ChandiChowk - The Venice of New Delhi: Dec. 9th
Delhi has Italian restaurants! We would think of them as C grade back home, but for $25 per person we had a passable Italian meal, with a cabaret band at the Mahal Mahin Singh hotel. The chocolate "mousse", like all "mousse’s" in India, was actually chocolate pudding from Jello, but the espresso was real. "When the moon hit’s your eye like a big pizza pie, it’s amore, when the love starts to shine, when there’s been too much wine, it’s amore". The place was filled with about 100 Italians; we feel refreshed, and ready to take on India again.
My favorite neighborhood in Delhi is Chandi Chowk, a cross between Venice, a termite mound, and a Bombay slum. You can enter it in two ways; via it’s front door from the street leading to the Red Fort, or from it’s back door, behind the old mosque Jamma Masjid. I prefer the back door, where tourists are less likely to travel. Chandi Chowk is a unique neighborhood of three to five store buildings spaced a meter or so apart from each other. The streets don’t run in any particular direction, and like Venice, one minute you’re lost, and the next minute you’re lost even more. Because the buildings are so high, and the alleys so narrow, little sunlight floats down to the street. Any escaped sunlight is often trapped by laundry on the third or fourth floor Without the sun as a clue, I prefer to take a compass when I go into Chandi Chowk; without it I never know if I will come upon a familiar street again. Delhi-ites rarely go into Chandi Chowk. It’s considered dangerous, and full of tuberculosis. I love it however.
In the days when the Red Fort was a going enterprise, I’m sure the merchants of Delhi lived in Chandi Chowk. Every now and then you come across a "haveli", a courtyard based "house-palace" with wonderfully carved doors, and the occasional marble elephant or two. The courtyard is now used for laundry or for playing cricket by a few of the neighborhood boys. Sometimes a row of shelves project from the haveli’s foundation out to the street at about waist height. People leave their vegetable refuse there for the cows to enjoy as they walk. These havelis have become decrepit now; I finally realized that the word "hovel" comes from haveli, and understand how in the days of the imperialist British raj that such a bastardization of the word might occur. The alleys at ground level are all shops. They sell the usual stuff, fried food, adulterated medicines, cheap trinkets, and the unusual stuff, masks used for the Ramayana, and silk "jheera", the woven bandings for saris. There is one entire row devoted to wedding paraphernalia; wedding turbans in cheap gold and silk. "Sahib, 100 rupees ($3) sahib, very nice sahib", veils, garlands made from rupee notes, gold chains and necklaces (the equivalent of a gold ring). You can see jewelers making the intricate filigree that is unique to India; rows of young children sit on the floor, gold in one hand, a blowpipe in their mouths to direct the furnace fire, and gold solder in the other hand. Only children are employed because the detailed work, and unavailability and expense of magnifying glasses, means they will lose their eyesight by age 15. Since everything is done on or near the street, you are advised to be careful. Scooters, which are hated by everyone except other scooter drivers, make life hazardous. Due to the small land mines placed by cows, and people, there is lots of slipping and sliding when rubber doesn’t hit the street. Look out, or be slimed. The dangers, plus the incredible density of people are an added benefit for me — few tourists come here. In these streets I know that for the first time in India, I can have privacy through anonymity.
The government’s residential section of old Delhi is beautiful, serene, and unsurprisingly, stylistically English. The wide streets intersect at circular hills of grass. The circles are about 100 feet in diameter and rise about 10 feet at their top - on some circles workers sleep, nestled in the cooling grass. On a circle close to Indira Gandhi’s residence ("take the tour sahib, see the blood stains where she was shot sahib") we saw a peaceful golden brown cow, of the type that I now call "bessies". Her owner had gotten an old lawn mower, and most likely sold off its useless gasoline engine. Bessie was the new lawn mower engine - over her hump was a yoke which drove the wheels which turned the clipping blade. It was a remarkable bargain; Bessie got to eat the grass she herself had cut.