Thursday, October 28, 2010

Old Delhi: The Bazaar, Moti Mahal, Lots of Photos

Somewhere in the old delhi bazaar.

Old Delhi is the only place I've been in Asia that really and truly scared me. Old Delhi is the nucleus of Northern India, maybe one of the concentric centers of the earth itself. There's nowhere I've been that comes anywhere near it in terms of the throbbing vitality of it, the terrifying largeness of the people, the activity, the chaos that surrounds it. It's a gross immensity, sort of a vortex - you have to go through it you go to Delhi. It's where the main train station is. It's where Delhi began, and where Delhi was sacked (many times over the years), the seat of Mughal power, the seat of British power, a spiritual touch-point for many people and many generations. But, geography. Old Delhi is generally considered to be defined by the Chandni Chowk, the long street that runs through it, and is made famous by the dual Mughal immensities of the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid.

I remember this very clearly. I'm 19, on my first visit to Delhi. Auntie Sheila has let me use her car and driver for the morning. "You have to see Old Delhi, of course," she tells me, as she packs me into the car that morning. "You have to go walk around the Chandi Chowk." Well, okay, I think, I'll walk around the Chandi Chowk. Having no idea what that entailed.

She set me up. I'm certain of that now. Sheila did it on purpose.

Cushions for sale amid a churning sea of umbrellas. India makes you realize the shocking number of umbrellas our planet harbors. As I have lost upwards of ten umbrellas in three months, I know that of which I speak.

The little Grey ford came out of the green and luxurious embassy district that Sheila lived in, and we turned onto the highway, and we kept going and going. Delhi turned more and more like the India I was most familar with the, chaotic but mostly-conceivable mess of Bangalore. Something I could handle, parse out. Then we got into the Chandi Chowk district, the outskirts of the Center, then we drove down the Chandi Chowk. There were more people there then I could concieve of in the universe, riding bicycles and autorickshaws and horses (yes), all of them wearing differently colored clothes, all of them leaning on their horns at approximately the same time. On either side of me were Delhi's two defining monuments, of course - the shockingly huge red swell of Shah Jahan's Red Fort, and next door, the big mosque, the mosque, the Jama Masjid. People were funneling into the bazaar to the left of the mosque, shoulder-to-shoulder, carrying sacks of things on their shoulders and leading little kids in school uniforms by the hands - every other man or woman seemed to be wearing the requisite garb of the Ramadan season. "I drop you at the clothes market, okay?" the driver said, and I agreed since I didn't know any better. He impossibly threaded the car through stall after stall of men selling fabrics and knock-off North Face jackets.

He ejected me.

The bazaar (a mere iota of it) as seen from the steps.

I was wearing a sundress. I got out, and walked to the steps of the Jama Masjid (about five or six paces). I stood on the steps and looked down them, down to the bazaar and down to the Jama Masjid. Beggars and street kids were already starting to advance on me. Large and odiferous looking vultures picked at the rubbish pile to my right. There were three or four lepers in mats on the sidewalk nearby, and one of them had a little ribbon of white spittle coming out of his mouth, and someone was playing the American Top 40 hits in my ear from a pirated CD stall. I have never felt so astoundingly out of place. Like I had been emitted from an alien spacecraft or something, halting - like my first steps on a new world, testing the ozone for breathability. Finding it somewhat wanting. "You give me change, madame!" a grubby street urchin at my knee said. So it began.

Your friendly neighborhood goat head store.

I survived of course. And wanted to go back soon as I left. Old Delhi does that to you. It scares the shit out of you then makes you want to come back over and over again. There are few places in the world with such an incredible buildup of history, history overlaid upon history, a bazaar and a neighborhood with more stories and more happenings behind it then just about anywhere else on the planet. Ruskin Bond, in one of his books, tells of a mysterious Black Well lurking in one of the closed old haveli houses of Delhi. There are rumors of antiques stores selling things you couldn't obtain for love or money anywhere else. Things people lost all over the place re-apparating in Old Delhi. Probably people, too. I've met a few people on the road who lost a year or two of their lives in this neighborhood. One guy who spent his early twenties playing the black market round about the Delhi of the late 60's. One woman who spends her life as a photojournalist in conflict areas and, insofar as I could determine, comes to Old Delhi for R&R. Tougher then me.

"How'd you like it?" Sheila asked me when I got back. A little smile on her lips. How did I like it? Any response would involve about ten pages and footnotes.

"It was interesting," I said. "Real interesting."

"Uh huh," Sheila said.

The clothes market.

I got out of the taxi this time, and I walked five paces. And then I saw the stick. A bamboo stick, about the length of my forearm I'd guess. Probably some sort of construction site leaving. I picked it up - it was sturdy and strong. Perhaps it is time for a social experiment, I thought. I picked up the stick.

Northern India is tainted by sexual harassment. It's not an easy place to be as a woman - of any nationality - and it's especially hard if you're by yourself. Single women are fair game in Delhi. Single women are probably slatternly and easy, and you should try your luck, because why the hell not? Walking down the street in non-gentrified Delhi usually involves lewd commentary, being followed, and (if you're really lucky) one or two lightening-fast attempts at groping. Far as I can determine, it doesn't really matter what you wear, especially if you're a foreigner. This is the big stain on Delhi, a national shame. Fact is: women can't move about freely here. You are conspicuous, noticed, and to some extent hunted wherever you go. And it pisses you off more and more and more as every day goes by.

And so, the stick. Maybe it was paranoia. Maybe I just wanted some agency. If someone grabbed me or got in my space, I could whomp them on the head in retaliation. Perhaps teach them an important lesson, or something. At least there was the visual deterrent factor. Right? Right.

I don't know if I should be proud or not about the stick. It's a bit of a moral quandary. Especially if you're into non-violence. (I'm not. At all. Just so you know).

The fact is? It worked. The stick absolutely, 100% worked. My usual North India experience as a blonde foreigner was turned on its head, entirely neutralized. A few men came at me with hands outstretched or tongues out and flapping around, shouting "HALLO YOU VERY SEXY YOU WANT FUCK," usual routine - and immediately stepped back in shock when they saw The Stick. "

"Whoa, whoa! Okay!" they'd say, giving me a very respectable amount of space. They'd go off giggling nervously to their buddies, hahah, look at that. Damn, that felt good.

What makes me feel better about The Stick? The fact that just about every woman I met on the street - and there weren't many, this is Delhi - smiled at me. A solidarity thing. "That's right!" one large Sikh woman said, as we passed each other. "That's right," she said. The schoolgirls giggled and offered me sly thumbs-up signs.

A later post here should be devoted to what Indian women go through on a daily basis when it comes to sexual harassment in India, and especially North India. Horror stories. "I know women who move to Delhi from South India," a friend of mine told me. "They get a good job, and they relocate. And you know what? They all come back. Because they can't go anywhere without getting grabbed, or followed. Something. They can't live free lives."

But about the Bazaar. Here, have some photos.

Much of the bazaars commerce centers around meat, and most of that meat is mutton. Butchers are rife here. I like seeing them. I'm a proud carnivore, but I'm also a realist. This is where supper comes from. Bouncing, adorable, delicious sheep and goats.

Getting nailed by a motorbike is a very very real possibility here. Keep your eyes open. There's really nothing you can do about the ground. I suggest not looking down ever.

Piles of aromatic something-or-another on the street. LIke most of India, Old Delhi is as much an olfactory experience as a visual one.

I don't think the legal department got consulted on this one.

These are piles of vermicelli noodles, commonly used in dessert dishes. Sevian is particularly popular. It's made with condensed milk, dried fruits and nuts, and cardamom, and it is delicious.

Yeah, there's something I like about butchers. Butchers have been considered the lowest of the low in most cultures in human history. India's no exception. More so, considering its deep vegetarian tradition and antique caste system. But the meat loving millions would be in dire straits without them. And I find a certain visual poetry in the whole affair. Maybe I'm blood thirsty. Those are, in case you were unsure, goat heads.

A man selling biryani on the street. There's some kind of conversation going on here. What do you think?

Hanging out by the red sandstone walls of the Jama Masjid. I've never been in . There's always something vaguely wrong about my dress. And it seems wrong somehow. A week after I left, five Taiwanese tourists were shot (non-fatally) by a supposed terrorist group at the Jama Masjid's gates. Whatcha gonna do?

More red sandstone. It's a damn hot day, but the walls are coolish.

I had lunch at Moti Mahal. The Moti Mahal. It's an absolutely iconic restaurant, considered to be one of the pioneers of the tandoori cuisine that has so efficiently and quickly swept the entire planet. It's said that the restaurant's founder, a Peshawari by the name of Kundan Lal Gujral, actually invented both tandoori and butter chicken. (Apparently, the tandoor oven was previously reserved only for bread, instead of meats). The restaurant began in Peshawar and was moved to its current Delhi location in 1947, after the Partition - and has been plugging on with shocking success ever since, drawing the affection of Indira Gandhi, Nehru, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon - in other words, everyone vaguely important who was sent to India on official business has eaten here.

There was no one there, which was somewhat curious. The interior of the restaurant is a bit 1960's mental hospital. But at least they have lots of fans operating on high-speed. I ordered my usual - tandoori chicken, tandoori gobi (cauliflower) and sat back. The owner of the place came over to chat, in lieu of anything better to do. "Did you know that Gordan Ramsey came and cooked here?" he asked me. No, I did not. But so The Ramsey did come to Moti Mahal. Engaged in one of those celebrity cookoff things that are so popular on food networks. Naturally, the Moti Mahal boys won hands down. The owner came over with a few photographs after I expressed interest. "That's us. When we won," he said, pointing to an image of both himself and Ramsey looking pleased with the universe.

The food was, as expected, excellent. Moti is also known for its Mughali style curries. Delhi is particularly known for curries made from mutton "variety" meats - you can order up goat brain curry here if so inclined. There are Moti Mahal outlets all over India now, although a family argument means that this Chandi Chowk branch bills itself as the One and Original Moti Mahal, Hands Down. I'm not prepared to argue.

The tandoori gobi had the interesting addition of sesame seeds up top. I think it does add a certain nutty depth to its flavor. A delicate yogurt marinade and a lot of spices, heavy on the aromatics. Really addictive stuff - and a lot of it. I couldn't finish it all.

And excellent chicken. Not too heavy on the yogurt - actually, I kinda like that. But juicy, excellent meat with a lot of complexity of flavor.

They talked me into ordering roti. However, missi roti are superb. It's a thin crunchy roti prepared with besam or gram flour, seasoned with fenugreek, ginger, nigella, chili powder, ajwain, and sesame. And brushed with an inordinate amount of butter. They are very savory, and incredibly delicious.

After lunch, I was going to go to the Red Fort. Which turned out to be closed.

So I didn't. But I did the next day.

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