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Bungalows, a vanishing lifestyle: My tale of two cities
Mumbai's famous landmark, the Gateway of India marks the spot where King George V and Queen Mary landed in 1911. They were on their way to lay the foundation stone for the up and coming new capital of India, which was being shifted from Calcutta to what was to be known as New Delhi.

The capital itself was inaugurated in 1931, by the then Viceroy Lord Irwin. While we are very familiar with the prolific author, Kushwant Singh; not many may know that his father Sardar Bahadur Sir Sobha Singhwas the major contractor for the construction of New Delhi. The most prominent administrators and those close to the seat of power resided in what came to be known as ‘Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone’ – named after Edwin Lutyen, the chief architect.

Once a matter of pride and envy, Lutyen’s Delhi has come in for much disdain and derision these days! Nevertheless, as a child I have frolicked in many such bungalows, when my father visited some of those celebrated residents. My father’s teacher Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan stayed there, when he was the Vice President of India.

My own life has shunted between a bungalow in Civil Lines, Delhi, which was my father’s base and a bungalow in Tilak Nagar, Cawnpore (Kanpur), which was my Bade Mama’s base.

Civil Lines, Delhi had something to do with the Mutiny of 1857 and our home there is a small footnote in the account of our freedom struggle. The Kanpur home had certain poignancy, as it was connected to the Partition of 1947.

During the Mutiny, the European men, women and children within the walled city of Delhi were under fire from the rebels. While some managed to escape, around 56 European women and children and a few men were captured by the sepoys and taken to the Red Fort, where they were massacred.

Emergence of Civil Lines in India:

The above mentioned massacre led to the decision by the authorities to relocate all the British civilian staff and families beyond Kashmere Gate. And the new area was thus named Civil Lines. Most who resided there were British administrators and railway staff. Maidens Hotel was built on Alipore Road, where the visiting royalties and even the architects and planners of New Delhi stayed.

Taking cue from Delhi, other cities also developed their own Civil Lines.

In the next wave, we the Kayasthas, mostly involved in administration and pen-pushing, moved out of Chandni Chowk to Civil Lines. Their bungalows were found all over in Commissioner Lane, Sri Ram Road, Ramkishore Road, etc.

When I was born in St. Stephen Hospital, my parents were staying at Sri Ram Road. Opposite us stayed Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who later as the President of India signed at midnight the Emergency papers in 1975. Next to us stayed an affable English official, who had a Japanese wife. He was ostracised by fellow Britons, when Japan entered the hostilities, during World War II. Also staying in our neighbourhood were Charles Fabri, a well known Italian art critic, a French painter and the then editor of Statesman!

Those days my father used to cycle down to Delhi University, where he taught Philosophy. We children used to climb a jamun tree and a mulberry tree in our compound. Jamun and shahatoot plucked with our own hands never tasted better!

In the evenings, crossing Bela Road we played gilli danda on the banks of Jamuna. Cricket was still very much a game for gentlemen in white flannels only! It had not yet made inroads into the lanes and by-lanes of India. Boatmen used to ferry us over to the other bank, where we sitting in the farmer’s hut, used to relish slender and juicy kakadis and tarbooz, laced with mouth watering masalas!

Pottering around in the garden, awaiting the shoots of seasonal flowers and lounging in the lawn in cane chairs sipping tea, are some of the joys of life which we can only dream about now! Drinking tea then was a ceremonial affair. It was served in a tray with an embroidered table cloth. An embroidered tea-cosy kept the tea pot warm. Then there was the exquisite milk pot, sugar bowl and strainer.

Practically every evening, our drawing room would become an adda of poets and writers like, ‘Ageya’ Vatsayan and his wife Kapila who even now is considered a cultural czarina! Also there were Jainendra Kumar Jain, Josh Malihabadi, Majaj Lakhnavi and cartoonist Shankar, of Shankar’s weekly fame. Some freedom fighters also came over regularly. Manmath Nath Gupt, a revolutionary later presented me his book, ‘Bharat mein sashastra kranti- cheshta ka romanchkari itihaas’. This was an account of attempts at armed revolution in India, against the British. He had also had his share of a jail term!

Our household was stirred with excitement and frenzy around the Quit India call. My mother and aunt used to regularly sit in the aangan spinning charkha, at Gandhiji’s call.  Aruna Asaf Ali a frequent visitor to our place, in spite of the ban brazenly unfurled the tricolour, at what is now known as August Kranti Maidan, in Bombay. As orders for her arrest were issued, on the run she went underground at our Civil Lines home. It seems, my father was tipped off that he was being followed by the CID and our home was under surveillance. So she was somehow smuggled out. She was later honoured with the Bharat Ratna award.

With the passage of time, the grace and elegance of Civil Lines has faded away. Yesterday, while watching TV we saw that just one hour’s rain had flooded the area and entered what used to be those familiar bungalows, of an era gone by. Even the residence of CM Kerjiwal in the vicinity was not spared. A few years ago, when I visited the area it had a disorganised look about it! Jamuna looked more like a ganda nala, rather than a holy river.

Cawnpore (Kanpur): Rise and fall of a Nawab Saheb’s ‘Peeli kothi’

During my second stint in Bombay we stayed in a company apartment in Malabar Hill. Our compound was next to the contested Jinnah House. There is an ongoing tussle as to who should own the property. The governments of India and Pakistan and the Wadia family have staked claim. To a question raised in the Lok Sabha, the Minister concerned clarified that the Jinnah House was not ‘Enemy Property’ but ‘Evacuee Property’.

Under the Evacuee Property Act, 1950 ‘evacuee property means any property in which an evacuee has no right or interest, whether personally or as a trustee or as a beneficiary or in any other capacity’. While I am not aware of the details of the Act, I do know that my Bade Mama in Kanpur was a tremendous beneficiary. Back from the African front after the end of World War II, he was transferred back to Wheeler barracks in Kanpur. He wanted to return to civilian life and revive his medical practice. He did not have enough funds to set up a clinic as also a decent place to live.

During his house hunting, the wheel of fortune turned in his favour. An auction of evacuee property was announced. War veterans and those who had fled Pakistan were given preference. After the auction he was the proud owner of a grand and graceful mansion in Tilak Nagar.

Tilak Nagar Bunglow

The house was built by a nawab, who had gone to Lahore to stay with his relatives and could not come back, due to the ensuing Partition mayhem. Our moving into ‘Peeli kothi’ changed Mama’s dimension of existence entirely! Soon the mansion came to be known as ‘Dr. Saksena’s kothi’. Situated at the corner of the locality, down the road right up to the Agricultural College were similar bungalows of all the textile tycoons – the Singhanias, the Jaipurias and others. Mama soon became the family doctor to all these families and also the company doctor for their mills. We came to know these families well. Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauz also stayed in our vicinity.

With a huge lawn in the front, at the rear there was a spacious court yard, servants’ quarters, cow sheds and two kitchens. Nani had a separate kitchen and utensils, for she did not use utensils etc. used by outsiders! Mama’s clinic, which was also in the bungalow, was also visited by the British and Anglo-Indian officers of the mills like, Lal Imli.

All of us children grew up and even got married from this house. Soon our Mama’s home became known for cultural activity. At one end of the spacious lawn we had a dais, on which many a performance has been held. Often, well known artists from Lucknow were invited. Bade Mama and my aunt were gracious hosts and were themselves adept at singing and sher shayeri. Once a year they hosted a lawn dinner, where the who’s who of Kanpur was present. Today it may be called a Page 3 party!

As I said earlier, there was some poignancy about this house. One evening a distinguished looking gentleman in kurta and pyjama stood at the gate. The gardener came rushing, wanting to know if he could come in. Sure! After an awkward moment it transpired, that this was the Nawab Saheb who had built this very bungalow and had lived in it.

He was beaming with goodwill and there was no rancour of any sort. Very cordially, he was welcomed inside and also taken around the house. Many an hour was spent over tea and meals. He told us all the news from Pakistan and all about his family. Finally it was time for him to go. We parted as long lost friends. Life can be stranger than fiction!

All good things must come to an end. Bade Mama and my gifted aunt left us too soon! Over the years the maintenance of the stately mansion was becoming difficult. My cousins sold it to a builder.

Three years ago, when we were in Kanpur for a wedding, we were anxious to see what became of Dr. Saksena’s kothi. One has to accept the inevitable: it was now ‘Nandan Cottages’.

Nandan Cottage

Days of gracious and leisurely living and pottering around in the garden are gone!

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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