Biswin Sadi (Book Excerpt) by Jamil Urfi

In this memoir, the author recounts his experiences of growing up in Delhi during a period of ‘Biswin Sadi’— the 20th century, when it felt like a new age had just begun, although it’s already mid-century.

Living in a suburb of South Delhi called Nizamuddin East, with ruins of Mughal era buildings scattered all across, he recalls the people displaced by partition, piecing together their lives. An Anglo-Indian family— survivors of a vanishing tribe, living in a world of their own. A publisher of an Urdu magazine called Biswin Sadi, who had migrated from Lahore. An English-medium private school, resplendent with
symbols of undivided Punjab, attempting to prepare leaders for taking over the reins of power, in a newly independent country.

By employing the metaphor of Hindi films the author paints a kaleidoscopic picture of the bygone century…those times without e-mail, or mobile phones.

About the author: Born in 1960, Jamil Urfi completed his schooling from Delhi and later studied at the Aligarh Muslim
University, University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and in England. As a campus correspondent for Youth Times — a youth magazine published by the Times of India group, he reported on social and political events from his university. Urfi has written several books and has also edited an anthology of writings on Indian birds. He has an abiding interest in history, architecture, period publications and popular cinema of the 1960s and 70s — themes which figure prominently in this book. He lives and works in Delhi. Below you can read an excerpt from his book, Biswin Sadi. Cortesy: Jamil Urfi. Learn more about the book at Cinnamon Teal Publishing.

An Excerpt from Biswin Sadi by Jamil Urfi

Those bygone times! Bhoole Bisre Geet! In a dusty, long forgotten chest, I came across old family albums with black and white or sepia tainted prints in which kids and adults are wearing bell bottom trousers, safari suits, or traditional Indian clothes. During the 1960s, a lot seemed to be happening in the world. ….

People of my cohort, those born in late 1950s or early ’60s, are adults now and in control of the world today. I suspect, perhaps it is due to this reason that many of today’s ‘nostalgia’ films, fiction, works of art, etc., hark back to those times.

But, surely, the period sells well today because the buyers have money in their pockets. One particular Bollywood blockbuster in recent years, Shah Rukh Khan and Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om, played exclusively around the period of 1970s and managed, quite successfully, to create the ‘retro’ atmosphere of those times, with people wearing bell bottom trousers, denim jackets, ladies with broad headbands and stickers of large colourful flowers pasted on cars. Others have attempted to do the same with varying degrees of success.

Many people born in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s have formed an invisible circle or school. They remember their times with fondness, as this post on Facebook reveals:

Anyone who was BORN in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s….We are the last generation who played in the street. We are the 1st who played video games, the last to record songs off the radio on a cassette tape. We walked over a mile w/no worries on being taken…We learned how to program the VCR before anyone else, we played from Atari to Nintendo…We are the generation of Tom and Jerry, Looney Toons, Captain Kangaroo. We travelled in cars w/out seat belts or air bags, lived without cell phones. We did not have flat screens, surround sound, ipods, Facebook, Twitter, computers or the internet…But nevertheless we had a GREAT time ♥ Re-post if you’re a ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s baby!!3

Another post refers to this generation as ‘Limited Edition’:

We are the last generation who listened to their parents, and also the first which has to listen to their children. We are not exactly special; we are LIMITED EDITION.

Suddenly, it seems that everyone is nostalgic4. People have started remembering and writing about a variety of things pertaining to the ’60s and ’70s, which they don’t see any more now. For instance, the lost world of letter writing ever since e-mails, sms, WhatsApp, etc. made P&T (Posts and Telegraph)—now called ‘snail mail’, irrelevant5; the good old typewriter, our constant companion for so many years, which was pushed into oblivion by the advent of the word processor and computer6; Phantom and Mandrake comics, and all possible other things, not to forget Asterix, the Adventures of Tintin and Commando comics—World War II stories in which British soldiers were depicted as brave fighters and the Germans (jerries) as bungling fools.

…..Yet, one day for sure, as later cohorts come to assume positions of power and authority and dominate the world, the craze about the 1960s and ’70s will come to pass. The newer generations will recall their own times . . . the times when they were young and from their perspective the ’60s and ’70s may well appear distant and irrelevant. So, perhaps what we call as the golden years weren’t the Golden Years after all.

Or maybe not! In modern history, the ’60s and ’70s will remain the ‘original’ template and their music, films, arts, etc. will forever be re-made and re-cycled.

***

Delhi, in those days, looked very different from what it has now become. I remember there was very little traffic on the roads. Moving out of Delhi on the Mathura road, one saw sparse vegetation, open spaces, gnarled Accacia trees—the sort of country that is to be seen in Dev Anand’s 1957 film, Nau do Gyarah, as he rides a pom pom (truck) from Delhi to Bombay singing the song, Hum Hai Rahi Pyar Ke hum se kuch na boliye. On the roads of Delhi grey coloured Delhi Transport Undertaking (DTU—which later became DTC, Delhi Transport Corporation) buses plied, alongside which also roared a conspicuous, though peculiar mode of transport called phat-phatiya. These monsters were old Harley Davidson’s motorcycles refitted to a carrier which could easily accommodate 7–8 passengers. The reason why they were called phat-phatiya was due to the noise made by the Harley Davidson engine, which could be heard almost a mile away. Mostly, these contraptions were quite colourful and richly decorated vehicles. Manned by elderly Sikh gentlemen (sardarjis, as they are referred to in Delhi) dozens of phat-phatiya’s could be seen parked outside the railway station, Karol Bagh, Connaught Place, and at the Nizamuddin bus stand. With a dozen people packed together, clutching on to whatever support they could find and holding on to their shapeless baggage which protruded from all possible angles, the phat-phatiya presented a funny spectacle, and as they roared along on the road they were a sight to behold. However, with the passage of time, these road monsters disappeared and so did those old Sardars who used to read Urdu newspapers and work these machines. In 1998, with considerations of air pollution in mind, the Delhi government stopped phat-phatiya’s altogether. They were replaced by brown coloured Mahindra jeeps, which till today go by the name ‘Phat-Phat Sewa’.

Nostalgia about Lahore was high3 and for us new-comers, what was striking was that so many shops and buildings were named after places in Western Punjab and other areas which now constitute Pakistan. It seemed that everyone had brought a little bit of their homeland with them. For instance, a popular eatery in nearby Bhogal4 market was called ‘Lahorian di Hatti’. A school near the railway station was called ‘Quetta DAV School’. Small eateries in various places served dishes called ‘Pindi ke Chholey Bhatoorey’. A shop somewhere had the name ‘New Lyallpur Cloth House’. There were ‘Lahorian Jewelers’, ‘Sindh Wood & Ply’. And there were also ‘Abbot Drycleaner’s’, whose shop, it turned out, had not been named after some monastery’s abbot but after ‘Abbotabad’, a town in Pakistan, recently made famous by the capture of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals. Thus, many places in erstwhile undivided India, but no more in India now, such as Lahore, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Lyallpur, Sindh, Abbotabad, to name a few, made their presence felt in a short walk in any area of Delhi. However, that said, yet another aspect of the cultural shock which we experienced in Delhi was coming to terms with a new vocabulary. For instance, the widespread trend of calling ladies and gents of our parents age as uncle (variously pronounced: un-kill, ouncle, an-kal, etc.) and aunty. This was new to us and in no time we made uncles and aunties of our neighbours and others whom we frequently encountered in the locality.

***

Growing up in the 1960s, after more than half of the Biswin Sadi already gone, it seemed the world was gradually waking up to the fact that a new age had dawned. I was, of course, not around when the 19th century gave way to the 20th, and there may well have been much euphoria and celebrations then, but it is likely that the events of the early decades had overshadowed that feeling. (I did ofcourse see the turn of the 20th century as it gave way to the 21st; the most pressing concern at that time was the Y2K bug.) There had been the great depression, two large scale wars—each more devastating than the other. In our region, there had been the years of struggle for freedom against the British rule, partition of the country which had displaced millions of people, and to a large extent dampened the euphoria of the birth of the new nation. So, perhaps it was not so surprising after all that as late as the mid-1960s, there were constant reminders of the fact that a new century—the Biswin Sadi, had dawned. For example, in the film Johny Mera Naam, the lead actor Dev Anand who plays the role of Johny is heard saying, ‘Janab ye biswin sadi hai; aaj kal insaan chand pe jane ki baat kar raha hai aur aap. . .’ (Sir, this is the twentieth century; people are talking about going to the moon and you . . .) This film was released in 1970 just a year after the moon landing. But all through our childhood years in the 1960s and to some extent in the ’70s, there was a sense that a new age had just begun, even though more than half of the century was already gone.

The ‘newness’ of the times, a sense of euphoria at the birth of a new nation and the age itself was something which was reflected in the popular film songs of that period. (One has to also remember that the 1950s—the first decade of Nehru’s prime ministership were also times of peace, prosperity and optimism, before the rot began to set in during the 1960s.) For instance, one song which was often heard on radio was a racy number, picturized on a young and dashing Sunil Dutt. Beautifully sung by Mukesh from the 1961 film Hum Hindustani, it brimmed with Nehru’s vision of a modern, progressive India. With scenes of factories and dams being built—Nehru’s ‘temples of modern India’—its opening lines said it all:

Chhodo kal ki batein, kal ki baat purani

Nae daur me likhege mil kar nai kahani

Hum Hindustani, Hum Hindustani….

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