Every seven years, I used to make a pilgrimage to my city of birth, Old Delhi, built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Its warrens are connected by pathways with Persian and Arabic names like koochas, katras, galis, mohallas and bazaars. Its unique antiquity, sounds, smells and people rejuvenate the writer in me.
Moreover, Old Delhi does not hinder my koocha-gardi (gardi means footloose in Farsi).
In 1990, I was walking down Koocha Pati Ram, and as I stopped to admire an ancient edifice, I noticed an old man with a flowing white beard, donning a handsome skullcap and pushing a loaded bicycle, emerge from a koocha-band (cul-de-sac). As soon as I noticed his blue eyes, I recognised Chacha Chooranwala, who, in the 1960s, used to be at our school gate during the lunch break and we kids would jostle to grab the khatta-meetha, tummy-soothing powder, or tablets for 25p.
I also noticed a new signboard mounted on the handlebars of the bike. It read: 'Try Shabbir Ali's Lakkad-Hazam, Patthar-Hazam chooran, 1657'. Chacha's hyperbolic claim that it helps digest even leather and stones.
Fine, but what did 1657 mean, I wondered. I bought four large bottles of the 'L-H, P-H' chooran for my host Dabboo Arora and watched Chacha raise my crisp tenners to his forehead and thank Allah for the bonee (day's first sale). And we walked along. I don't know why, but I wanted to chat with Chacha, and out of the blue I said, "What would you say to a kebab lunch with me?" "Masha Allah," he smiled, "Neki aur pooch-pooch!" (Good god, a noble deed doesn't need permission!) And soon we were seated in a cosy corner of Kebab Palace off Chandni Chowk Avenue.
This pilgrim made good progress enjoying the meal with Chooran Chacha, and then I asked him about the number. "Oh, 1657! It's a long story. Want to hear it?" I said yes, and here's an abridged version of the saga as juicy as the kebabs...
"After the death of Empress Mumtaz Mahal in 1631, Shah Jahan decided to shift his capital from Agra to Delhi, build a new city and the Red Fort here. And the first thing he did here was to restock his harem. And, one of the stunners he married was a beauty from CÃ³rdoba, Spain. Her name was Muzna. Shah Jahan was an aiyyash (playboy); he overdrank and overindulged in the pleasures of the flesh, and the time came when he couldn't expel his body wastes, his limbs bloated, his face puffed up, and he hit the bed on September 6, 1657. (I said 'hurray' to myself; so 1657 pops up again, eh!)
"Hakims, vaids and doctors attending to him returned with long faces, and Hindostan was abuzz with rumours that rascal Aurangzeb was plotting to dethrone his ailing father. Muzna and her trusted kaneez (servant girl), named Bushra, were worried sick of their future if Aurangzeb succeeded. They searched desperately for a great medicine man.
"On September 13, 1657, Bushra came running from Chota Dariba near here to Muzna; she had found a man of great learning from the Himalayas. He was my great ancestor Hakim Ramzan Ali sahib, who had once saved the life of a great Brahmin vaid, and who passed on the secret formula of his magical digestive powder to him. Muzna went to him and my ancestor agreed to cure the emperor. Past midnight, Muzna and Bushra smuggled him into the royal bedchamber and the hakim sahib gave the emperor a test dose.
"They watched the eyes of the patient light up and his lips smack with khatta-meetha chooran. One spoonful was given every one hour and at 4 am, Shah Jahan told Bushra to fetch the chamber pot. The powder had worked and the emperor managed to expel the unwanted from his tummy. By sunrise, he was able to walk slowly to the jharokha for public darshan. The country breathed a sigh of relief.
"The tragedy struck soon. Aurangzeb dethroned his father, hunted down the hakim sahib and beheaded him. The house gifted to him by Muzna was put to the torch and all the medical records and books perished in the blaze.
"And, I confess to you that my chooran is not a cure for acute tummy problem; it's merely a substitute for toffees."