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Time travel in Chandni Chowk

delhi Updated: Aug 15, 2009 00:23 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times
Chandni Chowk

It is pleasant to be in Chandni Chowk, to sweep the eyes 360 degrees in this in-your-face “Secular India” theme park — temples, mosques, church and gurdwara.

To see masked Jains, kirpan (dagger)-wielding Sikhs, saffron-robed sadhus and bearded mullahs carrying on with their spiritual pursuits. To look at sari-clad — and burqa-clad — women strolling along with sunken-cheeked Bihari labourers and foreign tourists wearing, well, not much. It is also pleasant to spot the occasional first-world Delhiites, the Khan Market types, making an excursion to their idea of ‘Old Delhi’, armed with mineral water bottles, hand sanitisers and shades.

But the most pleasant thing is to smell that sweet pungent mix of sewage, sweat, dung, jalebis (a sweetmeat), bhallas (a snack) and genda phool (marigold flowers).

The walk begins right where the proposed tram service would start — the Red Fort stop.

Look to your left. This red-coloured building is Digambar Jain Mandir, famous for its birds’ hospital. A bhikshu (disciple) is sleeping under a Heritage Building status slab. Not far away Western backpackers are greedily clicking the surrounding scenes.

They leave the road just in time to let the green-coloured Chandni Chowk bus shuttle rumble by. It is choked with the ‘natives’ going to Ballimaran, to Nai Sadak, to Katra Neel, to Fatehpuri. A sprightly Namdhari Sikh is hanging on to the door.

On the right stands what used to be Fort View Hotel — yellowed but still majestic. It’s now home to a Sony showroom, a cinema called Moti (showing a Bhojpuri film), and Café Coffee Day.

One backpacker, following my gaze, looks up at the building, and then hurriedly flips through his copy of Lucy Peck’s Delhi - A Thousand Years of Building. Just then appears a red-capped boy, belonging to a tribe of ear-cleaners from Turkman Gate, and offers to de-wax the backpacker’s ears. To break the language barrier, he takes out a needle, inserts it into his right ear and brings it out from his right nostril.

Looking at the horrified tourist, I feel bad for travellers who come to Chandni Chowk to sketch the pattern of the haveli jaalis (meshes of houses) or to study the British influence on Mughal architecture. At the end of this walk, they may remember nothing but the grey sky above, the jostling crowd beneath, and perhaps the golden arches of McDonald’s. Yes, it too is here giving an interesting perspective to the Red Fort skyline.

Sadly, amidst such mumbo-jumbo, it is easy to miss two stately sights — the Baptist Church and the State Bank of India building.

But of course you can’t miss the Seesganj Gurdwara. This would be a crowded tram-stop for sure. And not just because of the pilgrims. Look, girls are running down from Teg Bahadur Khalsa Girls Senior Secondary School, next to the gurdwara. Laughter, shrieks, catfights. Chaos multiplied ten times. The golgappa waala (snack-seller) is shouting. So is the pineapple waala.

Talking of food, Chandni Chowk’s ‘Old, Famous Jalebi walla’ is just a few steps away. The entry to paratha waali galli, too, is somewhere around. Haldiram’s is on the other side of the road. Since I belong to the Choko La tribe, unaffected by laddoos (a sweetmeat) and dahi bhallas (a snack), I keep walking straight, past stores selling Chinese toys, bras, saris, footmats, goggles, belts, burqas, chappals (slippers), watches, and even swimming costumes!

Nai Sadak, now.

The Town Hall building on the right, flecked with hundreds of masakalis (pigeons), is looking very London-ish. Not surprising since it came up just a few years after the 1857 mutiny.

For that Piccadilly Circus touch, there are benches and stylish lampposts, on the little avenue on the left.

However, bent on quickly finishing this long walk, I’m not feeling obliged to ooh and aah at the claustrophobic histories and monuments lining both sides of Chandni Chowk. The weather-beaten Lala Channamal ki Haveli is left behind without so much of a salam-namaste (greeting). Amritsari Lassi Waala is coming up now. Next is Fatehpuri Masjid.

Journey over. If only there was a tram.