Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A walk through Old Delhi

The stuffy, cramped DTC bus deposited me in front of Red Fort. The sheer length and height of the red stone wall looked imposing, impenetrable. Flocks of pigeons pottered about within the unpeopled lawns.

I had a free evening during a business trip, and decided to employ it by taking a walk along Chandni Chowk, which, as you might know, has been variously described as ‘quaint’, ‘right out of the 18th century’ and having ‘awesome food’. Though I'd been there a few years ago, there was much curiosity to experience it all over again.

Chandni Chowk is the road perpendicular to the Red Fort’s Lahori Gate. It is the main street, therefore the central market of the walled city of Old Delhi, which was established in 1639.

Around me, the Saturday evening traffic inches past the entrance to Chandni Chowk. Sweaty pedestrians zigzag through the maze of stuck vehicles, making no distinction between the road and the sidewalk.

The Lal Jain Mandir at the entrance to Chandni Chowk has a porch packed with feeding pigeons, with an empty verandah separating the gate from the sanctum. The sense of spaciousness is relative – the temple looked like an oasis in contrast with the choked road.

The crowd looks like it will spill over into the Gurudwara Sis Ganj that stands at the edge of the road, from where I can see a part of its inner hall. Its clean floors hold no props or furniture, only devotees occupied in their private prayers, covered heads bowed in reverence. Pigeons flutter atop the Gurudwara’s golden coloured dome that is splashed with a rich yellow cover by the rays of the waning sun.

Matchbox-like shops huddle together. Ancient houses with spacious, shady verandahs hide behind them. Most buildings in Chandni Chowk are grey, unpainted, nameless. Some are clumsily boarded up, hiding frantic attempts at bandaging ruptured surfaces. Crumbling, doddering are the words that come to mind – not historic, monumental.

Here, even the new and the modern dons a sober garb. The Cafe Coffee Day is on the ground floor of a wrinkled yellow building that looks like a seedy lodge. State Bank of India’s branch is situated in a town-hall like building, complete with wide staircase and tall pillars by the entrance. The golden arch of McDonald’s fronts a dull red house with fading paint, the grey underneath showing in places like a badly patched dress.

Chandni Chowk is dusty, old fashioned. Yet people throng in their multitudes, in expensive cars, autos and buses alike; its streetside shops are patronised alike by hip teens and tentative young women in cotton salwars.

Families came for an evening outing; young couples came to court; groups of collegians hung out. Shirtless daily wage workers push brimming hand carts past the shoppers.

Food is Chandni Chowk’s chief occupation -- some might say preoccupation. Purani Jalebiwala, whose board reads ‘Old Famous Jalebiwala’, serves up glistening jalebis dripping with ghee and replete with a wholesome taste I had never experienced before. The pea samosas that followed would have been great their own right, but they paled in the bountiful presence of the jalebis.

Parathewali Gali is a narrow, twisting lane full of low-roofed eateries, each proclaiming its pedigree. One was founded in 1890, another was active for 6 generations, yet another had a six word name. All announced matter of factly that they use ‘shudh desi ghee’.

The ‘parathas’ here are uncharacteristic – more like stuffed pooris or bhaturas than the more traditional flat version. These are thick, oily, rich - the greasiness drowning the taste of the stuffed vegetable and spices. There is no nuance, none of the subtleties of taste I had anticipated from a street named after them.

Across the road is yet another narrow lane, just wide enough to allow two or three people to walk abreast. People throng the entrance of the lane, and gradually trickle within. Natraj Dahi Bhalle, the alu tikki guy who had been recommended to me, is right at the entrance to the lane.

The alu tikkis look crisp, with a sharpness on their surface, but turn out to be soft and succulent as I dug into them. I mentally lament that alu tikkis are largely absent in South India, and have only a poor cousin in the form of ragda patties in West India.

There is more food all along the road – chaats, samosas, lassis, and even a government-run liquor shop sandwiched in there.

I abandoned my linear trek along Chandni Chowk to explore the streets and bylanes, tempted in part by their lyrical, wistful names – I walked along the Gali Ghantewali, Dariba Kalan ('Street of the Incomparable Pearl') and ‘favvara’ (fountain), among other places. The name Chandni Chowk itself comes from the moonlight reflecting from a canal that used to flow through the center of what is now the main road.

For all the poetry in the names, the buildings the streets house are greying, fragile. Delhi Public Library has piles of debris within. The Old Delhi railway station has carefully designed arches and precisely made metal pillars, if you can see through the cobwebs, the grime and the neglect. And everywhere, there is destitution, poverty: often, you sidestep vagrants as you progress through the narrow lanes.

Most people who frequent Chandni Chowk insist that its charms come from its antiquity. But in practice, the romance of the ancient is masked, obscured, by grime and the all pervasive squalor. The charms of the past can be endured only in small doses – you long, thus, for a speedy return to the comfortable cocoon of swankier locales.

No sooner wished, than done - only a long, largely deserted flight of steps separates grimy Chandni Chowk from the antiseptic cleanliness of the underground Metro station. Seated in air conditioned comfort in one of its shiny cars, I leave the old world behind and head, with a sense of relief, into the comfortable familiarity of 21st century New Delhi.

(This perhaps is a good point to say thanks to the good friend who gave recommendations.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A day with the South West monsoon

The 4:15 am Parasuram Express was a ghost train as it out of sighed out of Mangalore Central. As it rumbled across the Netravathi in the pre-dawn darkness, white tubelights within throbbed down upon the few sleepy faces that populated the largely empty train.

I was on a journey that’d let me see all of Kerala in the rain. I wanted to see the South West monsoons at their most bountiful, draping what is perhaps their favourite region in India. I hoped to view India’s most popular tourist state from a vantage point that it’s not been seen from too often – the train footboard.

As the train sped southwards in the darkness and persistent rain, name boards on wayside stations switched from Kannada to Malayalam. Hoardings for Hoorulyn brand burqas and New Age brand dhothies appeared by the trackside. Silhouettes of the first coconut trees surfaced from the shadows, dwarfing and sheltering all other vegetation.

What remained unchanged were the inundated fields and gushing water bodies. Unchanged too was the violence of even the smaller streams that furiously tossed about branches and other remnants of vegetation.

The Parasuram express is named after the man who, according to legend, carved out Kerala by hurling his axe into the sea. Even though it plies a distance of 634km from Mangalore to Trivandrum, it is practically a series of short distance trains. People hopped in and out of it every hour or two – with hardly anyone traveling more than 3 or 4 hours.

Nearly all the somnambulists from Mangalore got off at Kasargode, 46km away. Folks who replaced them would alight in another two hours at Cannanore, 86km further downstream. Purposeful office goers boarding there would go an hour or two till Telicherry or Calicut, only to be replaced by college students and work delegations headed to Trichur. This relay would go on until the last cohort of office returnees alighted in Trivandrum, 14-odd hours from the faraway mists of 4:15am.

Around Bekal, 65km from Mangalore, tearing streams occasionally revealed just a little glimpse of the open sea. Just as the train put on a burst of speed, the green of the coconut groves abruptly gave way to a vast openness. Just a few hundred metres away was the open sea, its greenish-blue stretches merging into the inky twilight sky far, far away. The two or three minutes of this proximity seemed to last forever. Inevitably, the train swerved inland and moved on, ruthlessly pushing back the view until it was a mere memory.

Cannanore, 130km from home, came at 7am. The folks who entered were already the fourth set of people on the train. Calicut, best known because it was Vasco da Gama’s port of call, came by at 8:35am, 221km into the journey. The day was just beginning for the folks coming in freshly bathed and breakfasted. I was already a long way into my day, as I tucked into the thankful warmth of upma and watery tea.

Past Calicut, there was water everywhere. Lakes and water bodies had encroached into flooded fields. Often, there was just a continuum of water punctuated by stubbles of grass within. The rivers swelled, lapping up bridge spans. The Thootha and the Bharathapuzha had water rushing almost right under my feet.

Yet, there was no despair around. In Bihar two monsoons ago, I saw refugees from the rain shivering in shacks by the trackside. There was none of that here. Houses stood steady. Schoolkids waved happily to the train. Women unmindfully waded through water-logged verandahs. Everywhere along the route, groups of men crouched under umbrellas, intent in games of cards.

The railway was never alone. Often, coconut groves cocooned the track tightly on either side. Houses had the railway tracks for their front yards. Hillocks loomed alongside the tracks after Shoranur, 307km into the ride. The infrequent clearings, water bodies and fields felt like an opening up, a relief from being accompanied all the time.

Lunch came by at 1:30pm in Ernakulam, lesser half of the better known Cochin. I had the hobson’s choice of any dish as long as it was badly-cooked biriyani. As Parasuram lurched out of the city limits, the sun came out briefly. Waterlogged rice fields stretched out in the fuzzy light. Their silver surfaces carried imperfect reflections within them.

Pepper and rubber trees surfaced. Town names grew longer. Attempts to register Tripunithura’s name made me nearly miss the sight of the pagoda-like station building that stood in proud isolation in the downpour. At Mulagunnathukavu, I didn’t stand a chance of noticing any detail of the station.

Kottayam came at 3pm, and looked like a forest-town. Passengers, of course, continued their in-and-out-of-the-train medley. Soon, the Parasuram express entered Alleppey district, which has most of the backwaters that Kerala is known for. Most backwaters are canals that branch out from Vembanad and Ashtamudi lakes. I’d see the latter lake shortly, which gets its name from its octopus-shape.

Dirty grey clouds loomed above. The Pampa river was an unassuming, modest stream, but as full and overflowing as the other water bodies. In two weeks it would host the famous boat races at Alleppey.

Thick threads of rainwater sheeted down, forming a near-opaque curtain in front of me. Canals and rivulets surged ahead with vehemence, with none of the languidness suggested by the word ‘backwater’. Metres away from the deluge, I gratefully held the hot tea in my chilly hands at Kayankulam at 4pm. It was 529km into the day by now.

The train skirted the Ashtamudi lake, which, perhaps by its enormity, gave the impression of placidity, even in the furious rain. The contours of the lake curved away tantalisingly. But the train persisted in bestowing its attentions on it. After perhaps two kilometres or so of this futile courtship, the Parasuram express impatiently swung away. It clearly had no intention of following the footsteps of the Island Express, which had plunged into this lake in 1988.

This rejection, of course, wasn’t the end of the world for Parasuram. It cavorted with the Kilimukkam lake, rendered wetter by the pouring rain, and caught a glimpse of the lake dissolving into the immensity of the sea. This lake too, of course, turned out to be unattainable for Parasuram.

After another stroll amid coconut groves, the inevitable happened. The grey that had filled the sky all day turned just a shade deeper – a foreboding of the arrival of evening twilight. Thatched roofs, copses and rivulets gave way to concrete buildings, shops and traffic filled roads. Trivandrum, the end of the journey was nigh. Fourteen odd hours by greenery, in the rain didn’t quite seem enough.

The Parasuram express squeaked into the solemn, majestic stone buildings of Trivandrum Central. The square, clean-cut edifice seemed to have come too soon, as it rounded off a day spent in the abundance of unspoilt, newly washed stretches.