Connecting Expats In Delhi
Way back in the day, Shah Jehan (of Taj Mahal fame) had a beautiful daughter (amongst other, less beautiful daughters) who built herself a huge, sprawling bazaar called Chandni Chowk, where she could shop to her heart's content.
Today, this market is insane. I have a friend who got three full-body tiger costumes there.
Part of Old Delhi, it's a world apart from New Delhi's wider, more green avenues. It is the smell of Old Delhi that once stopped me outside an eastern spice market in Seattle; that caused me to close my eyes, inhale, and tell my best friend and her daughter to do the same. “This is what India smells like,” I'd told them. It is cardamom, ginger, sandalwood. It is dust, perfume, hot ghee. It is exhaust, urine, sweat. It is marigolds.
I'd been to Chandni Chowk during the day, and have been trying to experience more of the city, so when I received an invitation to join a historical street walk involving the sampling of street foods, I consulted with my fellow writer-friend Susanna, who'd also received an invite, and happily agreed that it would be fun.
Fun is a subjective word.
After meeting with a group of mostly Indians, some bewildered looking Australians, and one very tall Israeli man (satisfyingly named 'Tal'), we set off with the walk's organizer, Surekha. A tiny powerhouse with a huge smile and the type of booming voice one absolutely must have to keep a group of fifteen together in the mad bustle of Chandni Chowk, she continually walked straight into honking traffic while yelling at us to GO! GO! CROSS THE ROAD! IS EVERYONE HERE? WHERE'S TAL?? (Tal was assigned to the back, as spotting the huge white man seemed to be the easiest way to mark our group's end.)
Stopping to catch our breath on the stairs of a temple, after trying to keep up with the swift-moving Surekha, we listened as she briefed us on the tour we were about to embark upon. She told us about the historical use of chiles in Old Delhi; about the city's oldest sweet shop, where an emperor used to ring a bell to signify that he wanted his sweets; about the fresh, winter ingredients we were about to sample. At the end of it, a young Indian guy with a big camera and a U.S. Polo Association shirt with an American flag on it cracked, “But, if you'd rather, there's a McDonalds just around the corner!”
Surekha looked like she wanted to throttle him.
The first stand we stopped at is what I would call, based on my own paradigm, “street food”. A man with a big pot on a wooden cart stood on the street, a massive chunk of sandalwood incense burning to keep the flies away from the sugary froth he served. Daulat ki chaat was passed around in flimsy, silver-coated, paper bowls, and the first fistful of small, wooden spoons were shoved into our hands to distribute to the others. Daulat ki chaat, Susanna and I decided, tasted a lot like banana cream pie without anything remotely banana-flavored involved. “Everybody get a taste?!” Surekha called. “LET'S GO!”
After that, we stopped at a perfume stall where, interestingly, a box of samosas awaited us. These were stuffed completely full with winter peas. And then a roadside shop for baarfi and carrot halwa, and then a dark alleyway for more samosa. This time, filled with some kind of daal that tasted a lot like foam.
While Susanna and I took the opportunity to sit on some cool, concrete stairs in this dark alley, the others in the group marveled at the wonder of finding daal inside samosa. I felt tired, and slightly annoyed when asked if I wanted to go inside this place that produced the samosas and “take a look at some gold jewelry”.
Surekha, missing from the group, suddenly reappeared with plates full of what seemed to us, in the dim light, to be ice cream with bananas! When the bananas turned out to be crispy, savory discs, though, and the ice cream turned out to be a spiced tamarind yogurt, we gratefully handed it off to the closest group member that'd take it away.
Back in the bustle of the alleys, bridal jewelry sparkled and glinted at us from both sides of the narrow alleys, and Susanna and I decided we'd come back and try it on someday. Beads and brocades beckoned us to slow and to touch, but Surekha's voice steadily called the group forward. “WHERE'S TAL?!” she called. Porters rushed through the crowd with boxes on their heads, just the right height to continually bump Susanna in her head with them; bicycle rickshaws rang bells and yelled for people to get out of the way; dogs barked; aunties pointed; teenage boys looked over their shoulders; men blew bidi smoke in my face; my feet throbbed; and my watch ticked slowly by.
We had something else savory and deep-fried and filled with spicy vegetables, and Surekha went off to order chai, which turned out to be a teabag in some kind of frothy cappuccino-like milk. Short one, Susanna and I decided to share, and as I held the steaming hot cup in my hand, a mad rush swelled through the alley. “Step up! Step up!” another woman in the group called to me, just as Surekha shouted to the group, “HOT PAKODA!!” Simultaneously, Susanna reached into the bad to pick a pakoda and flung it straight back in after receiving scalded fingers, and I took the advice of the woman screaming at me to step upppp in order to avoid being crushed by the crowd. As soon as I stepped up, the same woman who'd yelled at me to do so began to yell again, this time in unison with the shopkeepers whose white shop fabric I'd accidentally stepped on.
Susanna and I looked at each other. “Is this one of those things we'll be glad we did after the fact?” I asked. And we pressed on, shoving through tiny spots in the crowd, power-walking to keep pace with our guide. “I feel like I'm going to die,” said Susanna. And, just as she did, a mass of motorcycles rushed past centimeters behind me and I caught my breath. She'd been walking a fraction of a second slower than I.
Thankfully, she'd (somehow) not been taken down by the mad rush, and had survived long enough to eat most of the aloo tikki we had to share next. Baby puppies rolled on the dirty ground, men missing huge chunks of their bodies sat against walls, unbandaged; a kind but patronizing old man in our group pointed out everything around us – those are called saris. Indian women wear them. This is a shop that sells shoes. Look, these men are making bread.
My eyes burned from the smoke and dust. My throat burned from inhaling incense. My mouth burned from the spices. My feet burned from power-walking through hordes of humans for hours. I asked Surekha how many more stops there were. “One,” she replied, and I gave a great deal of thanks.
Surekha handed off a covered dish to a young girl in the group and told us to take a left, where we would find, at the end of the alley, a green park. When we got there, we could uncover the dish and begin to eat it, and she would come shorty thereafter with the final treat.
We limped our way toward the park, laced with barbed-wire in the dark - “This is like the most dangerous field trip ever,” I told Susanna – and there was a slight disagreement over whether we should start eating the covered dish or wait for Surekha. The kind, patronizing, old man thought we should. The young girl said she thought we were “supposed” to wait. Susanna and I eyed the nearby metro station eagerly.
And then Surekha appeared, and she had a box of heaven. Stuffed with vermicelli baarfi, the box got passed around and around, until it ended up back in my hands. “Does, um, does anyone else want some of this?” I asked, as quietly as possible. When no one responded, I told Susanna to put it in her purse, and she told me no. So, I hid it under my jacket, we thanked Surekha for the experience, and hurried away to the metro.
As soon as I was sitting down, I was glad I'd done it. I'd tried some new things I'd never had before, had seen some new alleys, had gotten through yet another experience that seemed insurmountable while my body had been crowded by chickens and smoke and dirts and dogs and far, far too many humans. (Susanna said she might write about the mad-rush of the experience by using not a single comma.)
As soon as I was sitting, I was grateful for Surekha's ability to be in control; for the memory of sitting in a dark, ancient alley with my new Scottish friend with a plate of not-bananas-and-ice-cream; and for experiencing the madness of truly tasting all life has to offer.
To go on your very own Delhi Street Walk, check out delhimetrowalks.com