Birds withdraw from their tree in the morning, and fly back to that same shelter by night. This bird leaves its tree in the sundown instead, and returns with the new sun. The bird in question is an extraordinary man. Nem Singh is 70. Long retired from a career in the “press,” he lives in distant Rohini but commutes daily to Kucha Lalman in Old Delhi. Here he comes with no other aim but to spend his entire day lounging quietly under a peepal tree. This is the street’s only tree—a peepal so tall, gigantic and dense that it reflects the kucha’s personality through its singular presence.
It is 2pm and Mr Singh, as always, is perched on the marble platform that circles the tree’s wide trunk. The stately bark is wrinkled into numerous folds, making the tree appear so venerable that the first instinct on seeing it is to bow the head in reverence. Indeed, idols of various gods have been carefully placed within the trunk’s natural niches. “This peepal must be a 1,000 years old,” mutters Mr Singh. With his long white hair, he too looks as reverential.
A native of Old Delhi where he passed most of his life, Mr Singh moved to Rohini some years ago with his eldest son “after we sold off our ancestral house in (nearby) Katra Budhan Rai.” A Delhi Jal Board employee, the son is privileged with a government-allotted residential flat “where I’m looked after very well.” However, Mr Singh is pulled daily into the arms of his beloved “Purani Dilli.” He feels truly at home only in this street, under this tree. “Our old house is no more but this ilaka (area) is my true address.”
The tree stands at an intersection of four by-lanes, and some local or the other is always striding past it purposefully on way to their destination. Everyone of these passers-by seems to be acquainted with Mr Singh, including the area’s “electric metre reader.” Many pause to exchange “haal chaal” with him. “All the kucha wale treat me with respect—Hindus and Muslims, ladies and gents.” While attended to with love and care by his son’s family, Mr Singh says he prefers the daytime ambiance of Old Delhi because “here people are always out on the streets, you can see life is continually going on, you are always hearing the sounds of fellow humans… in Rohini, everyone stays inside their flat.”
Mr Singh arrives every morning at 9 by bus. A nearby tea-stall man keeps him supplied throughout the day with (free) chai. A resident who considers him “like a father-figure” sends afternoon meal without fail. “Although my bahu always packs lunch for me.” He leaves for Rohini by 7.
Mr Singh now gets up for a brief stroll. Moments later, the street is resounding with the tap-tap-tapping of his metallic walking stick.