Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ghalib's Delhi

You almost cross a light-year as you make your way into old Delhi from the 21st century New Delhi. The journey is just a trot and on a traffic-slackened day [which, the truth be told, is a rarity in this city], you’ll reach old Delhi in a little over half an hour. It is baffling to see two Indias distinctly co-exist within a stretch of few miles.

Tucked away from the corporate boardrooms of the NCR and the sophisticated drawing rooms of South Delhi, lives the original -- ‘Dilli’. A cacophonously-disorderly space where people somehow tend to find order to their lives. While the rickshaw puller paddles his way through hodgepodge of a humanity on the march, you cannot fail to notice the riot of colors on display along the road.

No it is not an ensemble of designer colors that we are generally attuned to in our new age malls. Nor is it any shade of the latest plasma TV or a bold laptop theme color. It is the passel of tiny schoolchildren in their bright red going back home from school, all packed onto a – no brownies for guessing this – rickshaw. It is the rouge chops -- from constant chomping of betel -- of fat men sitting tight on their fat backs inside very narrow shops, selling everything from car engine shafts to marriage cards – at throwaway, wholesale prices.

There is something about old Delhi, especially the stretch leading upto the historic Jama Masjid, which makes it at once timeless and antique. The odd bleat of a pair of goats tied to a beaten pickup right outside the grand mosque reverberates across the terraces of Emperor Shah Jahan’s 17th century marvel. The din of skinny men, carrying double the body weight on their slight heads, and still managing a smile from earlobe to earlobe actually surprises you.

But what fascinates me the most about old Delhi is her myriad shops. They are all old-fashioned, piddly little holes with heavyset men inside them. Most of these establishments have big, rusty fans and no air conditioners [an act unthinkable of in our part of Delhi]. The shopkeeper has his spectacled father’s photo framed and garlanded just behind his head. Usually the picture glass frame has a dot of vermilion applied on it, right in the middle of the old, deceased patriarch’s forehead. It is a general rule. Images of deities and divinity hang from the 100 year old walls. The area right in front of the shop is splattered with red specs. Most business are partnership: RamLal, Baburam and sons; SS Khanna-TS Tullo. Brothers, Pals, who knows but you find pairs abound.

A mesh of wires – electricity, cable, telephone [you can’t make out: they are all Raj era] – jut out from every shop corner, while street vendors in their dozens fry their domestic fast-food on either side of the arcade. Meanwhile shop-owners can be seen animatedly talking into their telephones and cut deals [in 100’s, 1000’s, millions: you can’t make out]. Orders are quickly jotted down and passed on. It looks like a perpetual bazaar [grocerteria], where business goes on amidst the shouting, yelling, pushing around and the confluence of hordes.

People go on buying spices, cycle tyres, books, auto parts, ceramics, safety pins, wedding cards. In between the sonorous chant for Azaan rises above the Jama Mosque and the faithful scramble to pray. The fragrance of a million herbs wafts over the attar joints [local perfume shoppes]. Restaurants are crammed full with people who love to savor lamb, rustled up in secret recipes, passed on since generations.

Children play in box-like homes. Women, clad in the traditional garb jostle for space, with bearded men and mendicants on miniature streets. An old monkey jumps from roof to roof.

Life leaps in Old Delhi, perhaps a little loudly.
I take a rickshaw back to my metro station.