and had plucked a Malta just then I noticed an ‘angry like mad’ gardener entering the wicket gate and charging towards me. I was paralyzed, plain immobile. My legs refused to leave ground, as if glued to ground. He thrashed me and confiscated the booty too. My school mate Dilip also stayed across the road where Ashok yatri and Kanishka hotels stood. Dilip had two sisters Asha and (strangely) Ramesh. I know when the displaced persons of East Pakistan were given refuge to start their lives it was named EPDP colony (East Pakistan Displaced Persons). The residents found the name rather unsavory so renamed the ghetto as CR Park (Chitaranjan). Today it is known as mini Bengal, where even the shopkeepers talk to you in chaste Bangla. CR Park has the grand Kali temple and the scale of grandeur during Pooja festival celebrations in CR Park is unparalleled in whole of Delhi.
Alas! I do not know where the DPs (Displaced Persons) of Victoria Mess got relocated. Could they be rehabilitated at all? Today there is no sign whatsoever of Victoria Mess on Dr Rajendra Prasad road except the DMS milk booth and a small road side shrine (grown from obscure idol under a tree)
Long live the spirit of Victoria Mess.