By Kaveri Jain with Ananya Jain
Every few months, I get this deep urge in the pit of my stomach to spend time walking in the alleys and lanes of my beloved old Delhi. The chaos, the colour, the life in these maze-like dusty broken lanes gives me a strange sense of peace and connection with fellow humans and our shared history. It’s a feeling of going back to my roots, learning and unlearning at the same time.
This time it was even more special as I had my daughter and mother with me. The three generations of women walking, chatting, eating, observing and laughing together made this afternoon outing feel like a family holiday.
Beginning from Meena Bazaar in Chandni Chowk – one of India’s oldest and busiest marketplaces built by emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century – we spent the whole afternoon hopping from lane to lane on foot and sometimes even a rickshaw (they are motorised now) covering the large expanse from Dariba Kalan, Chippiwada, Nai Sarak, Kinari Bazaar and Ballimaran all the way to Fatehpuri.
Every nook and cranny of each winding lane had a story to tell. For me the magnitude of this old city lies not just in its large historical monuments but more so in its small broken havelis.
Then there’s the nonstop chatter and noise. People everywhere, telling their stories, selling things, eating, even fighting sometimes.
The old city is disappearing and you can see glimpses of modernisation, but to my eyes the beautiful walled city of Shahjahanabad (its original name) is like an ivory elephant – it’s not easy to change its basic character! Rather, the splendour and simplicity of this place changes you.
Lead image: “Dilli ke na the kooche auraaq-e-musavvar the, jo shakl nazar aayi tasvir nazar aayi (These were not the streets of Delhi, they were sketches of an artist, every sight I saw looked like a painting)” – Mir Taqi Mir
Chhola Kulcha is a spicy-tangy chickpea curry, garnished with lemon, onions and green chillies, served along with a particular type of Indian bread made warm on an open pan.
Chhole Chawal in a kulhad at Gol di Hatti: If you couldn’t already tell, north Indians love our chickpeas! This chickpea curry, while also being quite spicy, has a very different flavour and is served with green chutney and rice in a terracotta dish. The tradition of terracotta cups and bowls dates back years in India, and remains one of the most eco-friendly options in this world of plastic-waste.
“Buri nazar wale, tera moonh kaala.” The traditional saying goes, “The one with the evil eye will be shamed.” A typical arrangement of green chillies and lemons, hung outside a shop to ward off evil.
A paan-wala prepares his paan, a post-meal dessert or palate cleanser, made with betel leaves. There is no particular time to eat paan in old Delhi, though – it can be enjoyed any time of day or night!
A chai-wala represents the spirit of ‘dilwale purani dilli wale (open-hearted Delhi folks)’, always open to talking, laughing and interacting. Even as he is busy preparing tea and breakfast for the large morning crowds, he has time to strike a pose and share his insights: “We only use Amul butter and white bread. No matter where you’re from, this combination with a cup of tea is like magic in the morning.”
An unending expanse of freshly fried snacks near the old Delhi cloth market. ‘Dilli 6’ (named so due to its pincode) is a shopping paradise. You can find everything here from auto parts and weddingwear to spices and utensils.
Moong Dal ka Chila at Ganesh Bazaar is a lentil-based crepe fried in ghee and stuffed with a spicy mix of cottage cheese and peas. This underrated street food is full of nutrition for those on the go.
Daulat ki Chaat is a sweet winter delicacy made of cream and sugar. This blend of fluffy and crunchy textures is unique to old Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow, and is traditionally made by hand churning the cream with, and serving it topped with shakkar and khoya.
Delhi Yarn Merchants Charitable Trust provides clean drinking water to passers by, reflecting the hospitable culture that still runs through the old city.
Moth ki Chaat: Digressing from the typical tradition of bhel and sweet potato, this chaat is made with sprouts, spiced up with spices, a few basic vegetables, chillies and a hint of lemon juice.
A colourful array of vegetables being sold on the roadside – with bright red chillies, round yellow lemons, multiple golden-brown cloves of ginger and sweet winter peas – seem to be a microcosm reflecting the larger diverse and bustling Chandni Chowk in its entirety!
Photos by Ananya Jain. First published in eShe’s February 2020 issue