The palmy days


India Gate gardens Photo PTI   | Photo Credit: PTI

Ride back to the congestion and pollution free New Delhi with Pran Nevile latest book, “Carefree Days”

The ambience of New Delhi in the 1940s was such that few cities could compete with it. Lutyens and Baker designed a Capital that hardly lacked in anything, except for a red-light area. This was because it was thought that shifting the brothels from Chawri Bazar to G.B. Road would also serve the purpose of those from New Delhi who sought the company of dancing girls. In a new publication, “Carefree Days” (Harper Collins), Pran Nevile, former diplomat historiographer and an old Delhiwallah, now 94, observes: “The oldest profession continued to thrive during the Raj. There were well staffed brothels in Bombay, Calcutta and other main cities and cantonments frequented by British civilians and soldiers”.

This despite the fact that Christian missionaries were dead against such sex-spots right from the time in the early 19th Century when Bishop Heber made an issue of it. Scarlet Women should have no place in territories ruled by the British, regarded as a “God-fearing nation”, he said. “The official view was that prostitution fulfilled a socially necessary function, and banning it might lead to offences such as criminal assault and rape,” says Nevile. He goes on to point out that the traditional red-light area was shifted in 1940 to G.B. Road, outside Ajmeri Gate, not far from Thomson Road. “I recall that in 1944 there were accomplished and talented singing girls like Gulab Bai, Raj Kanwar, Mushtari Bai, Maya and Vidya who entertained visitors in their saloons. Incidentally, I learnt that Maya and Vidya used to go to Simla along with the exodus of the Government to the summer capital. As for G.B. Road, we never heard of any police raids to catch the sex trade operators in any part of the city (at a time) when the modern call-girl profession was still decades away.”

One would like to add that besides going to Simla, a lot of dancing girls went to Mussoorie and Naini Tal as there was a big demand for them by the rajas, nawabs, nawabzadas and the Rais. Some of them even took the girls out for boating and long treks on horse back. Ahmed Ali of “Twilight in Delhi” fame talks about the twaaif Huma and Nawab Chakkan of Lucknow, but in Agra the Chawalwala Nawab was known to entertain tawaifs at Keetham lake where fishing was part of a daylong sojourn. However, tragically enough, the nawab was hanged for shooting his wife dead over a family matrimonial dispute, chasing the terrified begum right up to the city kothwali from his haveli and firing shots with a revolver belonging to a police officer related to him.

Nevile’s book has only a few paras on dancing girls, the rest of it is about carefree days spent in Lahore, his hometown before Partition, Govt College, Hira Mandi and the composite culture of the most fashionable city in the country then –– when girls could be seen cycling to school and college alongside boys. But it is to Delhi of the 1940s that he lost his heart –– and to his would-be wife Savitri. He lived in Havelock Square near Minto Road for some time in days when bachelors found it difficult to get accommodation and the YMCA, with a long waiting list, was the only hope for unmarried males.

New Delhi was a garden city with 24-hour water supply and no power cuts. Gole Market and Connaught Place were the fashionable shopping centres. Then there were clubs like the Imperial Gymkhana Club, exclusively for British civilian and military officers, Chelmsford Club for Indian officers, eminent professionals and civilians and Talkatora Club (now Central Secretariat Club). The most popular meeting places (unlike the present day India International Centre and Habitat Centre) were India Coffee House in Queensway (Janpath) or the United Coffee House in Connaught Place.

Tongas were the main mode of conveyance though as there were no taxis or auto- rickshaws, both in Old and New Delhi. The Gwalior Northern India Transport Company was the only private bus service. Once a woman managed to get into the bus but not her husband. She started shouting for him and a considerate lady conductor stopped the bus and called out, “Husband, husband, aiye aiye” much to the amusement of the commuters. There was also a trolleybus from the C.P. Outer Circle to Tis Hazari. The author says “the constant watering of the lawns of Lutyens’ bungalows and those on the Central Vista to Talkatora Gardens, Lady Willingdon (Lodhi) and other gardens kept the underground water level quite high…. The Ridge area on the west of Reading Road (now Mandir Marg) was a vast hilly track (incidentally, it was here that Nathuram Godse did target practice before he shot Mahatma Gandhi) where sahibs went for horse-riding.

However the DIZ (Delhi Imperial Zone) area was the best maintained. “Nestling under neat foliage it was a pure garden city, a city within the city of New Delhi” where the Indian staff of the Imperial Secretariat stayed in well-designed quarters cooled with khas tattis in summer watered by the bhistis. The places for recreation were the cinemas –– Odeon, Plaza, Regal and Rivoli, that showed only English films. The leading restaurants were Davicos, Wenger’s and Piccadilly with fancy ballrooms. These served only English dishes and liquor. No Indian cuisine was allowed in CP’s Inner Circle “as the smell of Indian curries was supposed to pollute the refreshing atmosphere of the place”. The only exceptions were Laxmi Restaurant and Madras Hotel in the Outer Circle, later joined by Nirulas. With no congestion on the roads, no population explosion and the air pollution-free life must have been surely carefree in those days! It is sad that besides the disappearance of this ambience (more so for him) good wife Savitri too is no more.