'My City My Memory': A Tabla-Playing Priest's Delhi Story

Originally published on The Huffington Post by Simran Gill and Kush Sethi


It has been five months since Delhi, I Love You (DILY) began its "My City My Memory" oral history project consisting of a series of 24 conversations with senior citizens. The idea was conceived by historian Sohail Hashmi with an aim to bring out the memories of a Delhi of decades past.

On 9 November 2015 we shot the third "My City My Memory" conversation. This time Sohail sa'ab had found a gem of a Delhiite.

Father John H Caleb, 79, was going to be our storyteller. As a young boy he grew up in Old Delhi, raced bicycles, played the tabla and county cricket and aspired to be a singer. In the end, he became a priest, and we wondered how. Today, he is still like that little boy who loves his cricket and music and continues to encourage the same in his community as well.

I prayed to God asking for a second life, and I promised to devote my second life to the church. So, here I am.

It was a bright sunny afternoon and we could feel the winter chill slowly arriving in Delhi. The DILY team had arrived early to set up cameras at St Martin's Church in the Cantonment area. With 4ft-thick walls made of 3.5 million bricks and no windows, this 1930s' garrison church was built by the British to act as a fortress in case of another revolt like the one in 1857.

The church's committee member David Manohar was generous enough to give us an adventurous tour of the church, which is as much of an architectural marvel today as it was back in the day.

We began by climbing 200 spiral staircases, enough to make our heads spin. And our adventure had just begun. Mr. Manohar took us to a secret room used by soldiers to hide during WWI. Pointing at a narrow shaft with a steep edge, he commanded, "Now climb this monkey ladder". We took a deep breath, braved our fear of bats, dark-tight spaces and heights, to clamber up the 128ft-tall architectural fortress. And we received a warm welcome from the setting sun.

Here are a few excerpts of the conversation between Sohail Hashmi and Father John H Caleb.


Tell us something about your interests in music.

There are places like Suiwalan and Chandni Mahal in Old Delhi which have had generations of musicians playing for 200 years. When I would pass through those areas I'd hear music from every corner.

Initially, I was interested in singing. We had a harmonium, violin and a tabla in the family. Later I was more inclined towards learning to play the tabla and began training in Delhi under Pandit Gopaldasji in All India Radio.

I used to train for classical music with another student, Vijay Benedict, for two-three years. While I took to priesthood soon after, he continued his training and became a very famous gospel singer in India. He later sang for a film called Disco.

Will you tell us little bit about your engagement with Husanlal Bhagatram?

Husanlal was a great musician of his times. In the 1950s he was dominating Bombay Talkies. A friend, Mahindrajeet Singh, who is still in Bombay was his disciple. I used to accompany them on tabla when they would do riyaaz (Husanlal played violin).

I was more inclined towards learning to play the tabla and began training in Delhi under Pandit Gopaldasji in All India Radio.

Which is the best live performance you remember attending?

It was at Sapru House by singer, D V Paluskar in the 1950s.

There were only a few big concert halls back then like the Constitution Club, National Physical Laboratory (NPL) at Pusa and then there were National Radio Live shows, in All India Radio Station's ground.

While people no doubt loved Pt Ravi Shankar for sitar, my love for that instrument happened when I heard Ustad Abdul Halim Zafar Khan. His sitar sounded like someone was humming.

So finally from doing all this, how did you land up here...in this church?

There are a lot of mishaps that happen in life, and some happened even in mine. I met with a scooter accident in the 60s. The bus in front stopped suddenly. Behind me was a tempo truck which had iron rods coming out of it - these pierced into my back. I was rushed to the hospital for treatment and was diagnosed with a lung infection. I was then taken to Ludhiana Medical College; the operation was very painful. I prayed to God asking for a second life, and I promised to devote my second life to the church. So, here I am.

What did you do for entertainment? Within the city, where would you do for leisure?

During Ramzan, there were mushairas, stunts, magic shows around Jama Masjid. I used to really enjoy qawwali, sufiana and the special food. I miss this food called"andarse ki goli".

You still get it at Turkman Gate. There is myth attached to it that it is made from rain water. But it is made in the monsoons. It's made with fermented rice flour, covered in sesame seeds and deep fried."

We used to go for picnics to Okhla and Feroz Shah Kotla, mostly on my cycle. I had some friends who enjoyed fishing. By evening even if they didn't catch anything, they would come satisfied that they got to fish.

What more do you remember about the city?

We used to visit Jama Masjid, because we had a weakness for seekh kebabs. There was a very famous shop called Maseeta, we used to go there. Now I am not sure where it's disappeared.

Well they say in America, that if out in the night it'll seem like day. Our neighbourhood was the same. Restaurants and tea shops would be open...people would roam and have discussions.

More conversations with the senior citizens of Delhi coming soon. Subscribe to stay updated.