Delhi’s Belly | Mayank Austen Soofi

Old Delhi’s Haji Hotel lies in the congested Motor Parts Market. There are shops selling used car tyres. It is almost impossible to simultaneously inhale oxygen and fight the throng to reach the hotel. But the view!

Jama Masjid looks breathtaking from the sprawling balcony. On a clear day, you can see the Red Fort in the distance. Film director Mira Nair shot The Reluctant Fundamentalist at this hotel for three days. Years ago, singer Begum Akhtar was seated in this very balcony. So were Rasoolan Bai and many other music maestros. They too must have been rendered speechless by the grand Mughal-era mosque—it seems a jump away.

Haji Hotel is one of about 30 guest houses in the vicinity of Jama Masjid. “A hundred years ago, there were no guest houses in Purani Dilli," says Haji Faiyazuddin, the hotel’s 75-year-old owner who lives in the adjacent Chawri Bazaar. “Delhi was not a centre for business. Most businessmen from outside the city would come in the morning, finish the transactions and leave the same day. If some stayed over, they slept in dharamshalas and musafir-khanas, which were free. About 80 years ago, a few hotels came up in Chandni Chowk, but here," Faiyazuddin waves his arm towards the mosque, “there were only ours and Jamia (Hotel) for a long time."

Owner Haji Faiyazuddin checking in a guest. Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint

The hotel’s balcony looks like a painstakingly designed lifestyle store in Khan Market. It has a cast-iron bench upholstered in faded brown leather, an old Favre-Leuba wall clock, half-a-dozen ceiling fans, a blackened tea kettle that is always on the boil, and a tin roof that produces a pattering sound when it rains.

On the roof, the mosque’s imposing gateway and a blue underwear hanging on the clothesline harmoniously blend the aesthetics of 17th century architecture with scenes of everyday life.

“After new hotels came up some decades ago, our business plummeted by 30%," says a totally relaxed Faiyazuddin.

Indeed, the roof of the area’s biggest hotel looks on to Haji Hotel. Bombay Orient is the only hotel around Jama Masjid to have an elevator. Managed by two sisters, it has three floors and 80 rooms. Couples are admitted only on the evidence of a nikahnama (marriage certificate). Each room has a prayer mat and a sign pointing to the direction of Mecca.

Hotel Taj

Not one hotel has a restaurant, though the room service might get you the Walled City’s customary dishes (nihari, biryani, etc.) from eateries outside. The cramped Kashmiri Restaurant, next to Bombay Orient, suddenly becomes popular at this time of the year. It serves gushtaba, yakhni and rogan josh. “As winter begins," says Faiyazuddin, “a large number of Kashmiri families leave the valley for warmer places such as Delhi, where they pass the cold months in hotels and rented flats."

By November, the pavement tea stalls in Matia Mahal start serving the pink noon chai and the crisp lavassaroti, the traditional Kashmiri breakfast. Rose-cheeked children sit at these stalls with their parents and grandparents. “Right now, 15% of our guests are Kashmiris," says a caretaker at Bombay Orient. “The figure will treble after mid-December."

Hotel Bombay Orient
Hotel Bombay Orient
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