23rd May 2013
After some good rains in the suburbs of Chicago, the weather was cool in the evening. I was on my usual walk under the shades of tall lined-up trees – maple, fur, pine, oak and many more - along many boulevards and avenues. My MP3 player, my usual walking companion was on. Today was R D Burman day for me. And then a popular song by Kishore and Lata from the old movie ‘Heera Panna’ – ‘Panna ki thamanna hai ki heera mujhe mil jaaye’ – came on. It used to be one of favorites. The song suddenly triggered lovely memories of my early bachelor days in New Delhi during 1972 and I was instantly transported to my past world.
‘Hey, how are you here on this train?’ my friend Appu (all names in this article have been changed) jolted me from my slumber. We were together in the college for 6 years as students and lab assistants, albeit in different disciplines.
It was early March 1972. We were on the legendary GT Express from Madras to New Delhi – the only express train those days to connect the two cities. I was on transfer from Madras to New Delhi on my job and was one of the countable few in our small circle to travel out of Madras those days.
My friend Moorthy was expected to receive me in the New Delhi railway station and my accommodation was to be arranged in Ramanuja Mess in Karol Bagh – a popular destination for most single Madrasis reaching New Delhi. Appu had no such arrangement and he was open to ideas. He was joining the Central Government as a Class I officer. Ramanuja mess was full, but the manager there was accommodative. I was only too happy to accommodate Appu, a known ready company in my room in the new place. The rent was just eighty rupees or so for a bed. No boarding, only lodging - three or four in a room, depending on the size of the room.
The same day evening, we took a walk to Connought Place from Karol Bagh. Both of us had very little knowledge of direction or Hindi. As we were half way through Panchkuin road, we were stunned by the spectacular view of the water fountain illuminated by multicolored focus lights in the centre of Connought Circle, even from a distance. What a great sight! We were very impressed with Delhi. After roaming around the fountain for some time, we returned via Gole Market where for the first time in our life we had sweet ‘lassi’ sprinkled with rose water served in a tall glass.
We were to attend office the next day. On my friend’s advice, we finished our bath very early in the morning to avoid crowding from other office-going inmates. Bathrooms and toilets were common and it was still chill in the morning. When we were ready, Moorthi dropped in and took us to Vaidyanatha Iyer Mess – another popular destination for vegetarian Madrasis. Fifty five rupees or so for two meals a day for a month – lunch in the morning and dinner at night. New Delhi was very cheap those days. This was raised to about eighty rupees or so in the next few months; quite a steep unprecedented increase.
After we had our lunch cum breakfast, we reached the junction of Ajmal Khan Road and Arya Samaj Road. Appu was directed to a nearby bus stop, while Moorthi and I waited for the legendary ‘fat-fatti’ – the masterly improvised motorcycle with a carrier for four people at the back. They plied on fixed routes - Karol Bagh – Connought Circus sector was one such sector. Fare – if I remember right – just a rupee.
Thus began our life in New Delhi.
In the evening, Appu brought Gopi who was another bachelor engineer in the Central Government. Gopi stayed in one of the nearby annexes to Ramanuja Mess. Gopi instantly turned himself as our first ‘guru’ for ‘Life in Delhi’.
‘You need to learn a few essential words in Hindi, if you want to survive here,’ he told. And he started with his first lesson, ‘bha…….tt’ – a crude equivalent of the sacred four-letter English word ‘f…….’ ‘Be serious, learn this first… and there are many more you need to learn,’ he frightened us. I was rattled.
That night he took us to the Lovely Milk Shop in Ajmal Khan Road after we feasted our eyes around the roadside shops and the giggling young Punjabi girls. ‘Don’t ever go near them. You will become a villain. They all have their bodyguard boy friends who wouldn’t hesitate to show you their knives,’ Gopi cautioned us. Very sensible suggestion, I remembered that throughout my stay. Just look around and enjoy – that is all.
The next day, in the afternoon, Mani Iyer brought idli, dosai, oottappam with sambhar. He is ‘aasthaana’ supplier for lunch every afternoon and a kind of savior for many vegetarian Madrasis at office. (Anyone south of Vindhya hills was just a ‘Madrasi’.) The food was monotonous, but was a safe bet for sensitive stomachs. No harm done.
Almost around the same time, many more from South joined our office in New Delhi and a few more squeezed themselves in Ramanuja Mess. So now we were a bigger ‘Madrasis’ gang.
That weekend, we all went to ‘Malai Mandir’ in Ramakrishnapuram and that became our routine on almost all weekends. A ride by the red colored double-decker bus was fascinating. In the evening, it was beer party time – religious awakening to ‘spirit’ual awakening. Liquor was a restricted commodity. There was one shop close by in Arya Samaj Road and one of us would procure it in turn.
I was assigned to a desk which no one voluntarily sought – a tough stressful job requiring long hours of work. Most days, I and another colleague along with the branch second-in-charge used to be the last among fifty and odd people to leave the office after locking it away.
One afternoon during my first week in the office, our senior colleague – Mr.Raju, who eventually became my mentor at work – took us to a small eating place behind Regal Cinema, where for the first time I came to know about ‘Chole Bhatura’ that continues to be my favorite North Indian food even today. On our way back to office, I bought a glass of ‘machine-ka-tanda-paani’ to drink for just five paise. Delhi was popular for ‘machine-ka-tanda-paani’ those days. But the water was clean. For the first time, I came to know about ‘gole-gappa’, ‘faludha’, ‘kulfi’ ‘gajar halwa’ and many more.
Sunday morning, Unni, another colleague took me to the Panickar hotel nearby and for the first time I had mouth-watering ‘puttu and kadalai’ - a favorite Keralite food for me even today. Moorthi dashed in suddenly, ‘Hey! There is a Tamil movie in the morning show at Sheila theatre in Pahar Ganj. Would you like to go?’ I don’t remember the name of the movie now, but we went. As an ardent movie lover, I became a regular visitor to Naaz, Odeon, Plaza, Regal theatres to watch Hindi movies. We still relied on Radio Ceylon for Tamil songs.
Whenever I felt tired of Vaidyanatha Iyer mess, I frequented other places – Easwaran mess, Mysore café, Raasans, Madras Hotel in Connought Circle, Indian Coffee House at Maan Singh Palace and in the central Connought Circus.
Whenever I was mentally disturbed, Irwin Road Pillayar temple in Connought Place provided the much needed solace and comfort.
At Ramanuja mess, there was one inmate Mr.Bharathi who taught me the nitty-gritty of Chess game. The World Chess Championship Tournament was on when in the end Bobby Fisher snatched the championship from the Russian Boris Spassky. We had another elderly inmate. And he had the peculiar trait of picking up an argument with anyone at anytime and it eventually ended up in a near fist fight all the time; even I didn’t escape this from him during our very first introduction itself. For that matter, even Appu and I, though we were thick friends, picked up heated arguments quite easily almost every day for something or other challenging and swearing upon each other.
Towards the end of the third month after reaching New Delhi, I was transferred from the Connought Place office to another office at Pahar Ganj with additional responsibilities. The funny part was that I knew very little Hindi and my customers there spoke and wrote a lot of Urdu and Hindi making my job unenviable. I relied upon sign languages in dealing with them and they were quite friendly, understanding and appreciative of my services to them. But the greatest challenge was the lunch in the afternoon. Having been so much used to South Indian food all along, I needed to satisfy myself only with ‘tandoori roti’ and ‘subzi’. A sardarji colleague used to take me to a few small cramped restaurants inside some of the narrow ‘gali’s in Pahar Ganj. I struggled with ‘roti and subzi’ initially, but soon started loving them so much that today I am more comfortable with ‘roti and subzi’ than rice and ‘sambhar.’
I was so naïve that many things were first for me in Delhi. But life moved on throwing in more and more bizarre environments and challenges even as it provided a great amount of variety, entertainment, friendship, rich food, and new relationships.
One thing, of course, never changed: longing to be with parents, family and the loved ones back home.