The first time I visited Old Delhi, I left with a return ticket in my mind. Some places definitely call for a revisit. And I felt this urgent need to describe Old Delhi to everybody I knew back home. But how can you describe the busy Chandni Chowk lined with scruffy labourers and their carts, waiting for work? The intensive traffic in a steady flow through Old Delhi’s main artery, full of honking horns that drown out all speech.
The maze of lanes that swallow you into a sea of people, deeper and deeper through the glittering Kinari Bazaar. Through the tempting Dariba Kalan with silver jewellery that makes your wallet shiver… Past fruit vendors, steaming street food, the chai wallahs, through lanes so full of shoes you have never seen anything like it. We admire the saris, the bridal saris, the wedding invitations.
We walk through the narrow alleys and wonder if we will ever find the way out. Towards the stream of cycle rickshaws where sturdy women throne with bare midriffs. Where tourists sit with their cameras pointed at whatever comes by, while their bewildered eyes give them away as first-timers. We take one step aside to avoid the loaded bull carts and their shouting drivers. We admire bicycles so full of goods that only the handlebars give them away as bicycles.
We’re almost choked by the smell of chillies in Khari Baoli, the spice market glowing with colours so vibrant they almost take your breath away. And we admire the Jama Masjid with its majestic towers jubilantly stretching towards the sky. The Gurudwara Sis Ganj with its steaming kitchen catering for the needy and others who come by. The stray dogs, the chained goats, and a cow that lumbers along amidst busy shoppers. We take in the heat, the smells, the dust and the dirt. And we take photos that don’t expose any of this no matter how hard we try.
The sun hits us hard in the face as we emerge from the metro station at Chawri Bazaar. We’re on our way to Sita Bazaar in the Muslim part of Old Delhi. It’s noon, the sun is already scorching my head as I search for a shadow, while S is searching for a cycle rickshaw, negotiating it a few rupees down and we’re off. The bazaars are about to open, the crowds are modest – still, we go ahead slowly and S looks around and says we should have chosen a rickshaw with a canopy.
It’s Id, we see traces of it everywhere. Goatskins are piling up along the walls, remnants of blood on the streets. Goats are jumping at us while S shouts out. She’s a vegetarian. An animal lover. She’s being careful about her steps, whereas I am roaming around carelessly with no thought for neither blood nor garbage. The garbage is everywhere as if it belongs to the inventory list. Stray dogs are sniffing around with uneasy steps, eating whatever is available.
S ducks into a basement shop, while I wait outside. I look at young men with skullcaps, lingering at carts. I wonder if they are waiting for something or somebody. Or if they just sit there. Idle. I wonder how they are able to keep their kurtas so stark white in the otherwise dirty environment. A boy and his younger sister approach me. She is dressed up, her red dress with gold embroidery looks nice at a distance. When she comes closer I can see that it is rather frayed. Her eyes are outlined with kohl. The boy nods at my camera, pushing his sister forward. I know what I have to do, take a few shots and let them see. Then they leave.
S eventually joins me. We decide to move on to Kinari Bazaar. Once again we search for a cycle rickshaw, S frowns, she won’t accept the price. She nods him off, and single out another. And we’re off. Some lanes are narrower than others are and give relief from the sun. S doesn’t know how far we are from Kinari Bazaar, just as we think we’re out of the Muslim area she shudders and points at more goatskins, she holds her breath and squirms. I look at the dilapidated facades; I can see traces of beautiful Mughal art sadly tarnished by years of negligence.
We move forward in an unsteady way. My body is jerking from one side to another, I press my bag against my bosom, while the other hand takes a firm grip around a sidebar. Sometimes we come to a complete halt before the driver – so thin and stringy I wonder from where he finds the strength – lifts his body from the seat and push his right foot hard against the pedal. And we’re off again, now in slow motion because the traffic has become denser. We twist from left to right, there are no rules – or maybe there are. Small shouts, an outstretched arm, a nod, a glance.
The crowd thickens. We pay the driver and start walking down the lane. It’s hot now. In an instant, we’re surrounded by people. They take up all the space there is. We are walking tight, shoulder by shoulder. There’s no room around me. People push, nudge – but nobody says; get away from me. Because there is nowhere to go. We have to be close to each other, we have to share the space. Share the breath, the sweat. All kinds of odours that evaporate from this sea of people billowing forward. In between, cycle rickshaws, bicycles, hand carts and whatever more on two, three or four wheels claim their space. Sometimes I lose sight of S, she is smaller than me. I feel a pang of panic….., but then I see her, I’m still in tow.
The lane is lined with sparkling shops; it’s a world of garlands, beads, jewellery, all kinds of bric a brac.
In here, I gasp. I’m not able to withstand the beautiful garlands any longer. The shop is so narrow that every other customer feels like an embrace. Bosom brush against bosom with a faint excuse me, but nobody really bothers. Strands of other women’s hair stroke my chin. We’re all busy running the same errands, nothing seems improper. The tinkling sound of the garlands melts with the sparkling colours. I move deeper into the narrow room. I pull the garlands slowly through my fingers, almost passionately, I move on to the next strand, and the one after… I lose track of time. The shop is glowing like Arabian Nights. I lose myself to memories.
I wake up from my reveries as more people are entering the shop, pushing their bodies impatiently forward while the shopkeepers stretch their arms above us and remove garlands from the hooks. It’s time to pay and leave.
We step into a narrow alley, follow the winding path lined with more shops, the windows are glowing with temptation. It becomes darker as the lane gets even narrower; we turn our heads up and can hardly see the sky – half of it blocked by a maze of electrical wires. I sense a clammy feeling taking hold of my body as we return to the main lane. Total fatigue hits me hard and I search for my water bottle. Cool air is nowhere to be found. We walk in and out of shops in a haze. We zigzag through the still increasing masses of people and vehicles. I can’t remember when I last had something to eat.
And then we’re back on Chandni Chowk where the atmosphere has become even more frantic. More traffic. More people. More honking horns. The autorickshaw drivers search me out, a foreign face marked by exhaustion. But we cut our way through the people, we cross the road in mortal fear….. we push away intruders, grin at hawkers blocking the way. We squeeze our bags towards our weary bodies and I suddenly sense a sting of happiness. After all….
Anne-Trine Benjaminsen lives in Stavanger, Norway.
She is a frequent traveller to India, and passionate about Indian literature. She works as a web publisher in the Norwegian oil service industry.
Pastime hobbies apart from reading include writing, photography and various creative projects.”
* Delhi Bed and Breakfast Guest