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DELHI-‘O’DELHI - MEMORIES OF FIFTIES

 

What Took Me Back To My College Days?

 

It was an invitation for dinner at the Delhi “o” Delhi_, restaurant in the Habitat Centre, by some very old friends from college days, whom I bumped into after 50 years while roaming in the inner circle of Connaught Place where, once upon a time, we used to stroll around after spending hours in the India Coffee House discussing everything under the sun. And what flashed forwarded the memories of Delhi and India Coffee House in the fifties, was the crowd and the house-crooner in this restaurant. Since I had left Delhi in1958 , and had recently relocated myself here(actually in Gurgaon) after 50 years, this was my first glimpse of people, many familiar faces from those days ,and the sugary crooner, crooning away old melodies requested by the seemingly regular dinners ..

It was the next request, a gazal, asked by some lady that transported me back to Delhi of fifties and the people, known and unknown, most of them, perhaps still around. When the crooner started singing the requested gazal, I think quite a few of the dinners were taken back to old times, like me, because it used to be the Fifties most popular gazal:-

 

- “ISQUE KI NAI MANZAL KO CHALLA DAAL KAY BAHAIN BAHAINON MEIN–AY DIL TORNE WALLE DEKH ZARA HUM BHI TO PADEY HAIN RAHON MEIN” It was by the Pakistani poet, Kateel Shafai, and sung by the famous Pakistani singer Iqbal Bano.


United Milk Bar & the Juke -Box


In those days the only place that had a Juke-Box in Delhi was a milk bar called United Milk Bar, located right under the then Hindustan Times Office/Press opposite the Scindia House , which is now a liquor bar & a restaurant. Actually, it was in this milk bar that I expressed my love and proposed to a contemporary of mine who was doing her Masters in Philosophy, while I was studying for Masters in English. Our affair was known to most of our friends at the coffee house.

To play the juke-box, you had to insert a four Anna coin (price of coke and cup of coffee at that time).Iqbal Banos gazal was the most popular out of the 75 song options. We spent lot of four annas there every day, out of our limited student budget .This milk bar, a nice decent place, was used either to meet ones girl friends or listen to the music. The main haunt, however, was of-course India Coffee House. And for us students, coffee house at the University was also the meeting place after classes. Every one had a great sense of belonging to the India Coffee House in fifties. (Check with the people mentioned in here!)

Curtain Raiser to Jan Path Coffee House

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Let me raise the curtain on the India Coffee House at the Jan Path and introduce some of the people who were the regulars and occupied their customary chairs on the appointed hour with the punctuality of clocks at 10 30 in the morning—in summer and winter. There were others, working in government offices, who came earlier and left by 9.30, after having their Pan and cigarette.

 

PLACE: - THE INDIA COFFEE HOUSE, JANPATH, DELHI

YEAR: - COULD BE 1953 or 1955 or 1957—or even early fifties.

SEASON “-WINTER or SUMMER-IN FACT ALL YEAR ROUND

TIME: - ALWAYS MORNING at 10.30

 

Now imagine you are with me back in fifties and we are going to the coffee house. We go past the two old Panwalla Punditjis, sitting on their chowkis either side of the entrance, with shining copper thaals full of pans and all the colourful ingredients, already serving their regular customers. There is another cluster of people outside, buying cigarettes at the shop under the staircase, on the right side of the door, and discussing politics while going to pick up their cycles and away to work. (Popular mode of travel for office workers and students) As you push open the double door and enter, you see the place is already full, and sounds quite noisy, cacophony of chatter, as everyone is talking at the same time. The inside hall is large and long and goes right up to the kitchen enterance,from where a spiral staircase takes you to the balcony, which is rarely used by the regulars..

 

The centre of the hall has a long row of tables with chairs around it, depending upon the number of people in each group occupying the table. Left side of the hall is lined up with small cabins, for the families, with curtains drawn. And, along the right side of the wall, there is row of sofas with low long tables for large groups. The sofa seat in the centre of this row is of horse –shoe shape and meant for a larger group.

 

GIRILAL JAIN GROUP

 

In fact, this horse -shoe shape sofa seat, unofficially was always left for a regular group, already sitting there. The head of the group, sitting in the centre, is nobody else but GIRILAL JAIN, then the chief reporter of Times of India; and he has about ten youngsters listening to his discourse in rapt silent, over cups of hot coffee. Later on, one saw a new member, a young lady who came into this group - Kamala Mankekar, wife of the then editor of Times of India Delhi, who had also joined the staff of Times of India. Girilal Jain, later on, became the London Correspondent and then held the post of the Editor, during Indra Gandhi’s primeministership. I also happened to be in London at the same times as Girilal was, in early sixties, and I used to go to Times of India’s office, as my place of work was quite close by, at lunch break to read the Indian paper and sometime chat with him and have tea together. I left London in December1964 (after 5 years) and landed back in Bombay, and worked there for almost 35 years before relocating to Gurgaon, and this visit to the Habitat Centre for dinner.

. Surprisingly, in 1971, almost after 16 years, Kamala Mankekar joined as the PR head in the same organisation in Bombay where I worked, and became a good friend ..

 

I.K.GUJRAL GROUP:-

 

The very first table in the centre row, as you entered the coffee house, was always occupied by a group, which included Inder Kumar Gujral (IKGujral), popularly called Inder; Surinder Nihal Singh of Statesman, more an Englishman than an Indian, with as tall a foreign wife; Inder Malhotra of Times of India,, expert on Pakistan affairs; Rakshat Puri; Ajit Bhattacharjee-two most sober people in this group, and Uma Vasudeva (known, among us DU students as “303”!.) They were always in serious political discussions, Inder Malhotra being the most animated and loudest. I never found out who paid for the coffee, perhaps they were always going Dutch. Both Nihal Singh and Inder Gujral (I don’t remember if he had a goatee at that time, after the visit of Bulganan), would move into the individual family cabins once their wives arrived.Inder Gujral, later on joined the kitchen cabinet of Indra Gandhi, and not only managed to retain his chair in the reshuffle, but went on to become the Prime Minister of India! He stopped coming to the coffee house once he joined Indras cabinet.Nihal Singh, Ajit Bhattacharjee and Inder Malhotra,I believe, are still there and contributing to various newspapers . I am not sure about Rakshat Puri, whose younger brother, Rajinder Puri, writes a “Bulls Eye” column in the Outlook. Rajinder Puri was occasionally part of our table of students and was trying to become a cartoonist at that time.

 

SATINDER SINGH GROUP

 

Satinder Singh, (God rest his soul-he died pretty young) was an expert on Akali and Communist politics, a very well read man and a ferocious reader. He had a small blond beard, more like stubble, quite tall with the loudest laugh in the coffee house, high pitch voice and a great argumentative Indian. Beside few other young journalist from the Indian Express and HT, there were few others from the vernacular press, including a short gentleman-slightly hunch-back, and Krishan Malik, who was the Airport correspondent of Times of India and later became the London correspondent and never came back .As students, we never got invited to the lavish parties thrown by the American and Russian embassies in those days, but we always tagged along with Krishan Malik, bachelor at that time and not attached with anybody then.. He knew quite a few diplomats as he covered the Airport as a Times reporter, and we gate crashed with him for free vodkas and whiskies.Malik was a happy-go-lucky jovial friendly chap. He is often on BBC television programmes where is invited as an expert on Indian affairs. He had a nice pad on the top floor of the coffee house building those days which he shared with a diplomat from a South American embassy.

 

Satinder, later on got hooked to a young charming girl, who used to visit coffee house with her family and eventually, after long romance, got married.

.Satinder Singh, bachelor at that time, used to live in West Nizzamudin, while I was living in .the East part staying with my family, and I often went to his place for a drink—the deal was that I would bring the sodas, and. he would provide the whisky. Our evening meetings stopped after he got married, and I moved onto Bombay. I believe Khushwant Singh knew Satinder quite well, even though he never visited the coffee house. There were three other fans of SatinderSingh, in the coffee house, which need mention here. One was “Professor” Joginder Singh, who used to teach in private colleges (which were quite popular at that time with the refugee students).He always used to carry orange peels in his pockets and use them as face fresheners during summer. His younger brother, Hardev Singh, who was an economist, used to work for a political weekly published in Delhi.? And the third gentleman was known as “Judge Singh”, a popular character, tall and handsome who would also show up sometime in the University coffee house also.(nobody knew what exactly he did) All three of them great characters, known to almost everybody in the coffee house.

 

I must point out here that these groups were not known as “Girilal,” “Inder Gujral” or “Satinder Singh” group, but these names are given for easy recognition as they were well-known people at that time.

 

CABIN USERS- Bartholomews, Vatsyayan, Satish Gujral & others

 

Before I take you to other table mates, let me give you a peep to these well known regulars, who preferred to sit inside the family cabins. There was Kapila Vatsyayan, now of Centre for Science and Environment, with her husband. Other cabin users were Richard Bartholomew, critic of modern Indian art, and his wife Rati, both working in Modern School at that time, and often joined by Balwant Gargi, the Punjabi playwright. Pablo Bartholomew, a well –known photographer, comes from the same clan.. Satish Gujral, with other family members, always sat in a cabin, even though his brother Inder Gujral would be outside with his friends

 

OUR MIXED GROUP

 

Our table, almost at the end the row, near the kitchen door, always had about eight to ten friends, mostly students of M.A. from different colleges—Delhi, Kirorimal and Hindu.( Few friends on our table were not student but used to work in different offices—these generous earning members were normally made to pay for coffee, as they always had money.) Roshan Taneja, from Commerce College, Darya Ganj who later on went off to New York to learn Acting. He worked on Broadway in the West-Side story with Marlon Brando.After coming back to India he joined the Film Institute at Pune as the head of Acting Department and had the distinction of training Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bahduri, Shatrugun Sinha, Asrani and many more. Eventually he started his own”Roshan Taneja School of Acting” in Mumbai.O.P.Kohli, short & plump and jovial chap. was involved with theatre production in Delhi while working in some government office.

He would always force you to have coffee with him before he left for office .People considered him a buffoon but was a very friendly soul. Ved Prakash was a Hindi teacher in the Modern School at the same time as Richard Bartholomew, and a lover of Hindi poetry. Then we had Shoon Sexena and Shyam Sexena .Shyam was known as the copy of Deva Nand with the similar hair style and shirt-collars always up.( fashion in those days-a- la Devanand) The topics of discussion on this table used to be poets and poetry-both Urdu & English.Madhubala & Madhushala of Bachchan,for us, used to be like a commercial break in between Jigar and Josh.

 

I must mention two of my seniors who were in Kirorimal College. They both were in MA.Eng. Final year while I was in the (previous)—one year junior. All of us were very close friends, and liked by our Principal-Dr.Swarup Singh.Harish Malik was a brilliant student while Bhutani (I think the first name was Satish-but can’t recall) was an o.k. student and he passed his Master degree by just one mark! While Harish got through with distinction and he joined the college as a lecturer, though he was bent upon joining IAS, like everyone else. Even after three tries Harish couldn’t make it, whereas Bhutani got through the exam in the very first try and went for Foreign Services. Harish Malik eventually joined Air India and became a Director on the Board, but had to quit I believe, because he couldn’t get-along with Rajiv Gandhi.

 

OTHER TABLES

 

There were number of other tables occupied quite a few notable people from various walks of life like travel agencies,hotels,All India Radio artists, Urdu writers and Hindi poets. But we had no interaction with them.

Lets now move on to University coffee house.

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INDIA COFFEE HOUSE AT THE UNIVERSITY

 

Jan Path coffee house had a sibling establishment, under the same name & management, and as much popular, at the campus at Delhi University, where we students, discussed Keats. Byron, Milton along with Waris Shah and Ghalib, after our classes. Most of us ,from different colleges, were studying literature, philosophy, law economics and personnel management under renown professors like VKRVRAO(popularly known as ABC RAO) Dr Swarup Singh, who went on to become V-C of Delhi University and later a State Governor ,Prof.Bhalla of St.Stephephns and Saniyal.Another popular professor, among his students used to be Frank Thakur Das. In our literature class there were three girls and one of them was Madhur Mathur, who became Madhur Jaffrey—the famous Indian cookery queen of New York.

 

The three students who never entered the University coffee house, were- the Singh brothers- sons of Sardar Baldev Singh, India’s first Defense Minister; they ,students of law, always stood outside the Law Faculty—mid-between the Miranda House & the Coffee House- leaning against their open limousines ,chatting with friends. For most of us students, the best mode of travel used to be the University special—a low-long trailer bus-which used to move thro whole of Delhi

 

Picking up & dropping regular students, some of them never paid the fare!

This coffee house was quaint, little place, with lot of open spaces to sit outside. Both the coffee houses, besides serving excellent Indian coffee, were known for their very friendly and courteous nature—they knew the regulars by their names, and the regulars also called the waiters by their first names- never as “waiter”. University coffee house produced quite a few IAS & IFS officers, like the Jan Path coffee house produced well-known journalist & politicians. Of-course there was third-raters (like us) also—but all doing well in life (hopefully).

 

FAMOUS CULTURAL ACTIVITIES OF DELHI IN FIFTIES

 

I don’t know about today’s Delhiwallas, but all of us, the whole crowd of people of coffee houses—Jan Path and the University-used to be pretty -high on Indian culture (Nehru’s influence?).There was something in the wind that made each member of these coffee-houses to look-forward to three of the most famous cultural programmes in Delhi.

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1. MUSHAIRA at CHELMSFORD CLUB.

 

This annual function, Mushaira, used to be held in the memory of Sir.Shanker Lal at the Chelmsford Club. And it always was a Three-night function, and the “mehfil” used to start at about 9pm and go on till the early hours of the morning. The function, every year, was presided over by one Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi, who I believe was a government functionary, and a poet of repute. Some of the great poets who used to participate were:- Josh Malliahabadi,Jigger Muradabadi,Firaque Gorakhpuri,Sagar Nizami,Jagan Nath Azad, Ali Sardar Jaffery,and others. Sometime Pakistani poets like Ahmed Nedeem Kasami and Kateel Shafai also used to participate. Josh Sahib was Nehru’s personal friend, but that didn’t stop Josh going away to Pakistan (I believe he regretted the decision later on, but he didn’t return to India although Pt.Nehru offered him his job as an Editor of “AAJKAL”.

 

Not only the whole of coffee house people but other Delhiwallahas were always there-all the three nights; and nobody would leave the mehfil till the early morning. The open –air place used to packed, with quite a few drunks around, beside the poets—especially Jigger and Firaque, both in sherwanis.

 

2. CLASSICAL MUSIC NIGHTS at CONSTITUTION CLUB

 

The second great annual event used to be classical music function at the old Constitution Club. This was also a three-night event, and always had packed house every night. Here again, the mehfil never finished before the dawn of the next day. One had the life-time opportunity to listen to India’s great masters, Omkarnath Thakur, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan , Gangubai Hangal, Girja Devi, Ustad Vilayat Khan Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shanker.Ahmed Jan Trikhwa Ustad Bundu Khan the Sarangi player and others. The Pakistani singer like Mallika Pukraj singing Haffeez Jullandaris famous “Abhi to main Jawan Hun” gazal,

. The programme always started with the Shahnai of Ustad Bismilla Khan. The topic of discussion the next day at coffee house was of-course the previous nights show.

 

3. PHOOL WALLON KI SAIR

 

The third annual event was the famous “phool wallon ki sair” at the Mehrauli village.Mehrauli, at that time was really a village—and far far away from Delhi. The event used to have Nehru’s blessings in those days, and attracted Qwals from all over India. Although, now-a-days one passes Mehrauli everyday, living in Gurgaon, I haven’t attended this event in recent years. Incidentally Qutab and Hauz Khas, in those days were the places for picnics and young friends to meet. One had to go there either by Tongas or cycles, passing thro all the villages. The tomb and the huge green at Hauz Khas, in those days, were like peaceful heavens for young couples. These places seemed miles & miles away from Delhi.(What a change in 50 years.)

 

THE END OF THE ICONIC PLACE.

 

I left Delhi, my home town after partition, in1958 for Bombay to find a job before getting married to my college friend after marriage; we left Bombay shortly after to go off to London, which has other experiences , memories., and another part of life travel. Now retired and settled here, one misses the institution like the old India Coffee House, where one could get lost in the cacophony of chatter of cultured intellectual people and friends.

I pity the people of Banglore, where the same institution, India Coffee House has pulled down shutters recently.

. I can understand their loss, which we went through long time ago.

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THE WRITER:-JATINDER SETHI.68, Sector 15-Part-1, Gurgaon, 122001.

Emai..jnsethi@hotmail.