Everyone in the city is gearing up for Diwali
Crowded, busy bazaars in Old Delhi, flower mandis on the city’s borders, sightless candle-makers – everyone in the city is gearing up for Diwali!brunch Updated: Nov 23, 2015 18:57 IST
Kinari Bazaar (or Dariba Khurd) in Old Delhi never pauses for breath. The narrow lane which opens into the silver market of Dariba Kalan crawls with animal, vehicular and human traffic.
Once upon a time (about 300 years ago), it sold only zari borders and lace (that’s how it got its name Kinari), but today this wholesale bazaar sells almost everything, and at a much cheaper rate than you’ll find elsewhere in the city.
It is a riot of colours – with bright potlis, embellished diyas, intricately decorated boxes and trays on display. Beautiful hanging tea light holders in metal, studded with artificial stones, which would cost you Rs 600 to Rs 800 in Delhi markets, are priced at Rs 200 to Rs 400 at Kinari.
Other accessories include trays with stone work or metal roses; baskets with intricate silvery filigree work and tables with detailed meenakari work. Embroidered potlis in velvet are available in plenty, from Rs 20 to Rs 60, depending on the size and the numbers you want.
Kuch meetha ho jaaye?
Amidst the confusion of cables overhead hangs a yellowing board: Chaina Ram. Adjacent to the Fatehpuri Mosque wall, the shop bustles with people asking for sev badam, Karachi halwa and more.
It’s 1.30 in the afternoon. The moustached man at the counter, who has been swiftly filling boxes with an assortment of sweets, announces that coconut barfis are sold out – to the disappointment of many customers.
One of the oldest sweet shops in the Walled City (established in 1901), Chaina Ram claims to cut no corners when it comes to the ghee, milk and nuts used in its preparations. But could this be the reason for its inevitable demise?
“Within four-five years, we’ll have to pack up this business – it’s no longer fruitful,” laments Harish Gidwani, one of the fifth generation of family owners running Chaina Ram. “Our sweets are made in pure ghee. But people are becoming health-conscious. Besides, there is increasing incidence of diabetes. So there’s a demand for sugar-free sweets, which is an expensive affair.”
The slump in the economy means the purchasing power of customers has gone down even as the price of raw materials (like nuts), used in the sweets has shot up. “The price of desi ghee went up from Rs 4,600 to Rs 5,600 per tin within two months or so. Our margins have reduced by 40-50 per cent. It’s not a lucrative business anymore,” explains Gidwani.
I look through the trays of sweets and wonder aloud if they never thought of introducing anything new – a sandesh, or a strawberry barfi maybe? Gidwani shakes his head. “Aadmi ko sthir rehna chahiye. We concentrate on what we make best,” he says.
Chaina Ram will soon start an online portal for home delivery. “People complain that they can’t always come to Chandni Chowk. But we’ll deliver the sweets fresh, without preservatives. The shelf life of all our mithaais is four-five days. We tell our customers, ‘this is the shelf life – now it’s up to you if you want our sweets or not,’” says Gidwani.
So will Chaina Ram suffer the same fate as the 200-year-old Ghantewala Sweet Shop in Chandni Chowk, which recently closed shop? “Maybe that is our destiny,” says Gidwani philosophically.
– Atisha Jain
Sugar and spice at Khari Baoli
Fumes from a thousand sacks of chillies and other spices and herbs hit you as soon as you enter the winding lanes of Old Delhi’s Khari Baoli, crammed with long, narrow barrows pushed by thin, lanky labourers.
Though nothing remains of the stepwell after which Khari Baoli was named (‘khari’ means salty and ‘baoli’ is a stepwell), this market which emerged in the 17th century is now Asia’s largest wholesale spice market.
Small shops line the lanes with shopkeepers sitting under portraits of their ancestors. Each store has an eye-catching display of its products – trays with mountains of every possible dry fruit, from California and Kabul almonds to raisins from Rajasthan and China.
Khari Baoli is particularly relevant to Diwali because all the dry fruit hampers you get are probably originally sourced from here. At Khari Baoli, you can buy dry fruits at (more than) 30 per cent lower rates than available in retail shops. Most of the dry fruits come from the USA and Iran, the rest from Afghanistan. Home-grown ones include cashewnuts, and walnuts.
But the demand for dry fruits has gone down, says Dinesh Chawla of Lahore Dry Fruits who has been dealing in dry fruits since his family moved from Pakistan to India in 1947. “The cost of dry fruits has increased,” he says. “A box of badamgiri used to cost Rs 350- Rs 400; today it costs Rs 650- Rs 700. People would rather buy a box of muffins, chocolates or biscuits.”
Khari Baoli also sells exotic dehydrated fruits such as sugar-coated kiwi, apricot, strawberry, mango and papaya (these were introduced a few years ago). “But they don’t sell as much as dry fruits still do,” says Chawla.
Normally Diwali means an almost 80 per cent increase in the sale of dry fruits. “But this year it’s just about a 50-60 per cent increase,” he rues.
Be dazzled by the ‘Lane of Pearls’
The aroma of ghee from the Old Famous Jalebi Wala fades away as you turn the corner to enter the ‘street of pearls’ or the Dariba Kalan in the ‘moonlit square’ of Shahjahanabad. Princesses in the 17th century, when Shah Jahan was king, would often shop here for intricate gold jewellery and colourful gems (Meena Bazaar was the go-to place for ordinary people).
Shops line both sides of the lane – few in match-box like spaces, almost struggling to be noticed. Many have been there for decades, some even for centuries.
Every year, new designs are introduced in Dariba, at much cheaper prices than at the main markets. For instance, at the Shri Ram Hari Ram Jewellers, antique polish is the new thing. “Intricate carving in fancy new silver artefacts such as tall fountains, seems to be back in fashion,” says Umang Gupta, a seventh generation owner of the Shri Ram Hari Ram Jewellers at Dariba Kalan (which has no branches). Established in 1789, it is one of the oldest jewellers in Old Delhi.
While jewellery and puja items always sell well, demand for idols and coins shoots up during the festive season, says Gupta, showing us new designs apart from the customary Lakshmi and Ganesh figurines. “Corporate gifting like silver-coated office sets and pens is also in fashion. But such things work only for those who have a taste for them.”
Maintaining silver items can be quite a task. Gupta advises regular cleaning with zinc oxide or toothpaste powder. “Ensure that the silver articles you buy are lacquered,” he says.
The rise of online sites offering silver jewellery has however not impacted sales in Dariba shops. “It’s always better to buy silver in person as polish, quality and weight play an important role,” says Gupta. –Atisha Jain
Candles in the wind
The candlemaking section is like a seamless assembly line: in a section of a large hall, half a dozen visually-impaired men and a few volunteers are busy making yellow-coloured candles with deft precision. The tables here are all covered with moulds filled with wax and candles are being made, polished and packed continuously.
Every Diwali, the Blind Relief Association in Delhi comes alive with a colourful bazaar where thousands of people come to shop for beautiful candles made by blind students. Last year the candles fetched approximately Rs 90 lakh! Considering that they are modestly priced, we’re talking about lakhs and lakhs of candles. “Six lakh terracotta candles, more than a lakh of Charmukha candles, 50,000 fancy designs, 60,000 cutwork candles…” trails off Vasudev, who has been supervising the work here since 1986.
Raj Kumar is in his fifties, and he has been making candles for half his life. He assembles a candle mould and wraps a long string of thread into loops around it, then moving on to another. Standing opposite him, 24-year-old Nitish Kumar dips a mug into a cauldron of molten wax, pours the wax into the mould, and tosses the mould in cold water. Every now and then, he draws out one of the moulds from the water, disassembles it and throws the solidified candles in another bucket of cold water.
On a table close by, Harish Kumar holds a blunt knife and slowly scraps off the irregularities in the candle. “These candles aren’t perfect,” says Vasudev. “We tell our customers that the candles can’t be flawless, there will be imperfections because the people who make them can’t see,” he says.
It all started in 1944. The Blind School, as it is commonly called, was founded by UA Basrurkar and his wife Anusuya. He was an automobile engineer and a freedom fighter. She was a gynecologist and a social worker. KC Pandey, the executive secretary says, “One day in the early Forties, Mrs Basrurkar came across blind people asking for alms and she thought, why should someone beg?” She mentioned it to Mr Basrurker when she visited him in jail where he was imprisoned by the British, and co-incidentally, at the time he had been reading Charles Dickens’ American Notes which is about a school for the blind. “So in 1946, they founded a school for the blind. It started with two blind children! Candle-making was introduced in the very beginning,” he says.
“I remember when I was studying at the school some 30 years ago, we used to make candles in between classes,” says Raj Kumar. Nitish Kumar, who moved to Delhi from a village in Bihar last year, learnt to make candles only two weeks ago. But he does it with such ease that you’d think he’s been doing it all his life. “I lost my eyesight in 2005 – and you can’t imagine what it was like for so many years! I did nothing. I only ate and sat around in the temple every day. The best thing about making candles is that time flies! Samay ka maloom hi nahi chalta hai.” \
– Saudamini Jain
On a Marigold Express
T he run-up to Diwali can be a stressful time and if you happen to be someone who wants to decorate your house with fresh flowers, then you might want to embark on a little adventure. Set an alarm for 2am and drive down to Gazipur mandi, on Delhi’s eastern border with Uttar Pradesh.
Gazipur mandi came into existence in 2011 following the merger of three big flower markets – Mehrauli, Fatehpuri and Baba Kharak Singh Marg. The mandi is a beautiful riot of colours. It’s at its busiest during the festive season. Most of the vendors spend the three days between Dhanteras and Diwali at the mandi itself, selling flowers 24x7.
Marigold is the bestseller at this time. “Other flowers also sell, but marigold tops all of them,” says Bapi Babu of Sree Radha Krishna Flowers. Adds Ramesh Shah, a vendor who deals mainly in marigold: “On Dhanteras, the big orders start to come in from nearby factories and offices.”
The flowers take a three-day train ride from Kolkata and arrive at the mandi in trucks. “On a regular day, a 12 ladi (marigold strings, each a metre long) bunch will sell from anywhere between Rs 30-100, depending on the supply. But on Diwali, the same 12 ladis will cost you no less than Rs 500,” says Shah.
If however, you do not like your flowers strung, you can buy them by the kilo. The khula genda, which comes mainly from Aligarh, Baghpat and Rajasthan “might not go beyond Rs 90 per kg this year, as there is an abundance of genda in the market,” says Mohammad Yusif, a vendor at the mandi.
The next most popular item of the day is lotus – the ‘must have’ flower if you want to please goddess Lakshmi. “The demand for the flower goes up from 2000-3000 pieces on a regular day to one lakh pieces on Diwali itself,” says Jai Kumar, a vendor who only deals with lotus. On Diwali, young boys can be seen running around the mandi selling lotus flowers for Rs 40-50 per piece, mostly sourced from Kumar.
Ashok leaves are considered auspicious too, so the green leaf toran is another sought-after item during Diwali. A toran is rolled-up Ashok leaves strung together, usually a metre long. Teaming it with marigold strings makes for a beautiful combination. “We sell a dozen strings for Rs 20 on a normal day. The price shoots up to Rs 100 on Diwali,” says Satish, who along with 10-15 vendors, will camp at the mandi this Diwali to sell torans.
So what is the best time to visit the mandi to get the best deal? None. You can get there as early as 2am but that will only guarantee you a good parking spot and fresher flowers. The price remains more or less the same throughout the day.
And how do the hundreds of flower sellers who make our homes look beautiful spend their Diwali? “If we manage to get free early, we go home, do puja and burn crackers. Else we will look at the aatishbaazi from here itself and be happy,” says Ramesh Shah.
– Monica Gupta
From HT Brunch, November 8
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