Owned and Disowned

“Do not go to that side Madam,” the guard came running after me.

Puzzled, I turned and looked at him.
‘What happened?’

‘The owners of that side of building scold us, if students or visitors go to their side.’

‘But where are the owners?’ wondered I.

‘They stay at the back side of this property.’

This was intriguing. No! Blasphemous, to abandon this colonial style mansion to rot and decrepit and stay at the back, choosing to ignore the grandness of this Bungalow.

Lutyen’s Delhi, wide roads and tree canopy

Welcome readers, to the XXX, Tolstoy Road, Connaught Place, Delhi, currently temporary home for an organisation running a short course there and I am enrolled for that course. Delhi has been built slowly but continuously, at different times and different locations, chosen at the whims of rulers of those times. As the name suggests, Luteyn’s Delhi was built by British and was quintessentially British. Long, tree-lined avenues, well planned residential, administrative and shopping areas interspersed with vast green spaces.

Times changed, British left India, and the free Indians bought those colonial Bungalows which were then sometimes sold and resold many a times. Most of these were pulled down and up came the tall buildings, determined to scare away the poor words called architecture, elegance and inheritance.

Tolstoy Road in CP is one of the many testimonials of this change. All the houses, except one, on one side of this lightly trafficked road have been replaced by new buildings, imposing to dwarf the ‘past’ on the other side of road, which is still present there.

I crossed the road from ‘present’ to ‘past’ and looked at my destination. The black gate announces the name of its owners in bold white, one by one,
“ABC ….
DEF …..
XYZ …..
Beware of the Dogs.”
Perhaps the painter was mischievous.

I looked up at the two-storied house and heard a mute cry of sorrow and pain. Plaster on the walls was peeling. Wood and glass of the large tall windows were tainted and fractured. These windows, lower half of these in glass and upper half in wooden frames in green color, ran along the entire front length of the house. I walked outside on the pavement, along these windows, under the shade of Jamun trees. Midway of the building and things changed. The walls were freshly painted, windows were coated in teak color but retained their health. It must be a property marred in litigation, where inheritors could not agree upon their common inheritance.

Another black gate announced, not the owner’s name, its own name: XXX, Tolstoy Marg. The gate was ajar and I pushed it a little. A security guard looked at me from his wooden cabin.

“Are the…. classes being conducted here?”
‘Yes’, said he and opened the door. Purring of the table fan in his cabin tried to set the tone of what to expect but a ‘Koot rook’ of Brown headed Barbet on some tree in the compound told all was well.

Inside, it was a straight passage, running to the rear of the building, as wide as thirty feet and long enough to play cricket. On my left was the front lawn. A Red car was rusting in the far corner of the porch. Sitting grand in this square plot was a symmetrical, rectangular bungalow, with a front and a back lawn and two side passages on either side. The lawns and passages were sufficiently big to house a three BHK modern apartment on each of them.

“Straight ahead on this passage and enter the gate in front of fountain.” Said the guard.

I walked, trying to make sense of the place, till I reached the fountain. The marble fountain was small and slender, gurgling out a sprinkle of water droplets, spreading the coolness, in the shadow of big Goolar Tree. But it’s role was grand: a witness to all those who lived there and walked along these spaces. Opposite it, on my left, was the door, guarded by two iron lamp-post on either side. It led me to the classroom.

Inside, the height of the rooms was the only thing that was not altered. The large rooms were converted to small rooms by solid walls of concrete. It was but a small part of this big property and told nothing about the interiors.

But I have an itch to find and look around the old places to have a peep into their past. So one cloudy afternoon, during the short break from class, I wandered to ‘that’ side of building which is the exact half of the building. My friends stayed in ‘this’ side of the building to have tea in the makeshift canteen in the elegant front Veranda, which opened into front lawns. The aroma of tea could not waft to ‘that’ side, blocked by an ugly wall of concrete, erected by the two brothers who are the owners of ‘this’ and ‘that’ side.

Past the rusty car, the world changed. Broken steps led me to the Veranda. The circular pillars of Veranda and the solid, one foot thick walls were still firmly supporting the skeleton of the two storey building, but the glass, wood and plaster to cover the skeleton were missing. Time and dust and cob webs thus penetrated inside those mighty rooms and looked determined to worm their way into it. They could not win, as yet, defeated by the workmanship of people of yesteryear, who built it with lime, stone, brick and mortar and will. But the wooden attitude of people of present years will surely help time and dust. Its plight was accentuated by fungi covered sofas, left to rot along with it.

I came out and turned right to ‘that’ side of passage. Another Black gate, some twenty feet away from the outer one declared the name of owners followed by ‘Beware of Dogs’. Further explorations were thwarted by the guard who came running after me. But dust, fungus, lizards and perhaps some reptiles and Scorpions could not be scared away, neither by ‘Beware of Dogs’ and nor by the good willing guard.

I retraced my steps to ‘this’ side and looked at the rooms at back side, where owners of both the sides reside. Those were low height, small rooms, which perhaps were servant quarters in its heyday. The AC fitted in the windows tried to convince that these were the owner’s rooms. Perhaps maintaining this palatial house is difficult for them. At least renting it out had helped in stopping the elements ruin it.

Click clack of heels and chattering of students broke my rendezvous with past. The man who built this mansion might have dreamed that his progeny would prosper here, in this coveted place in Luteyn’s Delhi. But Time is the only decision maker in this transient world. Today, students from Africa, Eastern Europe, and erstwhile Russia and from all the corners of India come here to sharpen their skills, to fulfil dreams of their life.

May these dreams be fulfilled and the Mansion live long to be a witness of all: the past, the present and the future.

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