By Shubhodeep Datta:
Chandni Chowk or Delhi-6 or soon-to-be (quite infamously) ‘Sachin Tendulkar Marg’, is a place where the hubbub of a commercial marketplace hits the crescendo of euphoria. An orchestra of blaring horns, tinkling of the cycle rickshaws, mooing of the stray cattle, the wailing paupers and the bickering of the street side hawkers; makes up for a perfect welcome to this place that reeks of nostalgia, history and a cultural charm. Laden with iconic landmarks and a dash of ubiquitous secularism, this place has enticed bag-packers since time immemorial.
In the heart of this busy street, stands the edifice of Lala Chunnamal ki Haveli, now in the shadow of its former glory. As one passes by, the faÃ§ade can’t be simply ignored. Though, it is anything but magnificent and barely speaks of its erstwhile opulence. Almost in neglect, none of the nearby hawkers and rickshaw pullers even seem to know of it, leave alone the rest. One of them though, guided us to the correct way but instead rectified us, ‘it is Chunalal ki Haveli, not Chunnamal’.
And even when you have found the place, it’s difficult to find the entrance to the Haveli amidst the flurry of shops here. The entrance is unguarded, unlocked and trespassing seems to be no offence here. Getting inside, a baroque mirror greets you. In one corner, there were a few plants that had borne the brunt of the scorned wrath of midsummer sun of Delhi. We turned our heads around, but still there were no sign of the inhabitants. We climbed up to the terrace and for the first time I realized the huge area this Haveli covered. Though, we were soon intervened, “Saab bula rahe hai”. There was not a hint of disgust towards the trespassers. Almost as if we were guests.
The saab, Mr Anil Pershad, the tenth generation of Rai Lala Chunnamal, wasn’t surprised and he claims his place is often frequented by inquisitive trespassers like us. We showed him the book we were armed with, where we had read about the magnificence of the haveli. To which, he claims with a smirk, ‘Did you ever go and ask this author, if he ever visited this place? I don’t remember meeting anybody of this name’. He laughs it off and says a lot of people have been writing about his Haveli with whatever they could scrape off from the net, instead of visiting the very place in person.
Lala Chunnamal and his family were textile merchants during the Mughal-era. He was also the first Municipal Commissioner of Delhi. “And amongst many other laurels Lala Chunnamal dons”, Mr Pershad says, “He was also one of the richest men in Delhi after the Sepoy mutiny and the first one to own a telephone and a car in the city.” He also adds, his is the only family to have been enrolled in all the censuses ever since its inception. Mr Pershad was the only person to have been interviewed by the Census Authority during the last census apart from Pratibha Patil, the then President of India. We were also told Lala Chunnamal held stakes and co-founded the ‘Delhi-London Bank’ which stood in the same building that houses SBI these days in the same street, few paces away from the Haveli. Listening to these words, one can’t help but think about the opulence this place once boasted, the overflowing wealth and the plight of this place that’s fast losing its charm. “Chunnamal owned more than thirty properties in entire Delhi; that I can show on paper. He even owned the Fatehpuri Masjid- at the end of this street’’, he continued. On being asked about the state of properties these days, he says with a grim face that most of them were either siphoned off by his relatives or were encroached upon.
Moments later, he lets us into the haveli’s grand drawing room; something he says, he doesn’t do for everybody. And immediately we realized the grandiosity of the place and the privilege Mr Pershad had endowed upon us. Adorned with terrific life size baroque mirrors, archaic chandeliers that now run on electricity, the mix and match of current day upholstery with the yester year furniture; all had us amazed. Mr Pershad tells us the wiring in this room is open and extremely well-disguised without any ugly cables hanging out- an engineering masterpiece. In one corner of the drawing room was a black and white photograph of his parents dining with Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Mr Pershad was still a toddler then and seen in his mother’s lap. He is quick to flaunt off the most recent and famous visitor to his house- Kate Winslet. She paid a visit to his more than hundred and fifty year old haveli while she toured India after the release of her movie ‘Holy Smoke’.
On being asked more about the haveli, he jocularly remarks that as a kid he had always seen more servants than the actual occupants. “There are 128 rooms here, and the haveli spreads over an acre. And there used to be around 38 members at one time but most of them have found ‘better’ homes in other parts of the city and left this place’’, he says. He goes on to say that most of his relatives urge him to give away the place to government and turn it into a heritage site and get rid of the heavy maintenance charges. But Mr Pershad is a man who values his lineage and culture a lot and sees this haveli as the only reminiscent of their family’s illustrious history.
The huge commercialization sweep, the shops that had been paying the same rent since last fifty years due to the obsolete rent laws, the overall attitude of municipality may have taken away the sheen out of this place. But this is a place replete with history and had played a pivotal role to the development of Delhi into a megacity. It’s not just this haveli, but there lay many other places of historical importance in Delhi which are rotting in neglect and have been usurped unknowingly or knowingly. Not very far from this place is Mirza Ghalib’s Haveli which had long been squatted in until recently it was revived and given a glamorous makeover. If we, as a country keep neglecting places of such glory that had contributed to our colourful history and resplendent cultural charm, the day won’t be far when names like Lala Chunnamal would just be the part of termite ridden archives.