Delhi, 1945 to 1947
I was taken by surprise when I got down at New Delhi Station for the first time in 1945 to see that there were no taxis around. We went home in a tonga, which was the main form of transport in those days other than a few buses. Private cars were very few. We used to travel by road always in Travancore in our own car. Ever since I could remember, my father owned either a Chevrolet or a Buick or a Dodge which he would change once in two years. And a new car cost only Rs.300 or Rs.400. India had not yet started to manufacture cars.
The early mornings in Delhi started with the milkman at our doorstep with the daily requirement of fresh milk straight from the cow or buffalo, and if one needed extra milk it was there for the asking. In the evening also the same milkman came again with the evening quota of milk. And at dusk, all the milkmen, known as gwalas, gathered at one point to return to their village. It was a beautiful sight when dusk set in – all these people riding their cycles with some musically inclined youngster riding pillion on one of the cycles and playing on the flute some pahadi ragam which took one to the far off hills and lakes, villages and lovely maidens. And the empty milk canisters making different sounds clanging against the cycles added to the wistfulness. Those days are gone for ever.
Another scene I remember is a sea of cycles coming down from the Secretariat in the evenings, wave after wave of cycles going in different directions. It was something to be seen to be believed. In those days, New Delhi was known as the city of Babus.
New Delhi ended with the Lodhi Gardens in the south and beyond that it was all jungle. Safdar Jung Airport was only a Flying Club, and Safdar Jung Hospital a Military Hospital, with only single storeyed hutments. Yusuf Sarai was just a Sarai, and nothing more, and the Kutb Minar was so far off with only a kutcha road leading to it.
Lodhi Colony was the last residential colony the British built in 1945 and the first of its kind, self contained, with about 2,000 two and three roomed flats and a few chummeries also. Chummeries were for bachelors; eight or ten single rooms with a common kitchen and bathroom and loo. The flats were well furnished. The furniture included a ventilator operator, a polished wooden stick of 3” diameter with a brass ventilator opener. Every door and window had ventilators, the walls being more than 12 feet high.
There was also an Enquiry Office always ready to do any repair one wanted to be done in one’s flat. And we were one of the very first people to occupy these flats. We moved into our flat 22/1054 on 31st December 1945. Till then we were living in a flat allotted to one of Babuji’s colleagues. We had our house warming dinner with Ayre Thatha and Pappu Mama, both good friends of Babuji. As payasam was being served the lights went off. ‘Light or no light, payasam is excellent!’ was Pappu Mama’s verdict. And I beamed from ear to ear and that made up for the darkness.
Those days were very simple ones and our needs were also very few. We were a group of five or six newly married couples from our own part of India and we were all in Lodhi Colony but in different blocks. Almost on all evenings we used to meet at each other’s places, and almost on all days it used to be ours. We both were good hosts.
Once a month we used to throw a ‘milk pail’ party for these friends and a few bachelor friends/ colleagues of Babuji. It was Babuji’s idea ; instead of cocktails we treated our guests to Pal Payasam and Aloo Bonda prepared by myself in plenty, and these friends made sure that not a single bonda or a single mouthful of payasam was left over. This was continued till we left Lodhi Colony for Pandara Road flats in 1952.
Another incident I remember is how I learnt to make Mysore Pak. It was wartime, and though the Second World War had just ended, there was rationing for all essential food items like rice, wheat and sugar and also for koila: both patthar and lakdi, our medium of cooking. It was a tough job breaking the patthar koila and lighting the angeethi. The less said about it the better. We had all sorts of people as neighbours, and one of them was a gentleman from Madras with two wives who were very friendly with each other. They ran short of patthar koila just a day before their child’s first birthday. So one of the wives – the younger one – came over and asked for a basketful of the same as a loan with the promise that it would be returned as soon as they got their ration. I did not like the idea of a loan of Koila. So I offered my own burning oven to her saying she could come over and prepare whatever she wanted in my kitchen. She came over with the ingredients needed for Mysore Pak and by watching her I learned to prepare it, though it took a few attempts to master the art and make it perfect. I also learnt from this lady that since her husband’s first wife did not conceive for four or five years after marriage her husband married a second time. And in her own words, ‘Wonder of wonders, within a year the first wife gave birth to a baby boy’. It was his birthday they were celebrating. And we were NOT invited to the same!! Years later I learnt from Mohan that the said gentleman was very distantly related to his father!
Our main entertainment was going to movies. Connaught Place had the same four movie halls which are still there today (I hope so!), Regal, Rivoli, Odeon and Plaza, where only English movies were screened. We used to watch a lot of movies those days. Then the Race Course contained a theatre and also the National Stadium near India Gate. These two halls handled Hindi movies. Going to a movie was a simple matter in those days. Any time one felt like watching a movie, ‘just walk in and get your tickets.’ It was not so easy after a few years. One had to buy the tickets at least three or four days in advance. Now what with TV and DVD many people can watch movies in their own homes.
Those days other than foodstuff, everything else came from outside India. Toilet articles like soap, powder, perfume, face cream, then biscuits and chocolate, cloth and motor cars were all imported. Right from our childhood we were used to Italian soaps, Swiss chocolates, English biscuits, American face powder, French perfumes and Yardley products. Pens like Waterman and Parker were the pride and joy of students. The British did not allow the Commonwealth countries to have any industries other than cottage and handloom industries.
The mentality of the common man was also laid back. He was happy with what he got. And also his needs were very few. There was no peer pressure (such words were not known at that time) there was no one-upmanship. Each one was happy with what he had. One’s needs were also very few; no ambition, no greed for material possessions.
Coming from down South and a very protected way of life, I was really surprised at the way my husband treated me as his equal and we did so many things together along with our friends. All of us were newly married and we all missed our people down South. We missed our language and our customs, and our own family’s way of celebrating festival days.
We women felt we were really cosseted and pampered by our menfolk. They treated us with respect and on equal terms with them. They looked after all our needs and helped us in the household work when needed. I got used to doing all the shopping on my own and no questions were asked if an extra rupee was spent here or there. Babuji was great that way.
‘Men Only’ and ‘Lilliput’ are the names that come to my mind when I think back. These were two magazines published mainly for the soldiers fighting in the Second World War to bring them some comfort and solace and to remind them what was waiting at home when they got back. These magazines each had pictures of pin-up models who were very scantily dressed, looking very sexy and inviting. But I can honestly tell you that those pin-up models looked more well-dressed and well-covered than most of the film heroines of today.
The kind of life we had was too good to last. All this came to an end with the Partition, the looting, killing and arson that followed, and the influx of refugees.