It was midnight in Matia Mahal Bazaar. Looking up at the delicate latticework of old Delhi balconies, Shankar Nath suddenly says, “It’s so lovely.”
As someone who has visited Vienna, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Frankfurt, Budapest, Benares, Lahore, Ladakh, Isfahan, Kashkar, Samarkand, Shanghai, Srinagar, Marrakech, Damascus, Beirut and Ankara, Shankar, a traveller, says, “There are a million cities within Delhi and that’s what I love about it.”
In town to finish his PhD on the Capital’s street food vendors, Shankar is not blind to its muck. “The place is dirty, but I can also look beyond to see its beauty.” Very often, late in the night, this 27-year-old takes out his bike and rides either to the Walled City, or to a low-income neighbourhood, such as Govindpuri. “I’m not romantic about poverty, but that world is more real.”
Stopping at a cigarette stall, Shankar starts talking to the vendor in Urdu. Turning to us, he switches into Hindi, peppered with slangs. “Ghazab hai yaar. Dilli mein lutf hain (It’s amazing, buddy. Delhi is so much fun), ” he says. Surprising, because he also speaks fluent German, his mother being Austrian.
“Mummy came to India as a tourist when she was 28, and met a sadhu, 30 years her senior,” Shankar says. “They fell in love and married in a town in Himanchal Pradesh.”
Shankar’s father, the sadhu, was allowed to marry because he belonged to the Nath sect. He died when Shankar was four.
His mother then set up a healthcare centre for the villagers and sent her boy to a Benares school. At 18, Shankar left for Vienna. Two Walled City-Romeos pass by, humming a Bollywood song. Shankar joins in, even as their voices fade away. “You can’t think of this in Europe,” he says.
While he had his base in Vienna, Shankar spent more time conducting European group tours. “After living in Europe, I looked at this city differently,” he says. “The unpredictability, the small things that are not spectacular, but beautiful in their own way attracts me.
Look at these people having chai on the street and chatting. You don’t see this warmth in the West.” Shankar plans to settle in Delhi. “I feel sad and angry at the ruthlessness of the rich and the appalling conditions that most people in the city have to bear. I want to do something meaningful.”
Before that, Shankar must find an apartment. “I’ve found a room in Mehrauli, where the window opens to Jahaz Mahal. I hope I’ll get it.”