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.)


Geetika said...

You went to the wrong paratha shop. The good ones makes 'em so light and fluffy you won't imagine for a moment they were greasy.
Which is a shame.

I like Dareeba Kallan for its jewelery shops, unending strings of pearl that may just strangle you if you're not careful. If the kundan bracelets and bangles don't tie your wrists down first.

As for dirt and squalor, why in your third world country (and mine), that's everywhere! One but has to learn to treat it like it were transparent. Or that one had X-ray vision, whichever they like better.
(There's also the bit about being the change and cleaning it, but we don't have neither time nor temperament for that now, do we?)

Did you talk to anyone? Any of the shop-owners? It'd make you wonder why in the world they say if rudeness were a city it'd be Delhi. Well, the rudeness lives in the comforts of 21st century Delhi.

QKumar said...

[Gee] - I tried two different paratha shops. Perhaps I missed the right ones. I loved the lassi, though.

I did walk along the jewellery shops. I quite loved their ancient-family-showcase feel.

Yes, I did talk to a couple of folks. Actually pretty much all the guys whose shops I ate at. In matters of rudeness, well, Old Delhi isnt New Delhi.

Anik said...

Sweaty pedestrians in November?
You sure you're talking about the Delhi I live in?

Shamanth said...

[Anik] - Sweaty pedestrians were in August. Tis just that I wrote about it in November.

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