During the last days of the Mughals, in the early 19th century, Chawri Bazar was the Soho of Old Delhi. It was an area famous for courtesans and nautch girls – girls who danced so alluringly that their suggestive moves could reduce men to gibbering wrecks.
Although the lanes were narrow, behind an unprepossessing facade there would be a marvellous haveli – an aristocrat’s urban villa, with fountains, marble, terraces and an airy courtyard. Following the mutiny in 1857, the rebels looted many of the havelis and when the British soldiers returned to the city, they did their share of destruction. The prostitutes were banished upstairs and the ground floor area became the city’s first wholesale market.
Today is a national holiday, commemorating the Mahatma’s birthday. I didn’t plan to come to Chawri Bazar; I was supposed to join the Gandhi Jayanti Special Walk. I got to the starting point five minutes late and the group had left. I wasn’t too disappointed as I was told that there were going to be lots of politicians demonstrating their respect of Gandhi, so mere mortals might not be able to visit the relevant sites.
So instead I decided to go a-wandering around Old Delhi. I emerged from the Metro at Chawri Bazar and walked down Bazar Road towards the biggest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid. The road was about four metres wide and lined with hand carts selling ironmongery, machine parts and tools. There were some fruit and vegetable carts, too. Along the narrow pavements traders had spread out their wares on a tarpaulin. Motorbikes, trailers, autos, vans and rickshaws were parked as well, leaving very little room for manoeuvre for pedestrians and vehicles trying to move in the road.
Along the first few hundred metres of the street, shopping was dedicated to brass and metalware. Then the main product became paper: fancy cards, wedding invitations, wallpaper and diaries. I turned right at the Jama Masjid, choosing a narrow lane to get to Chittli Qabar Chowk. As it was a Sunday morning on a national holiday, there were fewer pedestrians than normal, so I was able to stroll comfortably without there being jostled and pushed. I could smell pastries and cakes being baked – the Great Delhi Bake Off, perhaps? There were disks of what looked like Victoria sponges and creations made with filo pastry which looked delicious, despite the flies.
Butchers had a sawn off tree trunk in the front of their shop on which they could do some serious chopping with a meat cleaver. Everything seemed to get hacked up, apart from the teeth. In one bowl, there was a blubber of brains. This brought back fond memories of eating Brain Curry at the Karachi Social Club, in Bradford, just up the hill from the Alhambra Theatre, in 1977.
You have to keep your wits about you walking down these lanes. There might be rickshaws coming from behind, a scooter coming towards you and people stepping out of shops in front of you. Scooters have horns, but rickshaw wallahs might not have bells or brakes, so they warn you to get out of the way. In Hindi. With curses, no doubt.
I heard a muezzin calling the faithful to midday prayers (Dhuhr) over a tannoy system and saw several men making their way down a narrow gap between houses to reach a mosque, hidden from the main road. Some mosques are tall, narrow and impinge on other houses across the street. There was a Jain Temple, with some beautiful carving around the gate. A sadhu strolled past, dressed in saffron, with flowing silver locks.
I reached Asaf Ali Road and turned east towards Delhi Stock Market (just in front of the Communist Party of India offices), and the Turkman Gate. The ancient Delite Cinema was showing a biopic of MS Dhoni, the previous captain of the Indian Test Match Cricket Team. There were queues of lads outside waiting to buy tickets. There was a function going on at the Chor Bizarre (sic), where I had planned to have lunch. I saw a crowd of locals clamouring around a pavement food seller by the Shiv Mandir and went to investigate.
Some students had come to buy textbooks which are sold on the pavement in the Chatta Lal Miya area and along Netaji Subhash Marg. They advised me what to buy – a battered, deep fried, cheese sandwich, with chickpea sauce for 10p. It was really hot, so the cook tore me a piece of newspaper with which I could hold the fried bread. It was very filling and tasty.
The books were astonishing. One seller had built a wall of textbooks around his stock. Instead of buying individual novels for 35p, you can purchase by weight. You could buy cheap paperbacks in English for 300Rs (about £3.40) per kilogram. Fancy coffee table books cost 100Rs (about £1.13) per kilogram. They had lots of stock of Michael Palin’s travel books. I suppose this is where the books end up when they can’t shift them in UK. I could also have picked up a bootleg DVD of MS Dhoni – albeit in Hindi and without subtitles for a few rupees.
Mixed with the pavement book sellers were traders flogging sunglasses, barbells and weight lifting kit, track suits, knapsacks, second hand shirts and fruit – ready peeled tangerines and oranges. I decided I needed a cup of tea, but sadly my favourite tea shop was closed for the holiday. You can go in and get a consultation with one of their tasters who will offer you something to titillate your taste buds in a similar style to your usual cuppa.
I turned off the main road and walked through a morass of carts piled high with denim jeans, towards the Kasturba (Gandhi’s wife) Hospital. It was wonderful to get away from the noise and crush of people in the shady quiet area of Old Dariya Ganj. I passed the Arya Orphanage and finally came across a wider street, Sitaram Bazar Road, to get back to the Metro.
Small boys wanted me to take their photograph, and then asked for “schoolpens” in return, but I didn’t have any. A man wanted me to photograph his sheep. It was so ugly I had to do it. On one side of the road there was a pavement stable for mules and horses. Some bearded men were sitting on rickety wooden chairs in the shade, chatting among themselves. I nodded to them and they returned the gesture. I was hoping they’d invite me over for a cup of chai, but they didn’t. I saw a sugarcane crushing drink shop up ahead and bought a pint of juice with extra mint and lime. It was delicious, but it didn’t quench my thirst much.
Eventually I reached the Metro station with the muezzin’s call to afternoon prayers (Asr) just starting up behind me. I was shattered and an air conditioned ride on the underground was just what the doctor ordered.