In a basti such as this people know each other without reading signs. Every one I stop to ask, even the children know Shobha Ram’s shop. Keep going you will find it, they say, pointing a finger down the lane without an end.
| || |
Basti basna khel nahin hai / Bastey bastey basti hai
In an effort to locate a book I discovered a basti. The maid who accompanied me found the basti suffocating. For she had lived her life in a slum. What upset her intrigued me. Amidst the dirt, stench and heat I found warmth, camaraderie, courtesy. A basti is not a slum. The word cannot be translated even as a neighbourhood. A basti has dimensions which are a gift of time. Age, history, ritual, a thousand little ways of eating, nurturing friendships, remembering ancestors, personal and collective; enjoying the company of children and old men, welcoming strangers who acquire the aura of relatives; patronising dingy cafes that excel in tested foods, the same foods that perhaps drew the fancy of a foreign women with the name of Charmeen O’Brien who found in them not just nourishment for the body but for the mind and soul. Hence a cookbook of Nizamuddin basti titled, Recipes from an Urban Village. Intrigued by its title I went looking for it. I never found the book but found a place that has withstood time.
I would find the book in the Farid Bookstore I was told. In the narrow lane, beside the famous Karim restaurant, in a large basement I find it. Intrigued by the line of shoes and sandals at the entrance, I stop and remove my chapals. Perhaps the only bookstore in the world where one takes off one’s footwear, the way one does when entering a mosque or a temple. Inside there are no icons - just shelves and shelves bursting with books, easy chairs to sit and browse. Salesmen who look like maulvis, friendly, helpful, ready to give discount on every book bought. Down the narrow lane, I ask a panwala for dry methi seeds. He does not stock them, he regrets. “But you will find it in Shobha Ram’s kirana shop,” he adds. “You will find everything there.”
The lane stretches endlessly. I walk past cafes emitting aromas of spiced foods. I see old men in corners sitting and chatting, children run behind a ball in the tight space as if it is a playground. I look for sign boards on shop fronts but there are none. In a basti such as this people know each other without reading signs. Every one I stop to ask, even the children know Shobha Ram’s shop. Keep going you will find it, they say, pointing a finger down the lane without an end. I reach a shop with sacks of grain lying at the door. Where is Shobha Ram’s shop, I ask. “This is it,” a small old men mutters. Are you Shobha Ram? “No, I am his son.” I have so many questions to ask but he has no time to humour me. He is busy, doling out small packets of dal, rice, oil, rock salt... He digs them out of well-worn canisters. His hands are weathered as is his face. He attends to each one silently, without a word. The shop must be old, I hum. Nearly 60 years, he says without bravado. I want to know why Shobha Ram set up shop in this tight lane, in a basti predominantly Muslim.
Thoughts that cross our minds these days perhaps never occurred to a man like Shobha Ram. He was true to his name - doing his duty and lending glory to the name of his god.
| || |