I first met Abdul Sattar in December 2019, at his house in Pahari Imli, a Walled City neighborhood. His
house was only a few minutes away from Jama Masjid’s Gate number one, and yet it took me 30 minutes to reach. Access software such as Google Maps were quite unhelpful. I halted to ask a group of shopkeepers for directions. One of them exclaimed: “Ji, Sattar Sa’ab ko toh hum jaante hain. Log ya toh yahaan imli ka ped dhundhne aate hain, ya Sattar ji ko. Imli ka ped to ab raha nahin, hum Sattar Sa’ab ke ghar ka rasta zaroori hi dikha dete hain.” [“Of course I know Sattar Sa’ab. People either come here to look for the tamarind tree, or Sattar ji. The tamarind tree is no more, but I certainly guide them to Sattar Sa’ab’s house.”] Much like the tamarind tree, a significant essence of Old Delhi’s Pahari Imli is now lost.

His long-time friend and admirer, historian Sohail Hashmi had introduced me to Abdul Sattar and his bibliophilia in 2019. As chance would have it, I came across the news of Sattar’s passing away from Hashmi’s Facebook page on January 3, 2023: “Bhai Abdul Sattar is no more. I can write reams about
my meeting him, working with him, Bhai Saleem, and Bhai Suleman for several years in organising an inter-school Urdu debate. I can also write about his passion for books on Delhi and his collection of those books. Countless students of History of Delhi have benefitted greatly from bhai Sattar’s collection and from his recollections of Delhi. He is gone and with him is gone a priceless reservoir of memories. Words seem so utterly inadequate.”

Image credit: Kanupriya Dhingra.

Born in 1945 in Pahari Imli, Sattar lived in Old Delhi throughout his life. In 1956 he joined the Anglo Arabic School, a historical school located near Ajmeri Gate. As a child he would wait for Eid, impatiently, in anticipation of lots of gifts and good food. He reminisced about Niyaaz Baba, a Hindustani theatre practitioner who performed great classics like Shakuntala and Mrichakatika. As a child he would read the Urdu newspapers Naseebiyat and Pratap. Sattar used to recall how his father would host a baithak every evening where intellectuals, poets, and writers would gather and discuss the happenings around the city.

This is the era of Delhi he imbibed, yearned for, and hoped for people to remember.

A space for books and books for every space

Sattar worked with the Delhi Administration as a junior clerk and later went on deputation to the Central Government. He finally retired as Under Secretary in 2005. Post-retirement, apart from a few visits to the neighbouring libraries, he spent most of his time in his study. Sattar would often tell his visitors, that he was born in the same room where he read, ate, and slept. He died, too, in this same room. This room is a repository of Sattar’s personal collection of over 600 books. This room, is where I met him.

Sattar first let me take photographs for a while. His study was rich in the aesthetics of Old Delhi. It was crowded with books and memorabilia. A mattress and a carpet spread across the lengths of the room. He told me, he listened to old love songs every night from a desktop computer on his writing table. This desk is where he kept a set of camera equipment gifted to him by one of his ardent admirers. The desk drawers were full of souvenirs from his wedding. He got married at the age of 30. His guests will attest to the fact that he missed his wife dearly. He would show them his wedding invitation card and wedding photos, and exclaimed how his late wife used to hate the mess in his study.

When not engaged with his intellectual and philanthropic pursuits, Sattar would listen to recitals of Amir Khusro’s works, semi-classical music like Dhrupad, and the songs of ghazal singers Malika Pukhraj and Begum Akhtar. “He often listened to Geeta Dutt and Lata Mangeshkar at night. His favourite was Lata’s “Thandi Hawayein””, said his daughter, Mehvash Sattar. He also showed me an old collection of ink pens gathered from across the world. He told Mayank Austen Soofi, once upon a time, somewhere in Old Delhi (as Soofi likes to say): “After my death, my children will inherit my collection of pens. But my books… I have already drafted my will. After my death, my books will be donated to a library.”

Image credit: Kanupriya Dhingra.

Inside Sattar’s study, there were books in every nook. Ink and ittar containers, and medicines posed as book guards on shelves layered with old Urdu newspapers. Piles and piles of old books on Delhi’s Mughal-era history. Most of them were in Urdu and Persian, and quite a few, especially the ones he had acquired in his early days of book collection, were from Daryaganj Sunday Patri Kitab Bazaar. While he had stopped visiting the bazaar regularly, over time, he had built contacts with the booksellers and a few other bibliophiles and book collectors. He also relied heavily on Urdu Bazaar.
And then Sattar showed me a rather distinct collection: that, of how his life had been recorded. Apart
from his presence in print, especially the newspaper clippings of stories on his books, his room, and his cats written and photographed beautifully by Soofi, Sattar showed me how Yusra Hasan compiled a photo-essay on him, titled as “Chronicling a Chronicler: The Memory of Old Delhi.” He was in fact very excited to show a student’s school “project” – an assignment written in Urdu on Sattar’s life. He cherished the idea that he would be remembered as an Old Delhi scholar and chronicler.

A purani Dilli shauqeen

Sattar raised an interesting complaint in his interview with Ritika Popli for the 1947 Partition Archive. Popli recorded his anguish for the time gone by: “When his maternal grandmother was alive, all the ingredients like food grains, pulses, spices were brought home in their raw form, and then all the cleaning and sorting would be done before they could be used. He says that as the generations have progressed this trend of bringing raw spices home has declined, and now everything they use for cooking is processed and packaged.” Sattar longed for the Old Delhi he remembered so well: its old buildings, its Urdu language, its poets, and its chronographers.

As we take the trail down from Jama Masjid to the Chitli Qabar area, the road turns to the left, into Pahari Imli. In the 1800s, the pahari (hill) was just a steep slope with one haveli. Sattar recalled in an episode titled “Fasana-e-Dilli” with Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) India: “This haveli
belonged to Mir Panjakash, a calligrapher and arm wrestler. People from all over the country and even from Persia came to Panjakash who proudly taught them beautiful calligraphy even though he didn’t know their script.” The area, Pahari Imli, is named after an imli [tamarind] tree that once grew on this hillock “which used to bear so much imli, it could fill a shop,” says Deborah Sutton.

Urbanisation took away the tree. Even the hill slope has seen a transition over the years. With rise in
settlements, the hillslope was converted into a few flights of stairs leading the residents to and from their homes. Thus, making climbing easier for them. Author and historian Rana Safvi notes, how “one can only be nostalgic for the days when trees grew in the houses’ courtyards and were a focal point for the family. There are no palatial houses, no courtyards and no trees any more: only memories remain.”

One of Sattar’s worries about Old Delhi had been the same, that we will lose Old Delhi’s history to bureaucratic agendas of beautification and the forgetfulness of the younger generation. Sattar tried everything in his willpower to prevent that from happening. Sattar was a true Purani Dilli shauqeen. He really knew Old Delhi, both from having spent his life here, and from his enthusiasm to absorb every book and information on Shahjahanabad. He was even writing three books, Hashmi told me, “A book on Delhi College, another on small pen sketches of people who he thought had contributed to Delhi, and a book on Delhi.” Abu Sufiyan, founder of Purani Dilli Walo ki Baatein, a socio-cultural impact community, was assisting Sattar with a few photographs for his new book. Sufiyan denied any payment requests from Sattar. “How could I?”, he exclaimed, “Yeh un chand logo mein se hain jinhone Dilli ko apne andar sama rakha hai.” “[He truly is one of those few who have preserved Delhi in their hearts.”]

Image credit: Kanupriya Dhingra.

Sattar often shared his love for books on Delhi’s history with his friends and acquaintances. Hashmi said, “If Sattar bhai came across a rare book on Delhi which he could not buy, he would borrow it for a few days. He would meticulously sit at home and scan the book and make more than one copy. And then he would duly return the original. He would then give these copies to people he thought were going to value it. I have several of those books that he got Photostatted or scanned. He would get these copies beautifully bound, and he would refuse to take any money – “Yeh tum rakho, maine tumhare liye karwayi hai” [“you must keep this; I got it for you”]. The moment he came across a rare book that was about Delhi, he wanted to acquire it.”

Sattar was regularly consulted for anything Old Delhi. Delhi’s academicians, historians, and journalists were quite familiar with the way to his house. One of his visitors, who was on the lookout for a copy of Deewan-e-Hafiz, has recorded his visit to Sattar’s house in a blog piece. He had located Sattar from Mayank Austen Soofi’s web archives. However, Sattar often complained that his books were not returned. Some even used the material and did not bother to acknowledge his assistance. He kept a record of such borrowers, along with the books that left him and never made their way back.

A philanthropist and an advocate for girls’ education

The debate competition Hashmi mentioned in his obituary was how he met Abdul Sattar. “Suleman went to the Gulf, and lived and worked there for many years. Upon returning to India, he came up with the idea of organising inter-school debate in the Urdu medium schools of Delhi – that is when Suleman-Saleem-Sattar got together.” Hashmi had known Saleem for decades and through him he met Sattar and Suleman. When they were discussing to organise inter-school debates; he also joined this group. Thus happened “Saleem-Sattar-Suleman-Sohail,” who started organising the debate competition with the help of The Humdard Trust. The Trust provided an auditorium in their school, opposite Hamdard University. The debate competitions ran for a good three to four years, with great participation from co-educational Urdu medium schools and institutions, and girls’ and boys’ schools, both public schools run by the government as well as private schools.

Students were given an opportunity to ideate upon issues such as electoral reform, issues of rising communalism, and so on. When the funding was gradually pulled out, the competition died. “However, during this time my relationship with Bhai Sattar became very close. Also, since Bhai Sattar on his own used to be involved in a whole lot of things.”

Image credit: Kanupriya Dhingra.

While Sattar’s home library is a sanctuary of books, maps, and readings on Delhi, he had also donated quite a few books to the nearby Shah Waliullah Public Library, where he was a patron. The library was a work of many years of Abdul Sattar’s dedication to literature. He would often purchase the volumes straight from publishers; several of the books he owned were produced by Old Delhi printers. Hashmi shares, “Before Covid struck us, Shah Waliullah Public library organised an event where Sattar donated a whole lot of books to the library – his own, and also by crowdsourcing from his friends and acquaintances.” Hashmi was one of them. “The entire thing was then presented to the Shah Waliullah Library.” Sattar was also on the management committee of Bachcho ka Ghar, a school in Daryaganj for orphan children. He raised funds for these children and arranged clothes for them during winters. “He was a great champion for girls’ education,” said Hashmi. He was always eager to assist anyone who shared these philanthropic interests. He did all of this, in quiet and modesty.

Typical of Old Delhi, Sattar’s house was an amalgamation of many rooms. Several cats and his grandchildren would appear from nowhere and sit with you. From the roof, accessed by a series of staircases, you get a bird’s eye view of the Walled City. “He loved to entertain. If you were to meet him once, he would call you again: “Ghar aao, falaan din aa jao?” [“Why don’t you come home some day?”] He would make elaborate arrangements: “Maine nihari pakwayi hai, korma pakwaya hai” [“I have got some nihari made, (and) some korma”] – Hashmi recalled, “You don’t have too many people like this.” Sattar’s room, books, ideas, dignity, good-humour, and now his memory, have made their way into many a Dilliwallah’s hearts, libraries, and school essays. He changed lives, silently, one book at a time.