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Learning a City Again

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When I was last in Delhi (a little over 2 years ago) I was walking around in the Ballimaran area of Delhi-6. It is chaotic, smelly, extremely overcrowded, and full of delicious food. I was with my cousin and we had overlapping but tangential agendas. Both of us were driven by wanting to get some authentic Delhi-6 street food. I also wanted to explore some old booksellers in Ballimaran and he had to get his glasses made – which, in that area, is done pretty cheaply and with good enough quality. After having made our way through the many parathas and dahi balle and the countless kulfis and jalebis, we finally went back to pick up his glasses. The sun was setting and we were there at an opportune time - it was Ramadan and people were about to break their fast. Ballimaran is close to Jama Masjid and so the iftar preparations there were in full-throttle mode. After a while of retracing our steps to the glasses store (it is easy to get lost there even as a seasoned veteran of those lanes) and narrowly avoiding rickshaws rocketing by, the sun was finally down, the streets were lit up, and people everywhere were offering anyone a seat to join them in breaking their fast together. I’m pretty sure that if I would have just walked up to street vendors and asked for food they would have given it for free.

Once we got to the store, we were told by the owner that he had ‘upgraded’ the lens in the glasses and put a ‘better’ one on than the one he had promised, however it was going to cost us a little more. (This seems to happen a lot around here.) We refused, and he nudged a little further all the while bringing the ’extra’ cost down slowly until my cousin finally agreed to an amount, both parties only half-satisfied with the negotiations. The owner was talking to us this whole while but what I hadn’t noticed was that when we had walked in he had left his meal midway (the Ramadan fast that he was also breaking) while the rest of his crew continued to eat. And then something interesting happened. After the passionate haggling the owner invited us to join them for food! We were stuffed but it also seemed rude to say no to such a generous offer, and he was more than enthusiastic about the offer, so it never felt like it was being done out formality. Besides, when was the last time a random shopkeeper invited you for a meal out of formality? And that too after having negotiated a price he didn’t seem satisfied with? We explained that while he was fixing the glasses we had been eating to our heart’s and stomach’s content. Eventually, he only let us off after we’d each had a dhokla!

This has become one of my favorite stories about Delhi-6 and Delhi in general, and now when I travel in the States, something I often think about en route is what it takes to really know a city. To truly understand a place, its people, and culture whether you’ve grown up there or just drove in from a thousand miles away. And over time I’ve slowly kind of wandered my way into some kind of an answer for it - to know a city one ought to know its markets.

I don’t believe you can truly know a place without first having immersed yourself in what I call its grunge. There’s a reason Delhi-6 and its surroundings are attractive - they’re the grunge of the city. Not necessarily the ‘dirty’ but more so the rustic – the vintage that managed to exist through time. The gritty bylanes where the energy of today meets the resilience of history, where traditions collide and coalesce into something beautiful that lies precariously between a sense of nostalgia and wonder. Where even someone who’s grown up in Delhi can walk in and feel momentarily transformed by the air. I have come to believe that it is only after having first witnessed the overwhelming sights, sounds, and smells of a local market of any place do you get to know what it’s all about. The beat of the street, the way the people interact, the rhythm of activity that may appear chaotic initially but often has a definite process all end up making the city. And often they’re what the city is really about. It’s no wonder that the bazaars of Istanbul are famous tourist attractions. As Delhi-6 does for Delhi, the bazaars offer a different personality of the city.

To every city (I use the term ‘city’ very loosely here but it can be any place) there are at least two sides, if not more. There is the side facing the exterior, the world per se - the tourist pull to the place. Then there is the side that is the city on a daily basis - the daily grind, the hustle, all the things that make up the mundane existence of life there - the city equivalent of the time-space gap between great events in history where seemingly nothing happens. But just as these time gaps in great events are really the catalysts to the great events, these seemingly mundane qualities of a city that contribute to its daily bustle are the hidden gems of visiting any new place for the first time.

When I left Ballimaran late that evening after gorging on some biryani for dinner, I realized how little I had really known Delhi despite having lived there for most of my life. What I did find in those bustling streets in the company of good food and good people was that it was never too late to get to know a place again. That remains to this day one of my favorite memories from that summer in India.

Image sources:

Chandni Chowk streets

Chandni Chowk food

Nai Sarak books,f_auto/nai-sarak-images-photos-51cd2a7046054ad777000001.jpg

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