This evening, the residents of Chez E-45 decided to go on an excursion to Old Delhi. It was absolutely mind blowing.
We were fortunate to have David, one of our housemates, to lead us. David has lived in India a few times before (and even in Old Delhi itself for a bit), speaks fluent Hindi, and he is a storehouse of knowledge about all the awesome hidden gems in this city.
Old Delhi is what I imagine to be the quintessential Indian experience. We took cycle rickshaws to the entrance of Jama Masjid, the mosque that flanks the Muslim Quarter, weaving through seas of the seas of people milling around outside narrow shops crammed into the ground floors of dilapidated buildings, each selling a very specific kind of ware: brightly colored printed fabrics, wall clocks, live chickens, beautiful wooden Quran holders inlaid with gold, shoes with curled toes, all kinds of exotic fruits and vegetables in worn wicker baskets… each open storefront an entryway to a delightful little world.
The air was humid and thick with the aroma of hot food of every kind, cooked fresh in front of us: kabobs on a grill, namkeen and bhajias frying in deep pans of boiling oil, fresh sweets piled on top of each other, separated by sheets of foil. Devin and I were particularly fascinated by a man crouching on an elevated platform, rolling aata (dough) into roti (flat circular bread), and slapping each one into the side of a clay oven through a hole in the ground. The roti cooked, stuck to the side of the oven, and then fell effortlessly into his hand when it was done.
The street was filled with all kinds of people going about their business in the narrow space – women bustling by in burkhas, some decorated with jewels and fine embroidery, men entering the beautiful outdoor mosques in white kurtas and topees with long beards, young men lying on the passenger seats of their cycle rickshaws, their gangly limbs dangling over the handlebars as they sleep, very old men curled up sleeping on makeshift beds made of old wooden boards on the stoops of closed shops, tiny children following us and squeaking “hello!” while vigorously waving their hands, petite wrinkled aunties in brightly colored saris gesturing for money to buy roti, beggars crouched by the dozen in lines in front of food stalls, their heads bowed and hands in namaste, waiting to be fed. There were vendors arguing about prices with their customers, both sides accusing the other of cheating, a gaggle of kids making a dash from a food cart wallah after stealing some goods, and being chased down the street by middle aged men with sticks and shoes in hand, ready to provide the appropriate punishment for their insolence. And of course, the hoards and hoards of teenage boys hanging out by the chai and food stalls, ogling any woman in sight. Dare to make eye contact, and they will not break their stare.
Cows and water buffalo roam lazily around the market, chewing on what they please. Dogs and goats of all varieties squeeze through the commotion of legs and feet, and occasionally a lamb pops out from a sweet shop and darts into a dark alleyway. Under a dimly lit stairwell, a dozen chickens settle in for the evening, and a cat runs across the street and under a table where fresh paan leaves are being laid out and made into the object of a national pastime.
We ate at a restaurant called Karim’s, which is widely known to be one of the best eateries in the area (and perhaps in the city). It is the first Muslim restaurant I’ve been to since I’ve lived here, and it really had an effect on me. I looked at the menu and saw many of the dishes I had grown up eating, and realized that now that I’m vegetarian, I can’t eat most of them anymore. Though I don’t regret being a vegetarian at all, it was kind of sad to be so close to the things that reminded me of my childhood without being able to take part. Luckily everyone else I was with wasn’t vegetarian, and I was able to enjoy the amazing scents and the accompanying memory.
It’s also been interesting for me to see Muslims in their element. A lot of the traditions and rituals that were part of my childhood had no resonance for me because not only were they removed from their place of origin and had very little practical significance in the states, but I wasn’t raised Muslim, so most of what I knew about the culture was just by observing and assuming. I can’t quite verbalize what it was that made sense to me about being immersed in a Muslim neighborhood, but I was finally able to piece many little things together in my mind, connect little threads that will eventually weave together a larger understanding of the culture.
I can clearly imagine my grandparents walking through those streets, buying things in those markets, making their life in a community very similar to this one. And I can understand how foreign America must have seemed to them after that.
Until they were in their late eighties, my grandparents loved walking down the steep hill where we lived and taking the bus to downtown Los Angeles. My grandmother would peruse the fabric shops, and buy a yard or two of colorful lace, some beads, or a bit of patterned fabric to make a new gaghra-dupatta or rida to wear to the markaz. My grandfather would get his watch fixed or buy hankies or various other things, and they would come home with bagfuls of cutli-potlis (a bit of this and that), walking back up the hill and often politely refusing rides from our neighbors… I never really thought much of this as a child, but now I can see why they would go to so much trouble to do things that could easily be accomplished by a quick car ride to our local Costco or JoAnn Fabrics: the bustle and chaos of downtown Los Angeles was the closest they could get to home.