Nostalgia in Connaught Place – Long Forgotten Stories of the ‘Old’ New Delhi

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Author – Jamil Urfi

Extracted from Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960’s and 70’s CinnamonTeal Publishing, Goa, 2018.

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A flavour of the bygone times- the 1960’s and 70’s (Collage, Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960’s and 70’s CinnamonTeal Publishing, Goa, 2018 (Source: https://cinnamonteal.in/books/biswin-sadi-memoirs-growing-delhi-1960s-70s/)

The small pleasures of family life. Ah! I see it all the time at restaurants, as happy, apparently ‘normal’ middle-class families—papa, mama and the kids,  sit down together for a meal. They study the menu carefully, taking note of the prices quoted for various dishes and then discuss among themselves about what to order.

I guess the reason why I am so devoted to the myth of the happy family is that my father, who took his role as pater familias quite seriously, used to do all the things which are regarded as typical of normal middle class families. Soon after we settled in Delhi in 1967, he regularly took us on outings and for eating out. We tried out a number of restaurants such as Karim’s hotel near Jama Masjid, Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, where live ghazal performances used to be organized for the guests while they gorged on uniquely Punjabi dishes such as butter chicken, tandoori naan, and malai kofta.

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Connaught Place as it looked in ca 1967. Note old car and taxi models and the comparatively less traffic on the roads. (Source: The Hindustan Times)

We often went to an open air restaurant in the Central Park of Connaught Place known as Ramble whose logo was an old, red coloured jalopy like the one in Archie’s comics. Here we tried things usually not eaten at home, such as hotdogs and  burgers—the earlier versions of fast foods which were to become so common later. Though Ramble’s hotdogs tasted delicious, I guess it must be the lingering memory of childhood years; recollection of bygone times in which everything tends to look beautiful, and the foods tasty. I doubt if the Ramble hotdogs had any sublime qualities themselves, because they were fairly conventional fare—just a sausage, onion, and tomato inserted between two pieces of elongated, deep fried bread, wrapped around in a paper napkin with a toothpick inserted to keep it all in place.

In those days, one encountered many western tourists in Connaught Place and Janpath among whom ‘hippies’ were a class apart. They all wore colourful, though unusual clothes, which perhaps could be best described as a fusion of east and west clothing. Typically, it was a saffron kurta, and a pajama which actually looked like loose trousers. The men always had beards and a dishevelled look and the women too did not look particularly friendly or interested in their surroundings. All in all they looked weird but later, when I read about the 1960s, I discovered that so much had been said about the ‘hippie movement’. According to some it was a phenomenon of the post World War II years, particularly the ’50s and ’60s, and their generation (some ‘day trippers’ notwithstanding) represented some sort of a global protest movement.

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Wengers Bakery & Confectionery shop since 1926, is among the surviving landmarks of the ‘old’ New Delhi (photo: author)

When I thought I had forgotten all about the hippies, a friend reminded me about them, recommending a book called The Greening of America, written by an American sociologist. This book attempted to bring about an academic perspective to the whole thing by talking about the first generation (the builders), the second generation who went to the war, and the third generation which rose in protest, rejecting the value system and materialism of the previous generations. This post World War II generation of the revolutionaries were the so called ‘flower children’, with music and a lifestyle of their own, experimenting with drugs and various religious cults, perhaps trying to erase memories of the horrible war. The academic interpretations of the movement notwithstanding, I think Dev Anand, the legendary Bollywood filmmaker and actor,  made a great job of capturing the spirit of those times in his cult classic Hare Rama Hare Krishna in which he ingeniously inserted the story of a broken family, a boy’s search for his long-lost sister, who had joined a band of hippies in Nepal, against the background of a rich plot of antique smuggler’s nexus.

Ramble restaurant must have been in existence around  ca 1968, located at the exact spot which is now occupied by the underground market Palika Bazar. In fact, much of this area back then was a mix of small shops, offices, and restaurants, and in one of those untidy, nondescript buildings, one of my uncles who was a journalist had his office. It was once, while sitting in the ramshackle journalist’s office in Connaught Place that I heard an interesting story which was fascinating, though tragic. The person who narrated the story was a young reporter for the Indian Express and had in fact covered the incident for his paper.

The story itself, I thought, was remarkable on two counts. First, because a period specific thing, the juke box which was a common sight in fashionable restaurants in those days and which is pretty much unheard of now, figured prominently in it. And second, the number which was played that day. Why that particular song? Was there any significance to it?

The story was about a shooting incident in the coffee house of Delhi University, which occurred in ca 1962 and at the root of which was a story of unrequited love. The university canteen was located in a large hall attached to the old Vicergal Lodge, now the Vice Chancellor’s office. Way back in the 60’s the university canteen too had a juke box where patrons could listen to songs of their choice by inserting a coin in the machine. The day was like any other. A young army officer, perhaps a captain, sat drinking a cup of coffee at a table. On a nearby table sat a young girl with a friend. The captain got up, and inserting a coin, selected the number,‘Mere Mehboob Qayamat Hogi’—a song from the film Mr.X in Bombay. Beautifully sung by Kishore Kumar, it’s opening lines are:

Old-Delhi Nostalgia
Kishore Kumar- mere mehboob qayamat hogi (source: web)

Mere mehboob qayamat hogi

Aaj rusva teri galiyon mein mohabbat hogi

Meri nazrein to gila karti hain

Tere dil ko bhi sanam tujhse shikayat hogi

As the record continued to play, the brooding captain sat and listened. How long he waited for his next move is not known but maybe long enough till the last line had been sung. Then he got up and, pulling out a gun from his pocket, shot the girl sitting on the adjacent table. With another shot, he killed himself. As the story unfolded later, it seemed that the captain who loved the girl had made a marriage proposal which had been rejected because she loved someone else.

Years have gone by since this incident supposedly happened. Meanwhile, all the places have undergone a sea change. The Indian Coffee Board—an institution that was an eternal fixture of those times, and ran coffee houses have mostly shut down. Among the numerous old eateries in Connaught Place, the restaurants built in the 1950s, such as Standard, Gaylord, Kwality, United Coffee House, Volga, Embassy, etc., catering to the influx of people after partition are facing intense competition from the invasion by international brands like McDonald’s, Barista, KFC etc. The grand Standard and Gaylord restaurants in the Regal Building closed down, as did Volga. (Regal cinema itself shut down—the last show there was held in April 2017).

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What used to be the university canteen of yore—the only place where teachers, students, karamcharis could sit, relax and talk things over a cup of coffee, has now been appropriated by the university administration department and converted into an office. (photo: author)

Meanwhile, the place where the  incident above occurred was actually functional as a canteen in the University of Delhi till some years ago and used to serve the standard fare—idli, dosa, cutlets, sandwiches, filter coffee, etc. This was up until 2008 till some wacky person in the top echelons of university administration, who most probably didn’t understand ‘spaces’ very much, must have felt that the canteen was a waste of space, which ought to be better utilized for some other purpose. And so, what used to be the university canteen of yore—the only place where teachers, students, karamcharis could sit, relax and talk things over a cup of coffee, has now been appropriated by the university administration department and converted into an office.

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