Monday, April 28, 2008

Greetings from: Red Fort, Chowri Bazaar… almost

If Le Meridien and New Delhi were a bubble, then Hotel Broadway and Old Delhi is the pinprick. The streets are narrow and packed. My window looks upon an alley where children are playing cricket with a plastic bat and a tennis ball (gully cricket, they call it). They use a paving stone as a wicket. A sheep wanders in and out of view. I decided to plunge solo into the madness headfirst; madness indeed, since I chose to walk to the Red Fort from my hotel, a 1.5 km trek. Monstrously overpopulated city versus guileless young Asian boy: let’s go! As soon as I stepped out, a rickshaw wallah approached me, but after a few quick shakes of the head and a few strides forward, I continued on. Indeed, I found that if I walked on the shaded side of Netaji Subhash Marg., I traveled against the flow of traffic, further discouraging potential rides.

Before you enter the Fort complex itself, you must pass through a shopping arcade. It’s like having the gift shop as a prerequisite to the museum.

At the Red Fort, I was surprised to see not just security guards, but soldiers with guns. One manned a checkpoint just outside the entrance, his machine gun propped up, he looking ready to fall asleep. But it makes some sense: this is a militaristic monument; the Indian War Museum on the grounds showcases weaponry from the ancient to the current (including a bewildering display of “Fuzes”). Soldiers also sat in the shade of the monuments, far behind the plastic ropes meant to keep out the public.

A man asked if I needed a guide. Since I was flying solo, I said no. Thus my knowledge of the Red Fort: red sandstone. Inlaid marble. Columns, Persian arches, minarets. I got the sense that this was a place for picnics; Indian families sat in the lawn on blankets. Some slept. Couples canoodled, reclining into one another in a rare public display of affection, while small chipmunk-like rodents boldly snuck up to their opened potato chip bags to see if they could grab anything.

At one end of the complex, an archeological museum, filled mostly with Mughal manuscripts and some Persian calligraphy. At the other end, a teahouse restaurant with low seats. I asked for the saffron kheer. They were out. I asked for the tomato and mint soup. They were out. I asked for the cucumber raita. That, they had. But it was salty and lacked any cucumber. My new motto: India: Live with it.

Having successfully navigated my way to the Red Fort, I figured I could do the same for Chowri Bazaar, which specializes in paper goods. I had a vague map in my head, and some even more vague directions written down. Walk right out of the hotel down Asif Ali Road, turn right into the Sitaram Bazaar (near the Turkman Gate), then right again at Chowri Bazaar. Even though I have a poor sense of spatial positioning, I had an idea of the general direction I should walk.

So of course, I got lost. Along Asif Ali Road, you can smell dark, dried rivulets of urine, hot oil and fried dough, mysterious streams of colored chemicals in the gutter, freshly squeezed limes and sugar cane, grease from a motorcycle shop, and then—sudden, unexpected—incense. I must have turned too early (too late?) because I found myself wandering the Jama Masjid Bazaar, named after the nearby mosque, obviously. I tried not to make too much of a spectacle of myself, but it’s unavoidable. I did feel more like a local however, as cycle rickshaws from behind me yelled at me to get out of the way. At least, that’s the gist of their commands. I realized that spitting in the street is a necessity, rather than simply a disgusting habit, as most Westerners would consider it. Primarily, dust accumulates in your mouth at an alarming rate, and spitting clears out the grit quite effectively. (I suppose you could lug around a bottle of water for a quick rinse, but I have a poor sense of fore planning as well.) More interesting, I kept seeing big globs of bright red sputum. I didn’t stop to examine them closely, but I figured they were betel nuts. An old man, pulling a cart laden down with bags of rice until the stack was twice his size, opened his mouth for a second, and I caught a glimpse of a bright red tongue. I was grateful to be able to spit, the same sort of relief you feel when you blow your nose and find the tissue filled with black snot, an uneasy relief: that stuff is in my mucus and not my lungs. Bicyclists, auto-rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists often tie a bandanna around their mouths.

Certain areas of the bazaar have a specialty: I passed through the car parts bazaar, the dark, oil-stained machine parts, all laid out on blankets. (As I discovered later, I was close, oh-so-close to Chowri Bazaar there.) If I break my glasses, I can go to Katra Baryan, Fateh Puri, where opticians jostle for favor. For jewelry, I can hit Dariba Kalan. If I want a kite, Lal Kuan. I picked my way up to Chandni Chowk, the massive retail artery of Old Delhi, via a network of tiny, dark alleys filled with flies. On either side, tiny stalls—rooms—lit blue from fluorescent lights. In some, large magnifying glasses mounted on lamp arms: jewelers, I assumed. In others: someone sleeping under a laminated poster of their swami of choice. Shops and vendors of all imaginable types filled Chandni Chowk, wares displayed haphazardly; a moment of carelessness, and I’d bump my head against an item hanging above me. I passed a Muslim temple, laid out horizontally. At one section, a man continually poured water out of plastic cups lined up on a marble railing for afternoon ablutions.

I eventually found Chowri Bazaar. But, sadly, only the Metro stop named Chowri Bazaar. By India standards, I count that as a win.

No comments: