Photo: Staff at the Apollo Hotel in 1942
I was born in 1937 in The Lady Hardinge Hospital, New Delhi and spent the first two years at my maternal uncle’s house in Kasmeri Gate, Old Delhi, as it was known those days. Kashmere Gate or Kashmiri Gate is a gate located in Delhi; it is the Northern gateway to the historic walled city of Delhi. Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the gate is so named because it was at the start of a road that led to Kashmir.
My parents used to run the Apollo Hotel on Nicholson Road (named after the British soldier and administrator who brought relief to Delhi during the Indian Mutiny of 1857–58) in Kashmere Gate from 1939 to 1962). It was located just inside the walled city. The hotel was old fashioned but felt like home to the passengers.
It was here at the age of five when my brother Noshir taught me to play Billiards with a cue and a stool to stand on were specially made for me. When I was eleven, I took part in my first local Billiards tournament at the YMCA in New Delhi and reached the quarter finals stage.
I studied at The Presentation Convent School, earlier known as St. Theresa High School, in Old Delhi. Those days we had two sections – the English section and the Hindi section. An incident which I still remember is when I was in the third standard, a huge fire broke out at the Burmah Shell oil depot very close to the railway station and the school. Twenty thousand gallons [ before the metric system] of petrol caught fire and flames were billowing high.
I had not done well in the exams and we got our report card that day. All the children got scared of the fire and started to run helter-skelter and in the melee, I threw my report card away hoping that it got lost but that was not to be. The next day it was promptly returned to me by the school’s Head Clerk.
The school from co-ed became a girl’s school from 1950 and I moved to Delhi Public School at North Block which later moved to Mathura Road near Sunder Nagar. In DPS we studied in tents. A princely sum of five rupees was paid by my parents towards the construction of a proper school building. The monthly school fee was forty-five rupees per month which included bus fare and a snack of coke & bun or Horlicks & bun.
I remember two personalities who visited my school – Jesse Owen, an American track and field athlete who specialized in the sprints and the long jump. He participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame. The other was the famous painter, M.F. Hussein. He drew a horse in action on the drawing board with just a few strokes.
Indian badminton champion Nandi Nateker had visited our hotel in the early 50’s. He had represented India in the All England Championships at the age of twenty and had reached the quarter finals. Indian Test cricketers like Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar and C. S Nayudu too had visited our hotel for Parsee food in 1951. I still have their autographs as well as players from the West Indies and England teams.
Melville de Mello, the famous Indian radio broadcaster and commentator (Republic Day parades and his moving non-stop account for seven hours on Mahatma Gandhi’s last journey) was my best friend Mickey Patel’s family friend. I had visited Melville Uncle a few times at his house above Exchange Stores on Civil Lines in Old Delhi
The Parsees are one of the smallest religious communities in the world. The total number of Parsees in the world is just around 1,37,000, with approximately 61,000 living in India. Kashmere Gate was the hub of the Parsees those days.
There were, besides us, nine other families. Navroze or New Year, was a big event those days for us. We would send sev or rava to each other. All the Parsees were invited for a free morning movie show at the Plaza cinema in Connaught Place followed by soft drinks and snacks. Plaza was owned by Keki Mody ( brother of the famous actor Sohrab Mody). The Manager of Plaza was Bhumansa Sethna uncle and that of Minerva theatre in Old Delhi was Sohrab Maneckshaw. I fondly remember those days when I would join a bunch of kids from Kashmere Gate to go and watch a movie and that too free!
As and when any of us would be down with a touch of flu, cold or cough Dr. Kapadia, our neighbour in Chaabi Ganj, would oblige by dropping in and giving our throats a coat of throat paint and a bottle of mixture with the dosage slip cut and pasted behind it.
We youngsters used to play cricket in our hotel compound and break a few window glass panes in the bargain. We would plan picnics to Qutub Minar months ahead and as owning a car was rare those days, most of us would travel by tongas and have a rollicking time. I used to love the tonga rides to Connaught Place the fare for which was eight annas or today’s fifty paise
That world of tongas ended in 2011 when the MCD banned the tongas to ease traffic.
I remember January 30, 1948 clearly. I was in the third standard. My mother and I were in Connaught Place at a friend’s house and my dad rang up and told us to return immediately to the hotel. He told us that Gandhiji had been assassinated and there could be trouble.
Ritz Cinema was next door to us. I remember watching The Adventures of Captain Marvel here. Ramchander uncle, the manager of Ritz was my dad’s friend. Minerva cinema too was close by. The manager of Minerva was Sohrabji Maneckshaw, an old family friend. I saw Ram Rajya and The Drums of Fumanchu at least twenty times each.
Kashmere Gate also had the Carlton Restaurant. It is here that the famous Rudy Cotton band, led by one of India’s greatest jazz saxophonists, performed live. There was Spencer’s and Blue Bird store as well as Student’s Store, a book shop and Modern Hair Cutting Saloon where I would go for my haircut and pay eight annas. The famous St. James Church (Delhi’s oldest church set up in 1836) was close to our hotel.
Memories of all these landmarks in and around Kashmere Gate are clearly etched in my memory and will never be erased.
All photos are the author’s own