Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Nizamuddin 01: Political Economy - I

[NB: This is part of an ongoing series on the Nizamuddin locality of New Delhi. For a brief background, please read the prefatory note.]

It started with a joke, the substance of this post. I was having a big argument with Nasir, a friend and former colleague. Like all denizens of the Walled City, he was incapable of contemplating anything beyond Jama Masjid as a source of Kababs. So Nasir was rattling on and on as usual about Matia Mahal Kababiyas. After a point I felt compelled to interject and advance, tongue firmly in cheek, an argument rooted in history and political economy to demonstrate the superiority of Nizamuddin kababs. Nasir didn't like it one bit!

Later on it occurred to me, this might be an interesting idea after all. Lots of studies have been conducted on the sociology of food, how societal and anthropological factors determined what people ate. So the question what people sold as food, and how socio-economic considerations influenced it, could make for a pretty interesting area of investigation.

Old Delhi or the Walled City became the capital of India in 1638. From then on, it gained importance as a political and commercial centre and, thanks mainly to its splendid mosques like the Jama Masjid, as a religious centre as well.

But did all this boost the food business? Difficult to say. Satish Jacob mentions: 'The tea houses in the walled city were frequented by intellectuals, poets, royal courtiers and scholars who would spend hours discussing the topics of the day.' Ghantewala, the legendary confectioner's, also dates back to that era.

Against this must be set the fact that fine dining as we know it didn't exist as a concept then. Presumably, most eating houses catered to travellers, working men, artisans, and others to whom food purchased from outside comprised a necessity, not a luxury. The city elite took enormous pride in their private chefs, and would rather die than purchase food from outside.

As mentioned earlier, even Ghantewala was not an eatery in the proper sense, merely a sweets shop. Moreover, it was established in 1790, when the empire was at its steepest phase of decline. Legend has it that Shah Alam II himself patronised Ghantewala. To my mind, this is is as telling a commentary on the emperor's poverty as on the sweetmaker's excellence. By then the empire had dwindled literally to the level of a standing joke:
Az Dilli ta Palam/ Badshah Shah Alam
(loose translation: 'From Delhi to Palam/ Reigns Shah Alam')

[NB: For those not in the know, Palam is a hamlet on the outskirts of Delhi, and presently home to the eponymous airport that services the metropolis.]
Delhi's misfortunes reached their lowest ebb in the years immediately following the 1857 revolt, when the capital shifted to Calcutta. By this time, the city had been reduced to a provincial town.

It began to regain some of its glory in the following decades. First it was made the capital of the Punjab province. Then in 1911, the capital of India shifted back to Delhi. A new city adjoining Old Delhi was established in 1930. The Walled City continues to exist as an enclave of what is known as the National Capital Region (NCR). It remains an important commercial centre in its own right.

These upheavals in the city's political economy find a startling resonance in the food business. The history of Karim's, without doubt the best known eatery in the Walled City, is a case in point. The progenitors of its founder, Haji Karimuddin, were cooks in the Mughal emperors' palaces. During the 1857 revolt, they remained loyal to the emperor. Once peace was restored, they were forced to run away from Delhi and seek shelter in outlying towns, often in disguise.

In 1911, Karimuddin moved back to Delhi. He decided to cash in on the business opportunity the Durbar generated, and opened a Dhaba to cater to visitors. The bill of fare was limited to Dal, Alu Gosht, and Rumali Roti. Its humble beginnings notwithstanding, the venture proved so successful that in 1913 he re-cast it on a firmer footing. That's how Karim's Hotel was born.

[Continued in Part II]