The Hidden City

The Hidden City
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First Published: Sat, Apr 14 2007. 02 31 AM IST

Updated: Sat, Apr 14 2007. 02 31 AM IST
Rumours abound in Delhi about a relic from the Raj, who, if found, will give the best tours of the city. Not run-of-the-mill Red Fort runs, but tours from the perspective of a true insider of 50 years, who will take you anywhere and teach you everything.
But he’s simply a whispered rumour to most people in Delhi. And he insists he wants to keep it that way. “Please don’t mention how to contact me. I already have enough business.”  (A quick Google search will, unfortunately for him, reveal his secret.)
Finally, after a few weeks of waiting, my group meets the man—Nigel Hankin—in Chanakyapuri. The thin, 87-year-old Hankin takes one look at us and asks where the car is. We glance at each other. We need a car for a walking tour?
“Are you joking? Delhi is 30 miles across! The city itself is seven miles round! No car…” he rages. 
Hankin, only slightly slouched, in pressed slacks and shirt, likes things done “the Nigel way”, as Manjeet Nanner, a repeat client says. Unfortunately, we set up the tour through written notes, so he didn’t have the chance to tell us what his way is.
A taxi is hurriedly hired, Hankin’s disappointment is soothed (until, that is, I ask to stop for water: “You didn’t bring any water?”), and off we drive to our walking tour.
Hankin will take you wherever you want to go and discuss—albeit reticently at times—what you want to discuss. Interested in pre-Mughal architecture? You’ll stick to South Delhi for the day. Need to brush up on the flora and fauna? Hankin will quickly point out the only lane in Delhi where the Flying Fox roosts or the Canna lily in bloom near India Gate. 
If you don’t have a specific place in mind, or period to study, Hankin will take you on the We-Do-What-Nigel-Thinks-Best tour. And since the man gives the distinct impression that he does know best, we willingly follow him.
Hankin guides the taxi driver around his favourite points of interest in New Delhi, including the crematorium to see a corpse awash in sprays of river water, the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib to pray and Kingsway Camp to visit “George”.  We dine at the Maiden hotel in Civil Lines, where he oversees the “pigs at the trough” (i.e. us).  Finally, full on the buffet, we get to the walking part of the walking tour: a mad dash through Old Delhi. Of the 12-odd places we visited, only four had been seen by anyone in our group before. 
Shopkeepers shout “Ram, Ram!” to him and workers give him extra space as he winds through the dark alleys. On the second floor in the spice market, he laments the changing face of Delhi, for the fifth or sixth time that day: “It all used to be so peaceful and beautiful. Thirty years ago, this was a very upscale home and it had a beautiful garden here.”
Hankin came to Delhi in 1947 and has never left, luxuriating in his adopted city, first as an officer in the British army and then at the British High Commission, where he “moved paper from one table to another.” He often took ministers’ wives out for casual tours of the city, ordered to keep them out of the ministers’ way until at least 5 o’clock. When he retired 20 years ago, Hankin continued the tradition for anyone interested, six days a week, year round. Though, now that he’s nearing 88, he claims he’s trying to cut back to four days.
He takes us to familiar spots and places we’ve never seen, like the colourful by-lanes of Khari Baoli and Gadodia market, old Delhi’s spice den. His tour finally brings me to the 14th century step well which I pass by every day to work, but never visit. 
Hankin’s Delhi is glimpsed down secret corridors and peered at over locked fences.  Plus, he’s a wealth of knowledge, be it of King George’s procession, where to buy nitric acid or how the salt residue on the crematorium’s brick marks the last good monsoon in Delhi.
And, best of all, I now know where to go if I ever need an axle for my tractor. 
(For groups of up to five, Nigel requests Rs2,200 and lunch, which costs around Rs1,000 per person.)
Melissa A. Bell
Arun’s Bangalore
Between 7am and 10am on Sundays, Arun Pai hits the climax of his marketing spiel. For a captive audience of CEOs, vice-presidents, anonymous tourists and sharp citizens, Pai sexes up beleaguered Bangalore. Brushing aside the IT stars and the traffic smokescreens, he shows them a city that lived a couple of hundred of years ago.
“The Sunday morning Victorian Bangalore walk (at Rs495 per head, including brunch) isn’t even profitable any more, but it’s the best introduction to what we do,” says Pai. “If anyone calls me up with questions or inquiries for a special-interest group, I simply invite them to our signature walk.”
Starting with a half-minute silence under the porch of the Holy Trinity Church, at one end of the super-busy M.G. Road, 37-year-old Pai urges the group to look through the archway into an avenue that, from that angle, fits every straight-and-narrow concept of colonial construction. Suddenly, it isn’t so hard to imagine, circa 1791, a garrison marching down the street, intent on the Bangalore Fort, where Tipu Sultan reigns as the only threat to British supremacy in the south.
Part extempore actor, part pop historian, part brilliant marketing tactician, Pai prides himself on customizing Bangalore—and, increasingly, non-urban Karnataka—to suit every taste. During the recent India International Coffee Festival, which drew Starbucks director Colman Cuff and Ernesto Illy of Illycaffe to the city, Pai drew up a By/2 Coffee Tour (by/2 being the local equivalent of Mumbai’s cutting chai), which steered clear of Koshy’s and Café Coffee Days and headed to the legendary MTR for an experience of coffee by the yard.
If that sounds suspiciously like making India sound exotic, Pai is quick to defend himself: “This was a group that knew everything about coffee, from beans to baristas. But this method of cooling the coffee was something they had never seen before.”
If Pai can be pinned down to a single designation, it would probably be this: The Man Who Helps You See What You Look At. Over the past couple of years—Bangalore Walks, largely a one-man show, was launched on 1 August 2005—any number of Bangalore’s own, and visitors, have perceived the significance of the missing name in the church plaque commemorating martyred Hussars (an elite British regiment) and appreciated why Bangalore is the only city outside Germany to celebrate Oktoberfest.
Exhaustive research, including long chats with elderly residents, meticulous networking (“especially with the security staff,” grins Pai) and umpteen dry runs ensure every new tour is a hit.
“My walks are about a-ha moments,” says Pai. His own epiphany came after an itinerant youth spread across IIT Madras, IIM Bangalore and Arthur Andersen in Delhi and London. “Watching the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, I realized we knew all about the Battle of Trafalgar, but nothing about the Battle of Bangalore.”
If it’s an urban jungle out there, Pai is the GPRS. To culture, history and a lot of fun.
(For details, log on to www.bangalorewalks.com)
Sumana Mukherjee
Akhil’s Kolkata
At 8am, 67-year-old Akhil Sircar, a man of small frame, waits for me at the corner of Beadon Street, North Kolkata. We meet him for a tour of old mansions that has been North Kolkata’s pride since the days of the Raj. Sircar’s familiarity with the nooks and corners of these meandering by-lanes is unmistakable, as is his wry sense of humour and passion about their architecture and conservation.
Most of these houses are about 150 years old, and my naive questions about their history are answered by reprimanding words—“Europeans and Americans were far more interested in architecture than us Indians, you know.” A teacher of architecture and town planning by profession and an enlisted conservation architect of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, he is still fighting lawsuits for the preservation of structures that would otherwise be razed to build multi-storey buildings.
Sircar began these tours 10 years ago, with the initiative of Conservation and Research of Urban Traditional Architecture, a Kolkata-based organization. Most of his tours, conducted largely during winter, cover two routes: in and around Dalhousie Square, and the other starting at the Beadon Street post office (earlier, the private theatre of Chatu Babu, son of Ram Dulal, the most famous businessman of North Kolkata) and ending at Raj Bati, the royal family mansion of Raja Nab Krishna. We proceed along the second route.
Sircar is full of anecdotes from the Colonial era—traders, agents, zamindars and governor generals abound in his stories. Our first stop: Ram Dulal’s family estate. The story goes that Dulal once earned a fortune by selling a sunken ship and built a house for his family, another for his mistress and a few Shiva temples scattered around this neighbourhood.
The Mitra House at Dorji Para lane once had an open roof. All these mansions have an outer courtyard, an outhouse and an inner courtyard. Other emblematic features include a Thakurbari (holy shrine), always facing the north or the east, Venetian blinds, timber beams, cast iron work in balconies and classical motifs of cherubim and stained glass work on walls and pillars.
A little ahead, Sircar identifies a house whose pillars were recently broken down for a car parking area in its inner courtyard. Many descendents of these families now sublet their premises to hosiery shops, printing presses and goldsmiths.
Through a three-dome masjid and verandahs like open wharves, we emerged at the Blacker Square, once cursed with a series of plagues.
Our walk ends at the decrepit Raj Bati. Around its side walls, Sircar leads us to a sprawling entertainment hall, where the Raja entertained the British because they were barred from entering the main house with the holy shrine. Adjacent to it is a wall with holes carved into them. “The women of the house were forbidden to attend parties that took place in this hall. So, they would peep through these holes and satisfy themselves,” Sircar says. Imagine the stories these walls would have been privy to.
(For details, log on to www.iisd.com)
Aishwarya Iyer
Abha’s Mumbai
“Thank you for calling the Bombay Heritage Walks, please note that we will resume our Sunday public walks from June 2007...” It’s not the most promising introduction to the BHW, but then persistence has to be a part of the regime when you’re trying to track down Abha Bahl, our young Mumbai expert. It doesn’t help that her office is a nest at the back of her in-laws’ legendary Punjabi Chandu Halwai Karachiwala store in South Mumbai. But then a sweet shop, with a 112-year-old history, is an appropriate address for one of the founding ladies of one of the city’s oldest heritage tour guide associations. “We’re heritage ambassadors, the public link between NGOs, architects, academia and government agencies,” says Bahl.
Once you trace this 32-year-old mother, you realize she’s a professional architect who unwittingly happened on the politics of Mumbai’s heritage conservation. Bahl and her partner, Brinda Gaitonde, first set up the tour in 1999 when they were fresh architecture school graduates. Now there are 1,500 people on their mailing list for information on the walks.
So, what’s a straight-laced southsider doing running around the city for permissions from babus so tourists can look at the finer points of properties like the Victoria Terminus? “I love this city, and it’s about more than just tourist maps, it’s about spreading awareness for the place we live in,” she says softly.
Despite her political correctness, Bahl has a pet project—Khotachiwadi. The hamlet of 19th century Portuguese-style homes right in the heart of South Mumbai’s trading district Girgaum, is BHW’s trademark route. And Bahl’s favourite crusade. “The Portuguese rule of Bombay wasn’t worth much, except for the neighbourhood architecture they inspired, and Khotachiwadi is the best example of that. We can’t afford to lose it,”says Bahl.
Today, the area is under threat from builders who want cost-effective and profitable high rises in place of quaint brightly-coloured homes with wooden eaves and wrought-iron staircases. And as one family after another has given way, the 40 houses that used to dot this tiny by-lane five years ago have been reduced to just 32 today.
The Khotachiwadi story, which began when the British handed a plot of agricultural land to a farming lord, Dadoba Waman Khota, first came to Bahl’s attention in 1998, when she worked on a project commissioned by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region—Heritage Conservation Society.
Today, Bahl, an urban design graduate from Berkeley, and her team of five, leads tours through the city, from walks around Mumbai’s Fort and banking areas to the offbeat Khotachiwadi route. “Our most special private tour was for Chelsea Clinton, while she accompanied her father, President Clinton, to India in 2000. The hotel called us,” she says, obviously proud that BHW has never touted its services.
But it’s the last thing on her mind as she weaves in and out of Khotachiwadi’s tiny side streets that aren’t large enough for even two shoulder-to-shoulder. In a crisp white salwar-kameez, her feet in sequin-studded mojris, she’s breathless as she checkpoints the sporadic features of the community: the local wafer company that sits between a cross embedded in its backyard and a Ganapati on the front lawn, the polychromatic facades of the houses, the Goan-Portuguese style interiors, and sudden sprouts of open spaces in the middle of the cloistered neighbourhood.
Bahl’s last stop on the tour is house number 29B, which has just fallen to a builder’s cranes. “I have to see this for myself,” she says. The construction workers have dug out a massive ditch where a house with a pretty porch once stood. “They’re building a basement car park,” she says. There’s bound to be a mailer going out about this soon.
(Bombay Heritage Walks charges Rs100 per head for adults and Rs50 for students, while special groups of five are charged Rs2,500. F or more details, email info@bombayheritagewalks.com.)
Manju Sara Rajan
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First Published: Sat, Apr 14 2007. 02 31 AM IST
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