"...the commune’s cuisine kindles the legacy left behind by the emperors of Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and India. While the city outside has taken on Punjabi characteristics, this place retains its own distinct food identity."
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When Anwari proudly holds up her thumb, her biological blueprint is barely visible in the bright sunlight filtering through the peeplu branches. Instead, fresh vertical gashes show up, made by her knife’s serrated blade which she works against her thumb while slicing vegetables and single-handedly preparing midday meals for 100 children at a nursery in Nizamuddin basti in South Delhi. Forty-year-old Anwari is a well-known cook-caterer who lives in a one-room quarter in a backlane in Nizamuddin Dargah that functions as her kitchen-cum-bedroom-cum-store. But the secrets behind her kewra-scented biryani might never have breached the walls of this community if it weren’t for an NGO which believes cookbooks aren’t just meant to record the bejeweled shenanigans of celebrity chefs. Paperbacks can also document a living culinary heritage that dates back 700 years.
Recipes From An Uraban Village, compiled by Charmaine O’Brien and published the Dargah Hazrat Inayat Khan Hope Project, is perhaps India’s only ode to ace cooks like Anwari; people whose hands yield a modest income conjuring up a wealth of traditional dishes on a cheap two-burner chullah. This trusty steel hob laid on the floor is all Anwari needs to produce kormas and koftas for a party of 100, made in the presence of four mongooses. Her pets, who scurry around hungrily, waiting to be fed rotis soaked in meat stew or tinda gosht salaan, each recipe inspired by the culinary richness unique to this basti.
Encircling the great white dome in the grave of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, this seven-century-old settlement is also where poet Amir Khusro composed qawwalis that continue to be sung in the dargah every Thursday and during Urs. Located close to Humayun’s Tomb and the home of Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit, the basti, which houses around 15,000 people now, has been inhabited right from the 12th century. It also houses unique monuments, from those built during the slave dynasty period under the rule of its fourth Sultan, Ghiyasuddin Balban, in 1265 AD to those from the last days of the Mughal era. But while traditional Sufi poesy, chanted by the descendants of the original qawwal bachchey trained by Khusro continue to soothe pilgrims, it has also been food that has nurtured and nourished both the seekers and the dwellers in this urban village. Food flavoured with unconditional love, ishq-e-haqiqi…
Salma Husain, consultant to the ITC group, says the commune’s cuisine kindles the legacy left behind by the emperors of Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and India. While the city outside has taken on Punjabi characteristics, this place retains its own distinct food identity. “Faith and food is what makes the basti special,” she says. Tosha, siwani (both sweet rice) and Baba Sahib khichri made during Urs, woodfired meat from grubby roadside eateries like Monis Kada where nehari (which, according to O’Brien, arrived in Delhi courtesy Babar in 1526) sells just for Rs 8 per plate and thrifty home foods like chukander gosht or meat cooked with beetroot are some of the surviving fragments of Indo-Persian culinary legacy here.
But this priceless cuisine could now be under threat. It isn’t just bargain meat-shoppers, spiritual pilgrims, fond eaters and itinerants who have been thronging Nizamuddin Basti lately. There have also been officials visiting with inch tapes, papers, white chalk and hammers. Earlier this year, during the inauguration of Humayun’s Tomb as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Jagmohan, Union Minister of tourism and culture, announced restoration plans for Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin and its monuments. This included demolition of the basti around it. Now, suddenly, Muslims who chose to remain in India and not go to Pakistan after Partition are being threatened with eviction. Plans aren’t public as yet but people are panicking.
Uncertainty is rife. “They’ll throw us where there is no electricity and water,” says a resident who’s already been served a notice. “We get one warning after another,” says another occupant, who pulls out a ration card that proves that she’s one of the oldest residents of the locality. Yet the branch of Karim’s restaurant, whose family cooked for the Mughal emperors, seemed safe. Says owner Alimuddin Ahmed: “we haven’t been asked to move.” Outlook made all efforts to contact the office of the minister to find out about the restoration plans. But there was no response. No one we spoke to had seen or been informed about the masterplan.
So, are we going to lose a unique legacy? Says Kamini Prakash, executive director, Hope Project : “Traditions of hospitality in this basti go back to the times of Hazrat Nizamuddin”. Hope conceived of the book as a community project and a tribute to Nizamuddin’s unsung cooks who use age-old andaaz while adding frugal amounts of spice to meaty curries, who toil in stone-age kitchens grinding masalas on sil-battas rather than in electric mixers. Of course, initially they had reservations about their cramped homes and kitchen platforms, anxious about how to impress Charmaine O’Brien, the author-compiler from Australia.
O’Brien, whose passion for Indian food had culminated in Flavours of Delhi, published by Penguin earlier this year, shares that as a Westerner she stood out initially, “but soon the post-office wallah and hotel-wallahs began greeting me as a friend, not a tourist.” Maqsuda Aunty gave O’Brien her man-pasand , a mixed sabzi. A couple of lanes away, Qumran , employed at a computer center, says she and her sister Masooma, whose family comes from Amroha in UP, cooked purely veg snacks like dahi-bhalla and golgappa for O’Brien.
But how long will it be before Masooma and Qumran’s home is razed? The family of Sajjade-e-Nashin Khwaja Hasan Sani Nizami, spiritual leader of Dargah , has resided here from the era of Prithviraj Chauhan. He has assured all cooperation to officials. Ironically, even he hasn’t been consulted while the government made its plans. He too
has misgivings about the incessant illegal construction here, and he asks: “why did the municipal corporation allow it to become a slum in the first place?” He also observes that when the tomb of Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahan Ara was restored, the jaalis were too small and the marble was of poor quality. As an independent expert, heritage educator, Shobhita Punja, INTACH, says: “ this is a living monument, it is people who give it soul. Take them away and all you will have is a stack of stones.” She also states that while the skyscapes around Himayun’s Tomb and Taj Mahal built in 15th and 16th centuries are protected, Nizamuddin Dragah built earlier - around 1325 - does not have the same status. Despite this, restoration work has already begun. A baoli (well) has already been cleared. Nalini Thakur, department head, architectural conservation, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, did her thesis on this community in the 70’s. She still conducts walks inside the basti for students. “All the complex qualities of this living settlement need to be conserved. This includes the way of life and monuments like the unique octagonal tomb of Khan-I-Jahan Tilangani, prime minister during the rule of Feroze Shah Tughlak,” she says. Literature shows that the call of Hazrat Nizamuddin was so strong that after his death, this dargah became the center of a necropolis or city of the dead, crowded with the tombs of believers who wanted to be buried close to their beloved saint.
Restoring these sacred environs is necessary. But while cobbled walkways and fountains might be perfect for fair-weather tourists, what has been planned for Urs when thousands of pilgrims arrive? Just how many families will lose their homes? Where will they be rehabilated? Many of those who contributed to Recipes From An Urban Village have been issued notices. Demolition would mean an entire legacy of cooking laid out on family dastarkhwans might be ripped apart, severing this community’s links with Iran, Turkey, and Central Asia. Some exalted eateries like Karim’s might survive and make profits. But Recipes….. might be the only testimony left to the many residents of these crowded lanes, who ferry paiy, siwani and Baba Saheb ki Kichri in cloth covered vessels to friends and neighbours.
As state election dates come closer, a reprieve may be in the offing, but it’s likely to be just temporary. But till the bulldozers arrive, this basti’s dwellers will keep cooking the only way they can with boundless ishq-e-haqiqi.
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