I’ve always liked Old Delhi. Getting out of the metro at Chawri Bazaar and quite literally entering another world: hardware stores, cycle rickshaws, glimpses of faded grandeur and above all PEOPLE. People, people and yet more people.
As a tourist on a fleeting visit to Delhi back in 2007 I covered the staples – the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk. And while living in Noida last year I filled in some of the gaps – Pooja introduced me to a rather wonderful street stall selling every variety of paratha, I chanced upon a sweet shop boasting the sweetest gulab jamin in the world, and I made numerous trips to Karim’s when I needed a bit of relief from the vegetarian fare in my PG.
Udita – in characteristic style – darkly issued several faintly mysterious warnings about Old Delhi not being a ‘safe place’ for anyone, ‘let alone a white girl’ but I always took them rather lightly. She’s the Indian mother I never had, and generally I can take such mutterings with at least a small pinch of salt. Yes, I’d remember to grab a dupatta before heading to north Delhi, but I’d never felt uncomfortable, let alone unsafe.
I’m not sure what was different about last week. I’m inclined to think that it was the company I was keeping. Before, I’ve been as part of a group of foreigners or with Indian girls. This time I was going to Karim’s for dinner with one male – Indian – friend. Perhaps too, the timing? The day after Eid the place was thronging with people and the usual ten minute cycle rickshaw from the metro station took over thirty minutes. Sat in the old-fashioned style rickshaw with no roof I suppose we were more conspicuous than usual? Sitting targets?
It’s not unusual for people to stare at me in the street, and to be honest I’m pretty much immune to it. This time, though, the staring had a different quality. People nudged their friends and pointed. Muttering went on behind hands and smiles weren’t being returned. Perhaps fortunately my rudimentary Hindi couldn’t keep up with what was being said (note: if you want to insult me in Hindi you’ll need to speak slowly and enunciate) but I later received a (perhaps watered down) translation. And it didn’t make for pleasant listening.
I am perhaps a tad naïve. Even when I felt things repeatedly hitting my back I assumed that stones were being thrown up by the road. Only when something landed in my lap did I realize that it was orange peel – a group of boys about my age had been throwing rubbish at us – or rather, me.
Fast forward half an hour and we’re contentedly polishing off Mughlai chicken and seekh kababs in Karim’s. The place is bustling with a mixture of locals and tourists, and I’m waiting for an extra portion of what I regard as the best thing about the place – sheer maal: amazing, stodgy and faintly sweet almost waffle-like bread. The sort of contentment that can only come from eating too much food sets in, and I’m ready to battle my way back to the metro station. Throw what you like in my direction folks – I’ve eaten at Karim’s.