Delhi is a melting pot. The seat of power for a parade of empires, it is cosmopolitan, captivating, rich in red sandstone buildings and home to 17 million people, its enthralling madness most obvious when you take to the road. You’ll see children piled high on motorbikes while women perch sidesaddle, hard hats, pith helmets or absolutely nothing at all their only protection. Lanes mean little and auto- rickshaws reign supreme, yet despite the mayhem, drivers seem to know exactly where they’re going and how to avoid fellow commuters. It is the functioning, hypnotic definition of organised chaos. Add to this a cacophony of horns, not blared in anger but to remind others of one’s presence. My driver, noticing that I wore the worried expressions of the uninitiated, simply laughed, “you can drive without brakes in India but you can’t drive without a horn.”
Arriving in Old Delhi is like entering a movie set; a thunderous, fast-moving scene watched over by monkeys pondering discarded newspapers from power lines. On these streets people cook, converse and shave with the aid of mirrors borrowed from abandoned scooters.
My wanderings were focused on Chawri Bazar, a hardware market since 1840 that, with around 30,000 stores, remains the largest in Asia. If you can imagine it, you’ll find it here. I have come to eat but, as this is my first full day in India, I’m nervous, taking travel warnings far too seriously and anxious to see how my stomach will fare. So when my guide offers me something from a street vendor I hesitate, just for a moment, before journalistic curiosity forces me to accept. It’s Daulat ki Chaat - buffalo milk and sugar that tastes like airy meringue and is only available for two months of the year. And with that, bliss written across my face, the culinary floodgates open. I enter a dimly-lit store hidden down a side street, pastries piled high by its entrance (a place you’d hesitate to consider without a clued-up local leading the way), for curried chickpeas eaten with puffs of lentil paste deep fried in ghee. I pass paan sellers and the remains of forgotten havelis and ascend a flight of stairs to the flower market, a series of stone rooms over-flowing with petals; marigolds, roses and jasmine scenting the air. Another stairway leads to a mass of interconnected rooftops. From here I watch as sacks of spices are loaded onto bicycles, sneezing the entire time due to the crushed chillies lining the ground. Sensed excited and trepidation dissipating, I expect I’m going to remain rather happy here.
Words by Liz Schaffer
Photos by Angela Terrell