x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

During Diwali, delight in Delhi

The beauty of India's historic capital lies not just in buildings but in the spirit of community in its varied districts.

New Delhi's historic Lal Qila, or the Red Fort, is the Indian capital's best-recognised monument. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century, its high ramparts span a length of more than two kilometres. Getty Images
New Delhi's historic Lal Qila, or the Red Fort, is the Indian capital's best-recognised monument. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century, its high ramparts span a length of more than two kilometres. Getty Images

I am in the markets of Delhi's Old City, hands on hips, tapping my foot tensely and wondering why it takes a village to make anything happen in India.

The map that describes my destination seems clear enough to me, if only I knew where the described landmarks are, but to the six, now seven, and here comes an eighth person, to be roped in to figure it out it seems incredibly unclear. Thus far eight people - now nine, his brother has arrived - are gathered around me, trying to decipher where I am going, while a further half dozen are peering over their shoulders, onlookers yet involved. When an 11th man arrives, he confidently takes my hand and leads me through a throng of people, only to return me to the road I was already on and point, with confident finality, to the Jama Masjid in the distance.

"That's where I came from," I say tightly, and return to the throng.

It didn't start like this. The day before, I stayed with a family in the new part of Rajendar Nagar, in the leafy west of the city. Late into the night I sat with a gregarious man with an MBA, who had decorated his home with statues of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, discussing the similarity between the "om" incantation Hindus believe is the life-sound of the universe and the "amen/amin" affirmation Christians and Muslims use in their prayers. The smell of incense was in the air: I leaned back in my chair and looked up from this mini-garden in the middle of New Delhi and pondered in how many cities such an eclectic conversation on business and religion could be the norm.

Now I know. I am searching for directions to a business and I am repeatedly invoking God.

Getting to this point is the easy part. I spend the morning at Lal Qila, the Red Fort, a fortress built by the 17th-century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who also built the Jama Masjid, two of the city's most recognisable monuments. (Though Shah Jahan is better remembered for giving the world the Taj Mahal, south of the city in Agra.)

The Red Fort doesn't disappoint. I first glimpse it through the crowds of Chandni Chowk, the long and busy market that runs perpendicular to it, squatting majestically in the distance, the sandstone really quite red. Up-close it is organised and spacious; the queues move swiftly, the security is all smiles and pat-downs. Entering via Chatta Chowk, a short, covered bazaar of shops selling clothes and souvenirs, I spend a pleasant half-hour with an old seller, discussing the deities of the Hindu pantheon. It is Diwali - expected this year on October 26 - and he is languorous, keen to talk.

The Red Fort is big - the walls cover around 2.4km - and inside it's easy to imagine life at court. At the northern edge are the royal baths and it is not hard to see a satisfied Shah Jahan spending the afternoon bathing in the hammams after listening to the grievances of his subjects at the diwan-i-am, the hall of public audiences, where disputes were aired. Sitting on the steps of the hall, in the shadow of one of its tall pillars, the gardens stretch out, cooling even at midday.

From the Red Fort, I take a cycle rickshaw and am towed through Chandni Chowk to the Jama Masjid, the largest and most striking mosque in India. Occasionally, Arun, my gregarious if worryingly thin rickshaw wallah, asks me to help him get the rickshaw over a pavement or out of a pothole. He can barely drive the rickshaw without anyone in it and after half an hour of pushing through human and motorised traffic - before we've even reached the turning towards the mosque - guilt overwhelms me and I pay him and walk the rest of the way. I see him struggle back to the beginning, his thin frame standing up to generate enough force to turn the wheels of the cycle.

In the courtyard of the mosque there are pigeons everywhere; they flock and disperse, small clouds of life swooping around the visitors. At one end I encounter a group of Arabs, animatedly comparing the virtues of the Jama Masjid and Damascus' Ummayad mosque. But the Jama Masjid stands apart for the life of its courtyard: on the carpets inside, serious young men pray, but the courtyard is filled with the sounds of children and laughing fathers.

Over the years, most superlatives have been applied to the Jama Masjid and it certainly warrants them. The red walls and the red sandstone of the mosque give it an otherworldly feel. The grandeur of its facade, its arches and walls adorned with Quranic inscriptions, topped with marble domes, is impressive. Set against the crowds and noise, the mosque is impossibly poised.

It is after my descent from the Jama Masjid that my map problems begin and the village encircles. It is hot and getting hotter. Every so often, in honour of the festival of lights, a celebratory firecracker explodes without warning, sending a ricochet of noise all around. Children run towards the noise, laughing, before another explodes and they rush off in that direction. Smoke fills the narrow lanes at times from the fireworks and the noise in enclosed spaces can momentarily deafen.

Having failed to decipher the map, I go into a tiny internet cafe, intent on printing off the convoluted directions from the website. This is where I encounter the other side of Delhi, the other side of India, the side that infuriates to the point of apoplexy. Twice in a row, I have this precise conversation with the smiling man: "Can I print out this page?" "Yes, sir." "It's not working." "Yes, sir, the printer isn't working." "So I can't print?" "Yes, sir, you can." "But the printer isn't working?" "Yes, sir." "So how can I print if the printer isn't working?" "Yes, sir, you can print."

"Let me start again."

Later an Indian journalist tells me the Hindi expression for this attitude: chalta hai, literally meaning "It goes", or "It will do", a concept that what is barely there is good enough. In a country of more than a billion people, sometimes chalta hai is the best that can be done.

If you start with that premise, you see it expressed everywhere, especially in Old Delhi. But it is far from pervasive. From Chandi Chowk, I slip down a narrow alleyway and descend into the metallic calm of the new metro. Forensically clean, the Delhi metro is only eight years old but already it is impossible for commuters to imagine life without it. (On one day in August, more than two million people used the metro.)

In this packed city, the small blue plastic tokens grant you magically swift passage anywhere. It is especially mind-bending to descend from the chaos of Chandi Chowk and re-emerge into the wide roads of New Delhi.

After Chandi Chowk, I need space to breathe and the best place to do that in Delhi is amid the open spaces of Lodhi Gardens, the public gardens in the south of the city that stretch across 36 hectares. Space, always at a premium in this city, is free here - the pleasures of the peace, of the shade, of the calmness of the gardens' overhanging trees and small alcoves come at no cost. I walk through the alleyways of trees with, at brief points, only the sound of birds as background, glimpsing families and lovers nearby.

One of the gardens' most interesting sights is the tomb of Muhammad Shah, the last of the Sayyid dynasty to rule Delhi in the 15th century before the rise of the Mughal emperors. His tomb, with its wide dome and narrow arches, begins the style that would later be perfected by the Mughals, first in the tomb of the emperor Humayun that occupies a lavish position east of here, at the end of Lodhi road, and much later in the Taj Mahal.

For a while I sit on the steps of the tomb in the midst of the gardens, savouring the quiet and the darkening sky, until the mosquitoes begin to bite too much and push me out of the park.

A day later and there is a cow following me. She sways her head languidly, rolling it in opposite time to her tail, and studiously ignores me. But she is following me and we weave through the market together, a scene from an English Romantic poem transposed to an Indian metropolis, ignored by everyone except the food-sellers when she gets too close, who brush the air and cause her to walk on. At the corner of Qutub Road, she finally leaves, wading into the traffic, taller and bulkier than some of the cars that pass, causing three-wheeled auto rickshaws to swerve and car horns to explode into cacophony. She ambles on, calm.

This is Paharganj, a twisting mass of restaurants, markets and hotels west of Old Delhi, a favoured haunt of backpackers and the first place visitors who arrive by rail encounter. Paharganj has existed for almost 400 years and today marks the invisible line between Old and New Delhi, a place, just before the enormous circle of Connaught Place, where the noise and crowds of Old Delhi recede and the new city spreads out.

From Connaught Place, the circular commercial centre from where all the roads of Delhi fan out, all the way south along Janpath and towards India Gate, the memorial to slain soldiers that is now a national monument, is the new city, atmospherically an entirely different place to the Old City. Here, the roads are wider, the cars newer and, although the traffic is still choking, it putters past wide spaces and new buildings. This is the Delhi that India was keenest to display during the autumn's Commonwealth Games - a dynamic city worthy of being the capital of the world's second-most populous nation.

Yet the beauty of Delhi is not just in its grandeur; there is enough of that from the distant past. Rather Delhi's beauty comes from a multitude of places, for the city feels more like a collection of villages, reflected in the suffixes "colony" or nagar (city) attached to many areas. Each area has a distinct feel, makes a different impression.

Take Khan Market, the heart of the city's shopping district and one of the most expensive retail spaces in the world. Yet Khan market in no way resembles Tokyo's Ginza district or New York's Fifth Avenue. It isn't even a road, it is a rectangular collection of small shops. Here, a Swarovski crystal shop sits a few stores away from an individual trader selling music. It has a low-fi feel, a place where people can stroll, wait and watch. There are doormen guarding the doors to the nicer restaurants, but they are languid, rising to their feet to open the doors only when the customer reaches the handle.

For visitors, especially those doing brief tours of the city before heading down to Agra to the Taj Mahal or west to Rajasthan with its lakes and deserts, this isn't immediately obvious. You have to live in Delhi, in one of the small colonies, to understand this other side. These are places of immense community, where each part of the city has its own shops and its own rhythm, so that the guards at the check-points into each area know the families of the area and the grocer remembers his customers from when they were teenagers. Even the foreigners live like this, the rhythm of centuries-old Indian village life transposed to the modern metropolis.

The exception is the nightlife, which clusters in different parts of the city, so that each area is spared a nightly influx and may only see visitors one night of the week. For Delhi's chic young things, there can be no chalta hai attitude to their partying and the most fashionable restaurants change weekly, driven by the fickle passions of the moneyed.

On my last night in Delhi, a friend takes me to one of these places, a beautifully secluded restaurant just south of Lodhi Gardens called (appropriately) Lodi, the Garden. The menu is European - pasta and couscous and fish - with appropriately European prices: few of the main courses are less than 600 Indian rupees (Dh60), high prices in a city where it is possible to eat well cheaply.

But the customers and decor are resolutely Indian. Sitting outside in the cool night air, the cleverly placed trees and dim lamps give the feel of a private home. There is real romance to the place, all private alcoves and flickering candles. The Indian couples, always elegant and attractive, look like they have poured off the pages of a society magazine.

On the way back, the clear night air is exhilarating and I lean out of the auto-rickshaw as it powers along, feeling the breeze of the empty streets. It is very late and by the time I reach the lanes around my hotel near Paharganj, the lights of the shops I was navigating by have gone out. Through darkened streets that look utterly different by night, the auto-rickshaw driver and I putter, a small piece of paper our guide as we approach a multitude of guards and pedestrians, drivers and the driven. Once again I am at the mercy of a map and a crowd. In this city of villages, it takes a village to finally get me home.

falyafai@thenational.ae

 

If You Go

The flight Return flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) to New Delhi from Dubai cost from Dh1,300, including taxes

The stay A double room at Lutyens Bungalow (www.lutyensbungalow.co.in; 00 91 11 2461 1341), a small South Delhi guest house with 16 rooms, costs from 7,000 rupees (Dh525) per night, including taxes. Double rooms at the five-star ITC Maurya (www.itcwelcomgroup.in; 00 91 11 2611 2233), located in the Diplomatic Enclave, cost from 13,892 rupees (Dh1,050) per night, including taxes