Delhi in 1939
Now, New Delhi has grown into a sprawling metropolis of vast dimensions, distances and a huge population.
In 1939, New Delhi was a very small town. Connaught place was the center of the town. To the east, the town extended up to Purana Quila. A little beyond, to the east, was extensive agricultural land and the river Yamuna. To the south New Delhi extended up to Lodi Road. This road connected the Safdarjung Tomb area to the Humayun Tomb area. The massive Lodi Colony came up later. On the west side the Viceregal Lodge (now called Rashtrapathi Bhavan) and the Birla Mandir marked the boundary line. Beyond that was all jungle and was known as The Ridge. Karol Bagh area was a cluster of villages. The city’s northern limit was Paharganj and the New Delhi railway station. There were many well-maintained gardens and parks all over the place. Connaught Place, Gole Market and tiny Bengali Market were the markets and shopping centers. Population of the New Delhi area may have been at the most about twenty thousand people. About three hundred of them were Malayalees.
The employees of the Central Secretariat were the main residents of this area. A few original Delhi families dating to the time of the Mughals too lived there. They preserved their highly sophisticated culture. The remnants of the old grandeur of the Mughals could be seen in many of the ancestral homes and Havelis in New Delhi and in old Delhi. Delhi had its own brand of culture, in many ways different from the highly acclaimed UP culture. However, by this time, it had all eroded to a great extent. In course of time Delhi lost that culture completely. After partition Delhi became more of a Punjabi city.
People from all areas of what was then known as British India were employed in the Central Secretariat. People from the princely states, however, found it difficult to get jobs in the Central Secretariat. The Maharajas of those States thought it demeaning if their subjects had to come to Delhi for jobs. They did not allow their subjects to take up jobs outside their own states. The British government acceded to the wishes of the Maharajas. Officers of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) were, however, exempt from this embargo. Since all Maharajas held honorary military ranks in the British-Indian Army, Military Accounts and other such departments connected with the defense department were open to the subjects of the Indian States, but not the Indian army, though. Because of these restrictions there was no one from the states of Travancore or Cochin in the Central Secretariat, except for the few ICS officers. Thus, the Malabar region, being part of British India, got the advantage in this job market. All the Malayalee employees in the secretariat were from Malabar. When the Capital and along with that the Secretariat was transplanted from Calcutta to New Delhi by the British, a gentleman belonging to the Thiyyan community from Tellicherry, Mr. Anandan, got a middle grade officer job in the Secretariat in New Delhi. Since then, many of his relatives and also friends, managed to get their candidates jobs in the Secretariat through this man. The result was that the majority of Malayalee employees were from North Malabar. Rao-Sahib V.P. Menon (our founder President) was the most important(not only Malayalee) South Indian. He hailed from the town Ottapalam in South Malabar. Several ICS officers from Malabar too were in the Secretariat. The brothers P.N. Menon and P.M. Menon were two. Many other ICS officers from Malabar area were posted all over India. Dr. K.C.K.E. Raja a member of the Zamorin family was a high-ranking officer in the health ministry. So was Major Dr. Laxmanan. He became General Lakshman later. Mr.Appa Swamy from Palghat was an important officer. Other prominent men from Malabar were Mr. Edathatta Narayanan (later the founder-Editor of the Patriot and Link) then the News Editor of the Hindustan Times. He was then known as E. Narayana Menon. Mr. A.R. Nair, a reporter at the Hindustan Times was another media stalwart.Mr. C.B. Nair, (the father of Mr. M.K. Narayan, former advisor to India’s Prime Minister) was another officer in the Secretariat from Malabar. Mr. K.V. Padmanabhan, later an Ambassador, was employed in the Federal Court then. He was the first Secretary of the Kerala Club. There were quite a large number of individuals from Malabar in the central Secretariat. Mr. K.K. Vasudevan from Tellicherry was a high officer in the Burmah Shell oil company.
The top Malayalees from Travancore were Cartoonist Shankar, Sardar K M Panicker and Mr. N.R. Pillai ICS. There were a few more ICS officers from Travancore and Cochin but they were all posted outside Delhi. One such was Mr. K.P.S. Menon (our founder member). Mr. P.P. Pillai, head of the INTERNATIONAL LABOUR OFFICE and Mr. Kovoor E. Mathew, his deputy, the Manager of the Palai Central Bank, and Mr. C.J. Thomas were the other important Travancoreans. A Congress leader, Mr. C. Krishnan Nair, from Travancore, was very active in the villages around Delhi. But very few Malayalees knew him then. As ‘Nairji’ he was the political guru for an entire generation of Delhi congressmen. From Cochin State, Mr. K. A. Joseph, of the Kallookaran family was in the Military Accounts department.
There was a Central Secretariat Service Exam every year. Many from Malabar got jobs in the secretariat through this exam. The exam was open to all from British India, but not to those from the Princely States. The winners could hope to retire as section officers or even sometimes as Under Secretaries -- not above that. All top jobs were filled up by Britishers.
All ethnic groups were represented in Delhi. They all strived to keep their identity intact. The several ethnic groups from South India were all collectively called The Madrasis by the North Indians. The ‘Malayalee’, the ‘Tamilian’, The ‘Andhraite’ or the ‘Kannadiga’ were all entirely different from each other but the North Indian never knew it, nor cared to find out. They assumed that they were superior to the southerners because for centuries the northerners were ruling the roost.
Originally there was only the South Indian Club as a social organization for all four southern groups. Later, the Andhraites had their own exclusive association. The Malayalees and much later, the Kannadigas followed. The Malayalees had their own exclusive club called the Kerala Club, established in 1939. Rao Sahib V.P. Menon, was the president of Kerala Club. Actually he was the President of both the South Indian Club and the Kerala Club for some years.
These were the last days of the British Empire in India. Nobody expected it to end so fast. Lord Linlithgow was the Viceroy then. Mr. V.P. Menon was the highest ranking Indian Officer in the Central Secretariat. He was directly reporting to the Viceroy. During the six summer months, the entire Secretariat used to move to Shimla. New Delhi used to be a deserted city during those six months. But, because of the second world war, that practice was stopped from 1941.
Every important man used to dress in three-piece suits. In the sweltering summer people wore suits made from cotton. In summer the pith hat made of cork was worn by everybody. In winter the felt hat or the bowler hat was a must. Three piece woolen suit and an overcoat was the standard dress in winter. Summers are really hot in New Delhi. Air conditioning was unknown. The various offices were cooled by an army of men, known as ‘Paniwallahs’, pouring water at frequent intervals over curtains made with a particular kind of fragrant grass known as Khus-Khus. Drinking water was cooled in special kind of earthen pots called ‘Surahis’, and kept on wet sand. The water remained real cool.
Even the electric fan was very rare then. In the same government offices another group of workers operated what was called the ‘Punkha’. The Punkha was a contraption made by fitting a length of heavy cloth to a wooden plank. The cloth hung from the plank. It was a big plank of wood. This thing was hung from the ceiling of the room. A string was attached to it in the middle. A man would be sitting outside the office. This string would come through a hole in the wall to this man. He has to pull and relax the string. This moves the Punkha which produces a pleasant breeze. The man, like a machine, pulled the Punkha without stop. This and the watered grass curtains made the offices very cool. Many homes too used to have this system of cooling in summer. A large number of men earned a living from these operations.
Housing for the Secretariat employee was no problem in those halcyon days! Several types of accommodations to suit the status of the officers were available. No.1 Akbar Road was the residence of Mr. V.P. Menon. This house became part of the Prime Minister’s house during Indira Gandhi’s time. Today it is part of a museum. All the Malayalees knew each other. Every evening most of the youngsters met each other at Connaught Place. The Kerala Club too being in Connaught Place helped this camaraderie. Many unmarried girls with their families used to come to this place for an evening promenade. A couple of rounds in Connaught Place was a ritual. Everybody was keen NOT to miss this event.
The shops in Connaught Place were for the rich, since they were a little costlier than the ones in Old Delhi. So most of the people shopped for outfits and other items in Old Delhi's Chandini Chowk. Tongas and Rickshaws were the only mode of transportation. Rickshaws were banned in New Delhi area. Almost everybody had to depend on their bicycles. Those who could afford it had cars. There were very few Malayalees with cars. Top government servants had official cars.
Tonga rides to offices and shopping areas were shared. One Anna, equal to today’s Six Naya Paisa, could take one to the Secretariat or Old Delhi from Connaught Place. Four people shared the rides. The ‘PHUT PHUT’ (Three-wheeled Motorcycles) had not yet been commissioned There was one bus service running between Delhi Gate and Gole market which was not allowed to touch Connaught Place area.
After 7.30 p.m. Connaught Place area used to shut down. It became a deserted area. The only language spoken in that area after 7.30 p.m. was Malayalam! That was because of the youngsters returning home at night from the Kerala Club which was situated in Connaught Place. Altogether New Delhi was a very quiet place.
Though the boundary of Delhi is shared bytwo states namely Haryana and Uttar Pradesh the lifestyle of Delhi has a strong influence of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Delhi is a cosmopolitan city where people are open to embracing new ideas and life style. You can notice the transition in the demography of people in Delhi with the changing lifestyle and the influence of modern ideas in the lives of Delhites. People from all parts of the country live in Delhi which makes the city very cosmopolitan in nature and there is unity among the citizens from all caste and creed. This "Unity in Diversity" can be seen in social and cultural gatherings where people from all communities can be seen on one platform sharing one common view. Be it Holi, Diwali, Id, Guru Purab, Xmas or Buddha Purnima; you will find the same vigor and bliss among people from different communities.