My Bhupi Mama (mother's younger brother, Bhupendra Hooja) was working for BBC in London in 1949. He met his soul mate, Usha Rani Joseph there. She was studying sculpture. They got married there the same year. In 1954 they decided to relocate to India. Their first home was a spacious apartment on the first floor of a building called Exchange Stores, in Civil Lines of Old Delhi. It was also their son, Rakesh's (who had been born in London) first home in India.
At that time, my father, an officer in the Posts and Telegraph Department was posted at New Delhi. We were living in a government allotted house on Baird Lane, off Baird Road, in New Delhi. We were quite close to the Lady Harding Medical College, and Connaught Place.
My uncle and his family visited us quite often, but perhaps, our visits to their house were more frequent. Actually, my elder Mama's (GBK Hooja, usually called Kumarji) in-laws had been living in Grand Hotel, just across the road from Exchange Stores for quite some time. My mother was quite close to the ever loving elderly couple. Moreover, Kumar Mama's family used to stay with Pitaji and Biji (as they were called) whenever they were in Delhi. So we had been visiting the area frequently. Exchange Stores was not new to us.
Civil Lines had come up as a residential colony for the civilians in the British period - late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was built north of Kashmiri Gate, one of the gates of the walled city built by Emperor Shah Jehan. The road leading out of Kash Gate (as we called it) was then known as Alipore Road (now Shyam Nath Marg). It went on, across Kudsia garden, and a few other properties, till it reached the majestic building of Exchange Stores situated on the right. Majestic it really was - painted white, with shops on the ground floor, and three or four residential apartments on the first floor. These apartments had verandahs in front with arches and huge pillars.
Bhupi Mama's house was on the right corner. The rooms were spacious, and there was a huge terrace at the back, so one didn't get the feeling of living in an apartment. The kitchen was on one side of this terrace. Downstairs too, behind the stores there were apartments, with little gardens.
My school, Presentation Convent, was situated opposite the Red Fort. Baird Road being quite far from there, it was not on the route of school buses. Hence I had to use public transport-Delhi's bus system called DTC at that time. This was my family's mode of travel otherwise too, since we had no car (at that time, the notorious three wheelers had not yet made their appearance). The bus route from Baird Road would go past Connaught Place, Daryagunj, Red Fort, my school, under the Railway bridge (funnily, in those days, railway bridges were built above roads in contrast to today's flyovers crossing above the railway lines), GPO, Kashmiri Gate, and on to Exchange Stores. Hence, if we were to visit there on a week day, I would take a bus to Exchange Stores right after school, and my parents and younger sister Madhu would come there in the evening. My afternoon would be spent with my Aunt and young Rakesh. Mostly, I would finish my homework too.
My sister would be quite happy there as there was a horde of comics belonging to Usha Aunty (as we called her) for her to delve into and she was never bored.
It was at Exchange Stores that my Uncle wrote his first book ‘A life Dedicated', a biography of Seth Govind Das.
He was working in Delhi Administration, and his office at Delhi's Old Secretariat was quite close to his home.
Usha Aunty kept up her hobby of sculpture. The front verandah was used as a studio. She made a lifelike bust of her husband. It is a beautiful piece, and still adorns the home they built in Jaipur. Soon she got her first funded project. It was a life size piece called "Power and Industry", and was put up at the Industrial Fair held in 1955, at what was later to be known as Pragati Maidan. I had seen it being made, and it was a matter of pride for me to describe its making to my friends. We visited the fair a number of times, as my parents considered it to be an "educational" outing! We entered the exhibition by the same gate every time, so as to admire this work of art.
Usha Rani working in her makeshift studio in Exchange Stores building. Delhi. Mid-1950s.
In 1956, there was an addition to my Mama's family. Exchange Stores was daughter Rima's first home.
In summer of 1957, my mother, sister and I spent a week or so of the summer holidays with my Uncle and Aunt. A school friend of mine was living on the ground floor. In the early mornings, we would go for walks to the River Yamuna, which was very close. We would be accompanied by Madhu, Rakesh, and little Rima in her pram being pushed by my aunt's ‘man Friday' Devidutt (he was with the family right from Exchange Stores days and accompanied them on all their postings. He was with them in Jaipur till the eighties). At that time the river was just a stream. Water melons were being grown in its bed. We would purchase one every day. Since they were really huge, weighing five to seven kg each, this too rode in Rima's pram on the way back. Usha Aunty was very fond of melons, and huge chunks were served at breakfast.
Talking of the river, which was so dry, I cannot forget the day when my friend and I decided to wade in and see how far we could go. Holding hands, we went on and on. Once we had reached the centre and the water was only knee high, we decided to go across - and we did it! Of course the others of the party were made to promise to keep our adventure a secret from the adults at home.
Later the same year, there were floods in the river. People living nearby had to be evacuated. There were hordes of squatters opposite the General Post Office. The river didn't reach Exchange Stores, but the road running parallel to the river was flooded. Of course we visited it!
My Uncle and Aunt loved to entertain, and visitors were very frequent. There were Bhupi Mama's friends from his college days in Lahore, and others he had met in London, besides family. There were intellectuals, artists, writers and even would be politicians. Usha Aunty was a good cook, and with Devidutt's help, she would prepare lovely dishes. I remember watching in awe as she would make pancakes, flipping them over with a toss!
One day (probably a weekend), we were there for lunch - a family affair. I was helping Usha Aunty lay the table. She had put a huge platter of fruit chaat on the table ((her servings were always huge, and food never fell short in her parties). On our next trip to the dining room from the faraway kitchen, we found the platter was empty! I was puzzled, but she guessed who the culprit was. Jagdish was my Uncle's nephew, but the same age, and they were great friends since childhood. She sent Devidutt to get fresh supplies, and this time I was put on guard, with a good natured but ominous "don't you dare do it again" to him!
I can't talk of those days in Exchange Stores without adding a few more words about Devidutt. He was a good man, sincere and hard-working, though a bit slow. He used to look after the children too. Rakesh confided in me that he was afraid of the dark even into adulthood-the reason being that he had been told stories of Ghosts and Djinns by Devidutt in his childhood!
One incident of those times stands out in my memory. Usha Aunty had bought a car-a black previously used one. She used to drive it around. One day, early in the month, she went downstairs and did some shopping at one of the shops at Exchange Stores. She was talking to someone, and put her handbag, containing most of her husband's salary for the month on the bonnet of the car. She then got into the car and drove off to Mori Gate, where her parents lived. Of course, the bag was never found, but it was a story oft repeated laughingly by the couple.
Bhupi Mama got selected in the Indian Administrative Service in 1958. He opted to serve in Rajasthan. The family left Exchange Stores the same year.
The building was on the way to the Delhi University. When I was doing my pre-medical at Hindu college, I would pass it every day, and remember with nostalgia the wonderful time spent there.
I believe the building still stands in all its grandeur. Only, now it is totally commercial.
Would like to visit it someday.
Exchange Stores building. Delhi. May 2019
© Mira Purohit 2019
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