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Dilli – Part 1

May 7, 2013

I’ve been trying to put into words the entire Delhi experience. A city as old, huge and vibrant as that deserves to be written about.

But I get overwhelmed every time I begin to write about the trip. Where does one start? The size of the city, the weather, the people, the food, the shopping, the hotels… and the culture, of course.

Delhi was a vague old memory of wide roads. I had been there as a child, for a couple of days or less, when we whizzed past all the monuments. Our brief encounter with the Delhi summer was enough to make us wish never to be out in the sun. The air is hot and dry, and often, oppressing. Your skin keeps looking for that one whiff of cool breeze and you gladly enter any airconditioned building, even if an ATM, just to get away from the heat for a few minutes.

The first few days in Delhi were pleasant, though. Pleasant enough to appreciate the wide, tree-laned roads and feel that the Delhi people and their driving did not deserve these kind of roads. This is a city where nobody stops for anything, least of all a small bump on your vehicle in traffic. Most often, taxis and autorickshaws do not even bother acknowledging such a bump. With over 7.2 million vehicles on the road, it is cumbersome to acknowledge every single bump.

Bullying is the way to drive. You get in, strap your seat belt on (Courtesy the Supreme Court Order) and step on the accelerator. It is like a drag race with a train where you brake at the last minute to avoid a collision. Needless to say, I spent much of my time in autos closing my eyes, one hand holding onto my bag and the other to the railing.

If Bangalore is a laidback, posh metropolitan city, Delhi is the loud, brash, pompous yet lovable metro. As someone put it, the bullying attitude perhaps springs from centuries of being raided by several parties. The city preserves its history, even if grudgingly, seen through the tombs of various kings gone past. Then there are the smaller backyard of the tombs that nobody knows the names of but still contain a curious sense of history. Stepping into these ruins make you think that the history past was only a couple of days ago. Perhaps it is the immaculate way they have been preserved, or the faint signs of ruin before the authorities took interest… there is a sense of timelessness about the place that is rarely seen.

The points of interest for the locals, however, are different. One auto driver or auto wallah as they say pointed to the airport where Sanjay Gandhi crashed his plane. The driver was a staunch BJP supporter but he felt compelled to slow down and point out the place and even suggested we might want to take some photographs with our big ass cameras. That is the history that he has seen. He does not care much about the kings and queens gone by and their stories. The present day is what matters to him, not so much ancient irrelevant history.

The raids, however, have had a beautiful effect on the food culture. “You cannot go wrong with food in Delhi” they said. 

Delhi’s street food is famous… and a little risky. However, if you willing to risk the vague chance of a bad stomach, it is worth a shot. Chandini Chowk remains my Yarrow Unvisited, plans shelved due to various reasons. I still cannot believe that I could not make it that little universe of street food, chaats, parathas and the fabled stuffed lamb at Karims. 

Nevertheless, plenty of other places were tried and loved, including a surprise Beer Cafe in the center of Delhi. (More about food later!)

Each part of Delhi has a pulse of its own… and given the size of the city, it seems like each is a little city. The way the residents talk about the other parts of Delhi, it almost be another part of the city.

The news that we decided to stay at Paharganj, near the Central Railway Station was met with dismay and disgust by most people. The reactions varied from ‘that’s dirty’ to ‘not safe’ to ‘you are out of your mind’.

In hindsight, this was the best decision we took. The row of hotels in a street adjacent to the station reminded me of the tourist hotel lane in other Asian regions. You look past the narrow, shabby lane, and the hotels are large and glowing in the night light. Catering to a slightly better off firang backpacker and some corporates, these hotels are the lifeblood of the tourist industry. The cut throat competition makes them keep things up to par and hospitable, for most part. Moral policing and Delhi ego do enter the picture occasionally, but if you walk out of one hotel, there are 50 more right outside.

The hotels can cater to all your needs, from water to medicines to a nail cutter to what nots. Of course, you need to tip them everytime… every single time. The person hangs around quietly till you give in and pull out some change and thrust it into their hands. And in a city like Delhi, it is better to tip or you will be ignored for the rest of your stay.

The railway station is always a hub of activity, no matter what time of the day or night it is. Day times have cars full of families, lugging enough luggage for two families making their way into the station. Numerous little food joints wake up early, and the smell of frying samosas or something better constantly colours the air, along with the ripe stench of garbage. 

Nights are a little more colourful. Even through the traffic, a drunk weaves his way, shouting and singing. Or he lashes out at a passing car, caught in the throes of emotions known only to him. A little away from the madness, people prepare for the night. Small card games are put on, with 4-5 people crowded around a little handkerchief which serves as the board. A young man lies on his stomach, reading something, like one would on their bed in the comfort of their room. He has earphones plugged into his ear and wears a jaunty hat, a little frayed. It would be the perfect ‘chilling at home’ scene if it wasn’t on a sidewalk beside the railway station. Winter will be a bitch, with its biting wind. But it is summer and cool enough in the night for make sleeping under the stars a little more acceptable. Each one have their spot and they settle in, going about their routine and building walls around them, invisible to the rest of us.

It is always a fascinating picture to watch, seated in the security of your car.

**

And then there is Haus Khaz… the arty place, or the hippie place. IIT Delhi and a few other colleges around the area keep the place young. The Haus Khaz Village, a little block of winding, narrow streets and a hundred shops cater to the hippies, the richer students. That is the place to set up a shop if you are a budding designer. It is a sign that you’ve taken your first step by setting up here.

Shops and restaurants here have a short shelf life, I’m told. Too much competition perhaps or a seasonal thing. Little designer boutiques with vintage gowns, earrings and other jewelry, old posters of movies, books and much more are crammed into the two lane area that leads into the reservoir. 

Restaurants are dime a dozen and each done up eclectically. The prices of goods are three times higher than the street markets of Janpat, Sarojini Nagar Market or Lajpat Nagar Market. But then, they have their fans.

Perhaps the size of Delhi contributes much to the various markets springing up around the city. A little market like Lajpat Nagar has everything from clothes, shoes, furniture and more. Karol Bagh is bigger and that’s where you head from everything from the nicest kulfi to the latest sari designs. 

Bargaining remains the way of life in all these markets. It is expected of you to bargain and honor the transaction. A laborious process and exhausting if you hate bargaining. But then bargaining or jugaad is the Delhi way of life… right from groceries, clothes, shoes, furniture, taxi and whatever else – you negotiate. 

Delhi expects the best and a lot for the least price. Yet, in weddings and functions, they love to flash the price tags and put on a big show. The combination of thriftiness and flash is a curious one. They are not ants saving for a rainy day. They like their things nice and good… and even as they boast about how much they paid for that necklace, they also brag about their bargaining skills. The original price if often quoted, and then the bargained price. It is an acknowledgement of their skills as a negotiator.

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