A royal birth and digital death--the story of India's deed writers

By Vijaya Pushkarna

Photograph by Pramod Pushkarna

Delhi 6—or the Old Delhi  area comprising  the iconic Red Fort and Jama Masjid and the bustling markets around Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazar – is famous for its street food. And every foodie, and many  food walks, make it a business to stop at Ashok Chat Corner, which is literally at the corner of Chowk Hauz Qazi. But before taking their pick, regulars going after a gap  ask the man putting the “chat” together, about the downed shutter next door.

“He has stopped coming. He will be at home, it is just a few minutes walk. Take the straight road”, the man replies and gives directions to the residence of Satya Narain Saxena – 2983,  behind Chaurasi Ghantewala Mandir on Bazar Seetharam. And he also suggests they can call him, and say the number is there on his name board on top.

There is a  newly painted blue and white board struggling for visibility through the hanks of hanging electrical wires, complete with all the details—Established in 1812, his full name-Basant Narain Satya Narain Saxena  -- all the telephone numbers of family members, address including the landmark –the ChawriBazar metro station.Basant Narain was his father.

Turning left behind the Chaurasi Ghanetewala Mandir, one finds a maze of narrow lanes, chockablock  with houses not numbered in any order. Ask, where will 2983 be? And pat comes the reply. Saxena ji? And chances are you will be escorted to the door step Satya Narain Saxena, the tenth generation a deed writers family, and the last document writer of Delhi.

Saxena, bespectacled and on the wrong side of 85, is shrunk with age and infirmity. However he appears dressed to meet visitors , with visible joy,any time of the day. His wife points out that since he is not well and finds it painful to remain seated in the “shop” the whole day, and there is no washroom facility there, he has shut the shop. “First the fire destroyed everything there. My sons had it renovated with tiles and all. But now what is the point in going there?” the octogenarian explains.

The tiny house with a courtyard in the centre, has been painted afresh; the room we are seated is his grand daughters’— birds and flowers are painted on the pink wall.

“It is a khandani work that has been coming down the family, I am the tenth generation.Our "Kalam". (Work/trade) is known as "Munshiji", I am a Munshi. If you ask where Munshiji is anywhere in the city, they will direct you to me. If you ask where is Munshiji ka makaan, they will direct you here. Because I am the only surviving Munshi. All my Sanghi Sathis  (friends and contemporaries) have gone,” he rues, before proudly sharing his family history that goes back to the times of Moghul emperor Shah Jahan.

The Saxenas were in fact part of Maharaja Jai Singh’s court in Amer. When Shah Jehan  in 1639 requested the royals of what is now Rajasthan for the services of document writers, the king sent three of them, and  the Bharatpur raja  sent as many. So they moved from Jaipur to Agra and then to the Red Fort in Delhi , to be part of Emperor Shah Jahan’s court. “We were  the  “munshis” in the Red Fort, till the Brits took over the Fort, and my ancestors  made the nearby Chawri Bazar’s Bazar Seetharam both home and “shop”,Saxena narrates.

The document writer regales visitors with stories that intertwine his family and the history of India.

Emperor Akbar, according to  Saxena says, anxiously told his “Nine Ratnas” that nobody bothers about the law .He asked Birbal, why, he  had no reply. He asked the others, they also had no direct reply for Akbar.
The next day the gems –brightest men who advised the ruler-- went to Akbar,and Birbal took out a piece of paper from his pocket and  showed it to Akbar. Akbar looked at it and said, who will understand the meaning of this? You know that I have gone to the Madrasa up to class 3. Birbal then said, “Huzoor, the fact is that your Farman cannot be understood by the janata, people. And if they don't understand then how will they obey the law?
Akbar asks Birbal to find a solution for this. Raja Todarmal , also one of the  9 Ratnas said, it will be done. He and Birbal asked for 3 months to do this.

“Then this process of documenting by people like us began., in the emperor’s  mother tongue which was Urdu, but the documents were written in Urdu, Arabic and Persian ...all the official work was done in these three languages, even now they are. Much of the Hindi you and I speak have many Urdu and Arabic words. But we think we speak in Hindi, because we can't write the words in Urdu or Arabic.”, he says returning to the times now. He emphasizes that using Urdu was not a Mughal diktat, but the idea of Raja Todar Mal.

Saxena believes the language he used in his deeds and documents, painstakingly handwritten in Urdu,Persian or Arabic, “ like the calligraphy art you see in the mosques and forts”  is still alive in the system. “When the police lodge the FIRs, or a patwari writes a document on a property, whether it is in Hindi or English, many words are still written in Urdu, or Persian. It's a court language that has not gone away yet, and is very reliable. There are no two meanings in what we write, there can never be any doubt or confusion. See what does the word uncle mean? So many things, even the man going on the road is an uncle. But what does foofah mean? Your bua's husband, no one else,” he explains, asking “Am I right?” at the end of every little story or view he presents.

He handwrote, or typed in Hindi or English a range of documents including the rent deed or   Kirayanama,  promisory note which is valid for three years, detailing the terms of repaying loan and interest, It is called "rehen Nama",gift deeds, sale deeds, vaseeyat or will, and many many more.

A Google search for “legal documents in India”  returned  46,50,00000 results. Yet there is no consolidated data on the number of legal documents we have in India. One website (www.pathlegal.in) lists “Agreements” under 16 broad head. One of them pertains to gifting, wherein   the proforma of 33 different files was followed by a “search to find more files”. There were 11 files and a “search to find more files” under the section called “Family settlement”. A section titled “Partition” pertains to the division of property has 15 files and more.

 Even if Saxena did not write the entire range of legal documents, he did quite a variety. His mind was the computer that had a proforma for every kind of deed and document. “I knew the language by heart for every kind of document that was required. My documents have never been challenged in the court. Only twice in the more than 70 years that I have been working, have I had to go to the court as witness,” he says, with unmistakable pride in his profession and his work work.

His grandfather had been working in “the shop “from the British times. Satya Narain used to go and sit in the shop  in 1950. His grandfather said, come on pick up the Kalam, Dava and takhti (holder, ink and wooden slate)”. He has not learnt Urdu, Arabic or Persian formally.

“Now the work is not done in Urdu. All my colleagues, others in the line have gone,” he says. Even the memories on paper and photographs have all been reduced to ashes, literally,when the shop was gutted down five years ago. About 45 document writers in the capital used to meet under the umbrella of Delhi State Wasiqanaweesan Association. There were yellowed fading group photographs of his family. Among his prized possessions was a yellowed, fading group photograph of the and a few Urdu documents displayed for their sheer beauty.

There were people who wanted to buy the ancient papers, but for him it was evidence of his lineage, something he would not part with. Some papers that were kept at home were attacked by termite or chewed up by rats, says his wife Saroj.

“We were so tied to that language that there was no question of my wanting to do anything else. Like a pandit makes the janampatri of a child, he draws the lines, makes the grid pattern, draws and writes within. Just like that we have a patented language, what you want to convey, we will say  in that language. This "munshiana zubaan" is called the "court zubaan"(court language or legal language).”

Every document writer of the old days  had dedicated customers, clientele. Many even left the documents with them for safekeeping and would come  for whatever was needed, whenever needed. “This was particularly true of the Muslims. As if I will always be alive?”

The decline of document writing began with the arrival of the computer almost 25 years ago. And when the internet came, it declined further, with the proformas available “even on your phone”. And it died when the government introduced e-stamp paper. That according to Saxena is the story of the decline and downfall of his profession. Death by digitalization.

His son Sachin is an exporter. Even as he says there is no work , his wife Saroj laments that there is no one to carry forward her husband’s work.

This story first appeared in www.citizenmatters.in


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