Dilli ki hasti munassar kai hangamon par thi

Qila, Chandni Chowk, har roz majma Jama Masjid ka, har hafte sair Jamna ke pul ki, har saal mela phool waalon ka

Yeh pancchon baatein ab nahin

Phir kaho Dilli kahan

Haan koi shehr is naam ka Hindustan mein kabhi tha

(Delhi’s character was defined by the Red Fort, Chandni Chowk, the crowds that everyday thronged Jama Masjid, the walks to the Yamuna Bridge and the yearly Phoolwalon ki sair. None of this remains; what became of Delhi? There was once a city that went by this name.)

— Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’

The poet’s angst settles like the mythical fog over the minarets of Jama Masjid in the late winter afternoon. Seen through the dish antennas and innumerable Sintex water tanks crowding the rooftops, the monument’s majesty is as indeterminate as the character of this city, which has been famously destroyed and rebuilt seven times by its various conquerors.

For the migrant in me, confined mostly to the throbbing metropolis that the seven cities have metamorphosed into, Shahjahan’s Walled City signified an easy return to what was left behind. To the decrepit town, an erstwhile princely state of my past. Purani Dilli, its crowded mohallas and chaotic bazaars offered a womb-like comfort to the outsider who was out of sorts in the concrete jungles that New Delhi has spawned.

In the innumerable by-lanes spreading out from Daryagunj to the Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk, the kabaadi shops nestled against the occasional splendour of old havelis. The magnificent facades mostly led into a warren of hastily partitioned dwellings, where impoverished tenants still drew their daily water from the public tap outside. The interiors seemed mini-replicas of the Mumbai chawls; the glory of yesteryear buried in the everyday reality of the havelis’ impoverished denizens.

This was how the past ended — in squalor and degradation. In overflowing sewage and gaudy paint that smothered the delicately carved red stone and wooden facades of the once grand mansions. In overhanging electric cables and crudely designed shops that sold artificial jewellery and greasy ‘Chinese food’. The sudden charm of a centuries-old Jain temple that paled in the stink of the garbage collecting outside.

And so it was till one person, albeit a far more influential one compared to a rootless migrant, called with a promise to show me what a true haveli actually looked like. What a little attention to basic amenities can do to restore the past to a dignified living heritage. It was Vijay Goel, the former MP from Chandni Chowk. “You’ve seen the filth and neglect in Old Delhi. Do you want to see what it can be? Come and see Haveli Dharampura,” he said. Vaguely intrigued by the unlikely interest of a career politician in restoring old architectural sites, I agreed.

Hitching a ride with Goel the next day, we drove into a street leading to the Jama Masjid. The lane, overhung with electric cables and littered, wound into a small by-lane. At the mouth of a by-lane, an ancient provision store sold masalas, dal and soap powder in tin canisters. The ‘world’s narrowest street’ adjoined this by-lane to form what is loosely called Dharampura mohalla, where Goel’s haveli can be found.

Suddenly, the electric cables disappeared. Shutters of the shops lining the by-lane, which has a new sewerage line, were all painted in the same colours. This is Gali Guliyan, a narrow but squeaky clean by-lane which criss-crosses two old Jain temples and houses Goel’s now famous Haveli Dharampura. The former MP is not looking to restore just an old haveli. His is a more ambitious project.

“You see what underground sewage lines and focus on disposing garbage efficiently can do to an area? It has taken me years of running from one corporation official to another official and back. But the result is that I have managed to restore at least some parts in this mohalla to a semblance of order,” Goel said.

There are approximately 500 havelis in Old Delhi. Of them, only about 50 are in a retrievable condition still. But the multiplicity of the city’s civic authorities, combined with the fact that they are individually owned and embroiled in tenant-landlord disputes, means that it would take a Herculean effort to restore them to their former glory.

Haveli Dharampura has, thus, been resurrected as a model which can be emulated if Goel can interest the authorities into a bigger renovation project. Along with son Siddhant, architect Kapil Aggarwal and Heritage India Foundation, founded by Goel, his ambition is to convert Old Delhi into a kind of model living heritage project.

The story of Haveli Dharampura’s new life started six years ago when Goel bought a run-down mansion housing 60 families. From 1869, when the haveli belonged to a Muslim family, it passed different hands, finally belonging to multiple owners. The roof was collapsing in places, about 60 partitions had concealed the original architecture of the three-storeyed mansion, and a section of the wall was ready to give in.

Goel spent time getting previous residents to vacate. After the haveli was cleared of the tenants, Goel’s next task was to find masons familiar with the original construction work. Fortunately for him, renovation work in the Red Fort involved a few masons who had discovered that walls are not just brick and mortar. For havelis, construction material includes a mix of jaggery, urad dal, wood apple pulp and crushed bricks. They also used the delicately moulded lakhori bricks, which are hard to find and expensive.

But first, the clumsily constructed partitions had to be demolished. Goel and Siddhant supervised the removal of 1,000 truckloads of debris from the dilapidated mansion. And if Goel thought being an MP gave him some authority and access to expert advice, he was mistaken.

“For six years, there wasn’t a week when I didn’t hear of some disaster in Dharampura. I used to dread that the whole structure would come down during the monsoons. I have run from INTACH to MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) to every expert architect I heard of. But eventually, I just had to depend on common sense and what was available. Fortunately, I know these parts. My father’s office was here and I know people around. We started from strengthening the foundation and worked our way up,” said Goel.

Architect Aggarwal cobbled together a team of conservation students from Delhi, specialist masons and labourers mostly from Rajasthan, and local construction workers who are familiar with the haveli designs. For the next two years, they worked only on strengthening the foundations, putting up iron scaffoldings, and chipping away layers of paint work and cement that had buried the original lakhori bricks and architecture.

The interiors took four years. Out of 60 rooms on three floors, this team redesigned 28 with adjoining bathrooms on each floor, the design and architecture showcasing an influence of Mughal, Rajasthani and European elements. And now, when visitors enter an impressive façade into a sun-filled courtyard, the image is a stunning, three-storey architectural brilliance. Artwork adorns the walls and modern plumbing and sealed electric-wiring transforms the winding staircases and hidden tahkhanas. Each floor has a distinct character and view, leading up to the sunny rooftop, where Goel plans to hold kite-flying expeditions.

The haveli would be a museum, a performance space, a place where past has been restored. “It will be a place where students can learn about conservation. About how we can still view the past. How our ancestors lived,” said Goel.

As I stood on the rooftop, watching Jama Masjid through a haze of smoke and squalor, the impossibility of Goel’s promise began to sink in. In a country where the past is mostly a ruse to practise gutter-level politics, the invocation of beauty is difficult to envisage.