All the World’s a Stage: Charming Chandni Chawk

I master the Metro and moon around markets; I evade ear invasions and am caught out by cobras, but refuse to be chicken-hearted.

After a slightly shell-shocked start to the capital (see previous post), my first full day was fab.  I escaped Americana with finger-licking fare at Indian eateries, and I mastered the Metro: bag through x-ray, metal detector sweep and pat-down – a separate queue with female officer for women, past a soldier with big gun behind sandbags, swipe my Smartcard and down to the platform.

Signs are in English and Hindi, which is good for reading practice, though different Hindi fonts sometimes confuse me.  They may omit accents, thus changing p to f or j to z, or have a mere curlicue where I’d learnt a closed loop.  When I stop to think about English fonts, learners must have the same problem and my hand written “a” is a different shape from the usual printed letter.

Not all announcements are reassuring.  “Any unattended or suspicious object like briefcase, bag, toy, thermos, transistor could be bomb.”  Metro lowlight: getting caught by the left-hand door at rush hour, when my exit was on the right – frenzied shoving to get out before doors closed.  When a man yelled “zor se” I thought he was telling me off.  I later realised that meant “with force”: he was exhorting me to push harder!  At such times, the women-only carriages are enviably uncrowded.

For most of the day I kicked around Chandni Chawk.  Once upon a time it was one of the greatest bazaars of the East, where merchants from China to Arabia haggled over perfumes and jewellery, embroidery and silk.  The name means “moonlit market”.  A tree-lined canal once ran down the centre of the street and widened into a pool that reflected the moon.  That paints a peaceful picture, but in two words my first impression was “chaotic diversity”.

Stylish executives in pointy shoes barked orders into Bluetooth headsets.  Some wore big rings, bracelets, or a string on their wrist.  Other men clattered past in jandles and dirty white lungis like a sarong pulled up between the legs, balancing huge sacks or piles of boxes or long girders on their heads.   One had six suitcases.  Some were in sandals and short-sleeved woolen vests like Dad’s generation used to wear.

Dusky Muslim eyes peeped from black veils.  Matronly Hindu heads were covered in a fold of vibrant sari, some sparkling with glass gems or floral embroidery.  Their foreheads had stick-on red bindi dots, or a smear of yellow turmeric from a temple.  Some hands and feet were covered with intricate henna patterns, wrists and ankles jangling with bangles.  Younger women had bare heads, mp3 players, and bright stockings.

There were uniformed school kids and police with boy-scout lanyards.  Dignified Sikhs had turbaned heads and flowing beards, their younger brethren with whiskers combed out or tied up in a net.  Muslim men wore white caps and robes, some with hair or beards dyed orange – a badge of pilgrims to Mecca.  Holy men moseyed along in saffron robes and matted dreadlocks.  Local teens slouched along in sneakers, jeans and T-shirts, just doing it like Nike.

Two chubby boys squeezed into an auto rickshaw with their new basketball.  A wizened woman picked up paper scraps beside me into a torn sack.  Rickshaw-cyclists sweated in singlet tops on ancient bikes without gears, jangling their bells to attract tourists waving cameras, standing out in shorts or sleeveless blouses.  Several dwarves and cripples hobbled past with feet twisted 90° to one side.  A chap brandishing a cotton bud offered to clean out my ears for a trifling 30 rupees.

A wagon had solid wood wheels like in movies of the Middle Ages.  Chai-wallahs delivered cups of tea and lime-squeezers dispensed juice from their carts.  I opened my new water bottle, noting the crack as the seal broke: guidebooks warn of bottles refilled with tap water, and some bottles instruct you to crush them after use.  From an upper storey with hanging washing, a metal cup of chai clattered to the ground beside me to lie among broken pottery and marigolds.  A man stepped out of the shop behind with a box of matches, set some crumpled newspapers alight in the gutter, then stamped out the embers.  The smoke rose as urchins, cows or goats picked through odiferous refuse.  There used to be more exciting wildlife.  In 1837 the Englishwoman Emma Roberts wrote in her diary that Chandni Chawk:

…echoed with the shrill roar of many caged cheetahs being sold and also hunting leopards.  There were Persian cats and greyhounds for sale, while the trumpeting of elephants mingled with the sounds of cartwheels and itinerant musicians.

Some suburbs in India have a grab bag of stalls, while others have whole lanes of one item.  South of Chandni Chawk I found the latter.  After racks of western clothing, I found a bazaar of car parts.  Shops specialized in fans, radiators, side panels, hubcaps, horns, ball bearings.  The road was covered in disassembled motor parts – I read that if your car is stolen in Delhi and you don’t recover it within two days, it will all be here, in pieces.

snake-charmer-delhiAs I headed through this mechanics’ paradise, as innocent as Adam, I was hailed by a guy in jeans with three cane baskets.  He placed them on the ground, and opened each one: on yellow clothes were coiled black cobras!  He held them up in his hands saying “photo photo”, then pretended to charm his serpents by waving a bulbous pipe with a few random toots, then demanded 200 rupees.  I gave him 30.  Judging by his satisfied appearance and an on-looker’s grin, I was probably ripped off by Indian standards, but it was all so fast and I feared to offend a handler of live snakes.

Above this brew of oily motors and tourist-charming snakes towered the gates and 40-metre minarets of the Jama Masjid.  It was built by the same Shah Jahan who constructed the Taj Mahal and is India’s largest mosque.  The courtyard can hold up to 25,000 people and contained hundreds of pigeons, attracted by scattered grain.  Pinkish sandstone arches framed tourists reading Lonely Planet and gossiping ladies and battlements of the Red Fort.  After visitors were shunted out, as Muslims washed hands, feet and face for their sundown prayers, I sat on the wide steps and surveyed the old city below.  Antennae and water tanks adorned rooftops.  Loudspeakers wailed the Muslim prayer call.  Two goats were frisking up and down, nearly bowling people over.  Women with outstretched shawls begged alms from worshippers.  I gave a little girl one of my last digestive biscuits.  Through a broken fence, I saw boys playing cricket.  Children’s kites flew among wheeling birds in the darkening sky.  Men ran up the stairs, late for their prayers.  An ear cleaner wiped a client’s wax from his little rod.  Does he reuse it each time?  I never saved a better 30 rupees.

red-fort-from-jama-masjidI descended to the restaurant Karim in an alley and ordered a rich mutton korma with rotis.  Bread is more cheap and common than rice in northern India.  It’s fun to watch chefs press out the dough by hand, then slap it onto the clay wall of a tandoor oven.  The Muslim Moghuls introduced many of India’s top meat dishes and Karim was founded by a chef of the last Moghul emperor.  The current owner says vegetarian food is “for the chickenhearted”.  Karim is one of Delhi’s most popular restaurants – top-secret recipes of up to 33 spices outclass Colonel Saunders’ paltry 11 secret herbs – and all the tables were full.  The mutton was tender and tasty, but by the time I’d finished my bowl of broth I found the imperial taste a bit rich, and wished they weren’t so down on veg.