Delhi: A Traveller’s Account

Posted on February 22, 2012

By Manki Patel:

No matter how grand my talk about believing in people is, I have, in truth, always been a cynic, distrusting people for their intent. Most often it is not monetary loss that drives cynicism but the frustration of being cheated. And until this recent trip, for some strange personal satisfaction I would always challenge myself to buy an orange for the price of an orange in a new place without being swindled.

This decades-old cynicism faded when I got a cycle rickshaw in the middle of Chandni Chowk’s crowded Meena Bazaar. The streets of Chandni Chowk are very crowded, to say the least, with all possible forms of vehicles, shoppers, vendors, domestic and street animals causing the traffic congestion. The best method of transportation is on foot, but if you don’t know where you are headed, it is best to take a cycle rickshaw and avoid getting lost in the lanes. Our driver bhaiya was a gentleman, and helped me get a rickshaw and bargain the tariff as he felt I looked too sissy for the smart rickshaw pullers. He promised to wait exactly where he dropped me which was on the main street opposite Red Fort. And since I did not want to share Hansel and Gretel’s fate and meet the bad witch on my way back, I tried to stay alert and remember landmarks. The thing that stood out was the sea of people selling bundles of old clothes right on the street where I got the rickshaw. The common denominator between the bazaars of Chandni Chowk is the mass of people but the produce sold every few shops changes. There was a clothes market, spice market, kitchen utensil market, fast food market which even boasted of a Mac Donald’s. It was amazing and saddening to see more than century old structures still standing squished between the new. They were clearly rundown, hunched back from the course of time and ill maintained because of the lack of funds by the occupants and missing restoration efforts by the government.


The remnants of one such haveli still stands on Gali Qasim Jaan, Ballimaran. This haveli was once home to the famous Indo-Persian poet Mirza Ghalib. It isn’t a feat to find the haveli if you ask your rickshaw puller to drop you at the start of Ballimaran, past Ghanta Ghar and then walk down the inner bylanes to Gali Qasim Jaan. After a few turns, in a small lane you will spot the old haveli almost at the start of a juncture where on the side a sign marks the wide entrance door. There are two wrinkled old men that are employed as guards. The amount of wrinkles on their face directly reflects all that remains to be protected. As I walked through the door, I bent my head as a greeting as an attempt to converse with the guards, but I was met with stoic expressions — clearly they were unmoved by the pointless courtesy and my vain, touristy visit. There is no entrance ticket as there is little to see except for an open verandah, some old brick walls with a few pictures and, dated scripts and facts. But a lot remains to be felt for what has been lost because of our indifference towards preserving history. As I walked out of that place there was a bleating goat in the middle of the juncture, standing with a loose rope around the neck. For some inexplicable reason the sight aroused a vision of the past, the haveli in full glory and a vision of the future, the haveli and the goat sharing a hauntingly similar fate.

Walking back to the car, I felt curious eyes staring through the cubbyhole stores; some had even helped me find my way to the haveli. Now since I wasn’t preoccupied with finding the route, I realized I had become a moving zoo for the inhabitants. It wasn’t that I looked any different, I belonged to the same race, I spoke the same language, and my attire was like any other person walking that street. I stood out because I saw myself exclusive to the surroundings mentally and it was evident in my behavior. Anywhere in the world humans by nature are like most animals in the wild. Unless they feel threatened or have to fulfil a need, they are not out to cause harm. This can’t be proved any truer than in a place with abundant people living together without boundaries as is the case in old Delhi.

Surprisingly, driver bhaiya also didn’t feel like he belonged in the crowd, as the moment I got in the car he said “Yahan se chalo, yahan bahut ghadar hai”. Seeing ourselves apart from the rest isn’t a deliberate folly, but it definitely alienates us from the rest causing cynicism. There is a lot more to Old Delhi than I have bothered to write about. As a disclaimer for the reader it is by no means a complete account of all there is too see, rather it is an account of all that I choose to mention.

In the next few days, I took a private tour of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and also ate from Smt. Patil’s kitchen, leaving with a story to brag to my friend about for some years to come. I had to pass through triple security checks and a thorough physical examination by the not-so-shy security personnel who only missed peering down my throat and up my nostrils. Had they also bothered to do that, they would have detected the onset of a cough with a bottled up nose. I was ushered towards Mr Gupta, my guide for the evening as soon as they tied the last few stitches in my security clearance by taking my mug shot to fully legitimize my visit. There was a special governors’ meeting that day so part of the building was closed for security reasons. The tour started with a walk through the Marble Hall with old Viceroy and Governor-General paintings followed by the museum with ancient artefacts, gifts and tokens received by all the presidents of India, the kitchen museum was next and then the children’s science museum which was specially opened by Dr Abdul Kalam. While in the children’s museum Mr Gupta indulged my excitement by allowing me to weigh myself in a weight scale simulator for the planets in our solar system. And as a foreword to when inter planetary travel becomes possible, it’s best to avoid travelling to Jupiter, it being by far the worst for body weight. My tour moved on to the current living family quarters of the respected president and then through some famous halls.

Rashtraprati Bhavan took nineteen years to build, and I can’t exactly say Lutyens managed to impress me with his eclectic mix of Indian and British architecture. The design of the building clearly shows influences from the ancient Hindu/Buddhist, Mughal, Roman and Victorian style of architecture. Mr. Gupta took me to the famous halls the building houses which are the Banquet Hall, Ashoka Hall and the Durbar Hall. The walls of the banquet hall are adorned with huge portraits of all the previous presidents of India and it has a very long dining table which can seat over a 100 guests. Ashoka hall is covered in sparkles with its chandeliers and bright colored flooring giving it a very royal and grand appearance. The ceiling of this room is just as colourful, made up of Persian paintings depicting Nader Shah on a hunting expedition and various scenes from the court’s life. Even though Ashoka Hall is currently used for most official ceremonies, personally, the Durbar Hall is my most favourite hall in the building.  It used to be the main hall during the British rule for most ceremonies, but has now been orphaned. It has a very high double dome ceiling and in it you might even spot some vagrant pigeons that beat security. Standing in this room you feel the need to whisper because the slightest noise echoes. This was an architectural feature built into the design of the hall to account for the lack of microphones and loud speakers in that era. I was most awed by the only artefact in the room which my 9th grade NCERT history text book mentioned, the standing statue of Gautama Buddha in drapery from Mathura. It feels like a waste to leave such a room unused and instead use the overly-adorned Ashoka Hall. I could have spent an hour in the empty hall just staring wide-eyed at the statue, the long columns with bells which are a design take-off from Hindu and Buddhist temples, and a single chair for the President. But Mr. Gupta, noticing my sluggish steps, quickly nudged me forward. The Mughal gardens are breath-taking and way better kept. I managed to get a brief photo session on request, since shooting inside the building is prohibited. The maintenance authorities were very kind to arrange the staff photographer to click a few pictures. After which I was escorted to the Respected Mr. Comptroller’s office, who very graciously offered me tea and snacks. To his delight, as I had promised I polished off everything that was served which included jalebis, hot gulab jamuns and spinach puffs.

With my tummy full, I walked out of Rashtrapati Bhavan, beaming, heading straight for the ice cream vendors around India Gate, to eat a ‘choco bar’ and re-live a childhood fetish. Delhi for me is familiar and unfamiliar in a lot of ways, exactly how it is for the current residing citizen’s of the city. It is a known fact that over the last thousand years Delhi has been built and destroyed 11 times. And one can never know the old too much and the new too less. With these thoughts I left Delhi, content and discontent in mind and stomach for the next leg of my journey.

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