Khorshed Italia: The grand dame of CP


July 10, 2006

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Khorshed Italia knows Delhi like no other. After all, she has been here for 84 years

IF living could blunt life, Khorshed Italia would be a rusted relic. If wrinkles could scar the mind, her memory would be unhinged. But Italia has not lived for 84 years to be branded a bore. She has tales to tell and places to go. Though she can’t venture too far, her spirit refuses to heed.

So she sits on her second floor balcony in Connaught Place and cruises to the pre-Partition Delhi: ”It was so peaceful, and the people so polite back then.” The words drift out unwobbling over the raging traffic below. She doesn’t seem to mind. After all, she has stayed here for 70 years; in Delhi, all her life.

There are still some houses haunting the central Delhi market, and Italia’s, built in 1936 and overlooking the Odeon cinema, is one of them. ”There were several shops even then– Wenger’s, Empire Stores, Raghomull’s. Then the Regal and Plaza theatres came up, and the Rivoli was called Raisina. The area around Rashtrapati Bhawan was declared a danger zone after 6 pm, but we could cycle here even at midnight and feel safe. Today, you can’t venture out even at 10 pm,” she says.

The facts come tumbling out, gliding over time and memory with certainty. It goes with her assured persona and erect profile. So it’s not surprising to know that the fiercely independent woman climbs down three flights of stairs each day to meet the old-timers or shop, all on her own. ”She is a compulsive shopper and travels by herself in a three-wheeler,” says Shernaz, her only daughter who stays with her. They are a small community, the Parsis, only about 800 in Delhi, but a close-knit one. ”But her best pastime is feeding stray dogs,” says Shernaz. At which Italia perks up. ”We travelled in tongas earlier and there was a horse who refused to budge from here. I had to forcibly send him away.”

The magnanimity of spirit also showed in the social work she did — at Lady Harding Medical College and during the Partition. Later, she worked for 18 years as private secretary to Dr K.B. Kapur, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur’s father. ”During Partition, we were seven or eight Parsi girls who worked for the Delhi Province of Women for Social Work, and nursed the injured who came in trains from Pakistan. It was awful,” says the woman who was born at the Victoria Zanana Hospital near Daryaganj, schooled at Kashmere Gate and went to Sophia College, Ajmer.

”For entertainment, we went to the central park in CP, where the army, and later police, bands played every Saturday. We also attended concerts and plays at the Constitution Club. And I’ve always loved junk food. In those days, a sandwich, samosa and a lemonade came for Rs 5,” says Italia. Today, she eats golgappas and reads. ”My husband, who was in the Indian Airlines and passed away in 1993, loved The Indian Express. Her husband’s job also enabled her to travel the world, once doing 27 countries in 90 days.

The freewheeling spirit is obvious even today. ”The only thing I like about Delhi today is that as an old lady, I get a lot of respect. Otherwise the people are very crude and rowdy,” she says.

Italia is clearly in love with the past — but has come to terms with staying in the present.

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