One morning I was heading up to North Delhi on the Metro to continue my archival research at Delhi University Central Library, when I decided to disembark prematurely at Chandni Chowk. The daily trips to consult DU’s complete archive of EPW were becoming rather monotonous, flipping through dusty binders of issues from the 1960s and 70s, hoping to find something about Delhi, about urbanism, about slums, about city development. Stepping off the train, I reasoned that I could probably learn more about the city by actually delving into it and moving around.
Chandni Chowk is located in the heart of what is known as “Old Delhi.” This is Mughal Delhi, the “Dilli” of expansive forts, red sandstone and white marble mosques, crowded bazaars with disorienting, confounding streets and alleyways winding and intersecting in every conceivable direction. This part of the city was originally called Shahjahanabad after the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who designed and built it in the middle of the seventeenth century, some seven decades before the British East India company established its rule in faraway Calcutta.
Getting off at Chandi Chowk, the central thoroughfare through the old city, my initial intention was to wander through this famously dense and chaotic market in order to get lost in the endless maze of narrow ghallis that gives the place its confounding aura. I basically wanted to follow random paths, a sort of derive, taking note of the old Islamic architecture in its crumbling, yet still standing state. In this regard, I was successful. I had my camera with me and shot aspects of the built environment with its contemporary inhabitants: kids running around playing, setting up impromptu cricket matches in “open spaces” (which were really only slightly wider alleys), fabric merchants with brightly lit and air-conditioned stores with white marble floors. The merchants sat on plush pillows and piles of fabrics, showing customers their wares in a space that was in stark contrast to the dark and dusty ghalli on the outside, which was musty and dark even in the day time. There were stores and houses of all varieties, and dilapidated archways would signal once-grand entrances to once-regal homes that were worn out with many generations of residents living in and out of the original designs. These ingresses were now no more than partial vistas into the cramped dwellings of people who called this mysterious and rustic place home.
Looking above, one could see two to three storey structures stretching up with no more than a few yards separating one from another. At certain points they nearly adjoined, so that extended balconies and air conditioning units met suspended over the stone alleyways below. I saw monkeys hopping from balcony to balcony, negotiating window sills, clothes lines or anything else protruding from the walls thirty feet in the air. Kids mischievously threw stones at them from the ground below. One also couldn’t help but notice the thick entanglement of wires and cables that ran above the alleys, connecting nearly every dwelling and store to a main circuit breaker somewhere. These wires and their connections seemed as precarious in their place as the ghostly buildings that were half collapsed and whose once regal facades had all but faded away, leaving a dark, mystifying labyrinth in its stead. I wondered if there were people who understood the logics of these mazes, who could effortlessly navigate the very terrain in which I was becoming more and more embedded, and lost.
A rich array of animals inhabited this space with the people. I saw a pack of desperate little brown puppies drinking water from a shallow, muddy puddle, along with cows, goats and chickens, each assuming a kind of indifference to the passer-by that characterizes urban dwellers of all species. I saw Muslim men with long beards and skull caps and women in black or white hijabs, saffron robed swami’s in temples placing red tikkas on the foreheads of devoted Hindus, children with no sandals or shoes running carelessly over the rocky dirt and brick paths. No one seemed to notice me, even when I took pictures, the business-as-usual indifference of everyday city life.
One could find a wide variety of goods being sold in Chandni Chowk, and everyday thousands of locals and tourists alike flocked to and cluttered the mad bazaar. Clothes and fabrics, household items, gold and silver jewelry, fake brandname watches, sunglasses, and electronics, pirated CDs with music and movies, domestic and international, all could be found in Chandni Chowk, to say nothing of the food in and around the Old City. It was the day before Diwali, and crowds had gathered on the main road to do their shopping for the holiday. Stores were were selling mittai as well as fruits, some of which were to be offered to gods in mandirs, others to be served to relatives following the prayers.
After walking for about an hour or so, I had no idea where I was, and only a faint sense of the direction from which I had come. In any case, I thought, it would be simply impossible to re-trace my steps through the complex labyrinth of narrow lanes that I rather unconsciously navigated. No problem, I thought, I would just find a rickshaw driver and tell him to take me back to the Metro Station. The ride couldn’t cost more than twenty rupees, and it wouldn’t hurt to inject some liquidity into the local economy. In fact, while I was feeding the local economy, I thought, I might as well feed myself. Throughout my walking tour of Chandni Chowk, I could not help but smell the rich assortment of deep-fried treats that were sold on nearly every corner: samosas, kichoris, pakoras, and more. These third-world foods will surely screw up my first-world stomach, I had thought earlier, resisting the temptation to chow down a freshly made samosa with meeti chutney on the side. But such precaution now seemed unwarranted, especially after having walked two or three kilometers through the never-ending alleyways of Shahjehanbad. Just as I exited one part of the labyrinth and entered a bright and busy thoroughfare that much more resembled your typical Indian city—crowded and clustered and lined with stores that all seemed to be selling the same things—I walked past a group of rickshaw wallahs at a little side-of-the-road eatery. These guys were aggressively chomping down on puri and chole, which looked and smelled absolutely delectable. I walked up to the cook and asked him how much for lunch. He told me twenty rupees, less than fifty cents. I told him to hook it up and watched eagerly as he scooped up a cup-full of chole and landed five or six fresh puris on a stainless steel plate. The puris were shiny and dripping with oil from the big, wide deep-fryer from whence they came, and the chole was steaming light brown, sprinkled with finely chopped mint leaves and purple diced onions. My stomach grumbled in admiration for the decision my brain had made.
“Twenty,” the cook said, as he handed me the plate. I took out my wallet and asked him rather nonchalantly if he could take a Rs. 500 note, as I had nothing smaller on me. But the man just froze and kind of stared at me for a moment with a dumbfound expression on his face. Then he looked around the place to see if any of the seated customers had witnessed what had just taken place, this rather unprecedented turn of events, as I was soon about to find out. Of course, at least two or three others had overheard and were in fact following the whole proceedings (wherever you are in India, there are always at least two or three people somewhere around watching what you are doing). As soon as the cook got this confirmation from the others, they all started slapping each other on the backs and laughing hysterically, getting everyone else in the place involved. “What do you want me to do with this?” the cook screamed, looking at the Rs. 500 bill in my hand. “Can’t you break it?” I asked. But this only made them laugh harder. I then added insult to self-injury by looking around and asking if anyone in the joint had five Rs 100 notes to trade me. This got the already raukus crowd even further into their hysteria. I looked back at the cook, who now had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard, and gave him a face of quiet desperation, as if to say to him, “come on, you had your laugh at my expense, can’t you just give me the plate and let me eat the food?” But the cook’s wide, iniquitous smile, which revealed several missing teeth, elicited little sympathy for me. He wasn’t about to sacrifice Rs 20 to someone like me, and neither were any of the off-duty rickshaw pullers in the place. I realized that there was little I could do in this situation, and simply told him I was sorry and walked away, as I continued to hear the laughing go on behind my back.
Imagine being in a place like India, and your problem isn’t having too little money, as it seems to be for the majority of the people , but rather having too much. This is indeed a valuable lesson for anyone traveling here. The best way to spot yourself out as a foreigner is to carry Rs. 500 notes and nothing smaller. Its almost like you’re traveling with a different currency. Especially if you are in a place like Chandni Chowk.
Needless to say, my monetary situation also ruled out the possibility of taking a rickshaw to the Metro station, as most rickshaw pullers probably couldn’t pull in Rs 500 in an entire day, maybe not even a week. Five hundred rupees, by the way, is about ten US dollars.
Hungry, humiliated, and furious at myself for not thinking ahead, it was up to me and my feet to find my way home. And finally I caught a break. As I walked away from the main road I saw an earth tone building in the distance with a curiously large round dome as its roof, down a ways on a minor side-road. Without much forethought, I decided to follow the road and check out this building. It seemed an interesting blend of modern and Mughal architecture. Once there I found out that this was in fact a quite dingy-looking local district library, not nearly as interesting up close as it looked from afar. But right next to the library there was a bright sign pointing towards Town Hall, which I remembered crossing just after exiting the Metro Station some hours before. I headed in that direction, and sure enough, before long I found the Station right where I had left it. This little piece of serendipity was lost on me, however, as my rumbling stomach quickly turned sour in its mood and was now making unreasonable demands for satisfaction.
I zipped out of Chandni Chowk and headed south on the Metro for Connaught Place. The contrast between these two markets could not have been greater. Though both in Delhi, and separated only by a ten minute Metro ride, they belong to seemingly distinct modernities, different historical trajectories which nonetheless intertwine in interesting and complex ways. Going from North to South, roughly speaking, one can trace a slightly curved line beginning from Old Delhi, which a few hundred years ago was the capital of Muslim India, down to New Delhi, which was manufactured as the capital of British India three-quarters of a century ago, and further down to South Extension and Gurgaon below, which might be considered the quasi-capital of the new “global” India (though cities like Mumbai and Bangalore might have stronger claims to this title). Let us call this “neo Delhi.” As architectural scholars have pointed out, these three capital cities-in-one speak different spatial languages of modernity. Old Delhi, with its narrow ghali’s, its bazaars and chowks, its masjids, minars and qilas, speaks the spatial-architectural language of urdu-arabic modernity, inaugurated by the Mughals but endlessly transformed as Shahjehanbad has absored multitudes of new urban dwellers from all over India, adapting its form so that it continues to thrive and re-invent itself as a center of commerce, culture and religion.
Thanks to the Delhi Metro, which through an underground tunnel takes you directly from the heart of Old Delhi to that of New Delhi, the contrast between these two modern urban spaces is felt as soon as one exits the Metro Station in the center of Connaught Circus. Whereas one’s entry into Chandni Chowk is immediately evocative of the quintessential third-world bazaar, crowded, dusty, suffocating in its spatial design (if design is right word here), the middle of Connaught Circus is an open park, and the nearest store or car-infested street is a safe distance away. Coming up the stairs from the station, one is greeted with a circular open plaza with wide radial avenues protruding outwards to other circles laid out in geometric patterns throughout New Delhi. If one were to find such patterns in Shahjehanbad, they would belong to a different geometry, and to an alternative logic of space. The Anglophonic spatial language of New Delhi signifies through “circuses” and “radial roads,” “blocks,” “parks” and “places,” though many of the colonial names have been “Indianized” in the postcolonial period. Walking about the inner circumference of Connaught Place (called CP for short), one is in the midst of crumbling, but still fully functional colonial architecture (a common theme all over India), once handsome white buildings now stained black and grey with postcolonial history and neglect, with palatial columns entrancing a series of curved blocks that form the inside ring of CP. Within these blocks are stores and eateries of an entirely different variety than in Chandni Chowk. One goes to CP to spend money, whereas one goes to Chandni Chowk to save money, to haggle and bargain and make a deal. One’s appearance in CP itself becomes a certain sign for consumption, as shoppers dress to impress while tourists stick out of the crowd with their goofy outfits. With my still unsatisfied stomach, I finally resigned myself to consuming at the going New Delhi rate. One might take note here of the stark difference in culinary economies. Whereas I was looking at a Rs 20 plate of puri chole at Chandni Chowk, now I was paying Rs 120 for a Chicken Tikka Wrap and Rs 50 for a cold coffee at Cha Bar in CP. And I didn’t even have to break my Rs. 500 note. They took credit card.