Over the years, I’ve had my fill of atmosphere-laden bazaars and their surrounding neighbourhoods.
I am quite fond of some of these swarming repositories of humanity — the horseshoe-shaped market that embraces the Mylapore temple in Chennai, the themed-markets of Jaipur’s old city and the many-limbed Chalai market in Trivandrum. But even these favourites tend to grate after a while: the obstacles that threaten to trip you most unexpectedly; the skirmishes with hustlers and tricksters and potential pickpockets; the pong of God-knows-what which overpowers the more pleasant aroma of flowers, spices or incense; and the din caused by ten thousand voices and a million vehicles.
So it was with some reluctance that I set off, a few weeks ago, with my wife and a favourite uncle to explore the area around Delhi’s Jama Masjid. With just about half-a-day to spare, there wasn’t much bazaar-tripping we could do, but Chandini Chowk and lunch at Karim’s were very firmly on the whistle-stop itinerary.
The Metro ride to Chandini Chowk was a ‘suck your stomach in or you’ll hit someone’ experience, but endurable as we didn’t have too far to go. Chandini Chowk itself was — perhaps predictably — a scrum, with the usual hustlers thick on the ground. Surprisingly though, it was a scrum that could be negotiated without too much of a strain. Perhaps what made it bearable was the mellow Delhi winter: the nip in the air balanced by the warmth of the early afternoon sun beaming down from a cobalt sky.
Wandering down Chandini Chowk, dodging vehicles, bits of garbage and the odd pedestrian intent on running us down, we wended our way to the Red Fort. After paying our respects to the fort from across what Google Maps says is Netaji Subash Road, we hired a cycle rickshaw for the ride to Karim’s.
After bouncing around three sides of the Jama Masjid, we were suddenly at the mouth of the little lane that led to the Karim experience. Inviting us in was a welcoming committee of lurid lights and the aroma of grilled meat, spices and warm rotis fresh off the tandoor.
Soon, our table was chock-a-block with plates — a platter of burra chicken, a portion of sheer mal and another of brain curry, a paneer dish, a half-portion of chicken biryani and a couple of rotis, each as large as a mid-sized flying saucer.
My wife gorged on the brain curry and says it was wonderful, despite the robust garnish of a layer of oil; or perhaps it was the grease that added to its taste! I, however, gave the brains a miss and started my meal with some luscious burra chicken and the sheer mal, which reminded me of a rather eggy waffle. After struggling to finish an entire roti, I simply gave up and moved on to the biryani.
Now chicken biryani, for me, is comfort food. It’s also something I try to sample wherever I travel in India. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I dug into the Karim’s chicken biryani. Since the first mouthful is not necessarily the best mouthful, I took a second and a third and possibly a fourth and then stopped.
The biryani was, to put it politely, sad and stone cold. I’m just not able to say what was wrong with it, but it left an awkward, synthetic aftertaste in my mouth. So much so that I had to clear my palate with another piece of the delicious burra chicken!
A satisfying meal, bar the biryani, over, we waddled out of Karim’s, turned a corner and were faced with a row of shops selling a mind-boggling assortment of products: from vehicle parts and hardware to musical instruments and the principal ingredients of the next day’s brain curry and mutton biryani!
More delightful, though, was browsing the sidewalk stalls that line the perimeter of the Jama Masjid — hawking clothes, bags, perfume and religious bric-a-brac. It was also good fun to indulge in some ‘retail signboard spotting’, with the motor market around the Jama Masjid throwing up gems like Sami Shockers and Cheap Traders.
However, with the afternoon almost over and evening with its slew of appointments beckoning, it was time to take a few final photographs and find our way to the nearest Metro station, at Chawri Bazaar.
As we trudged down Chawri Bazaar, looming over us was the elegant vastness of the Jama Masjid, its minarets reaching up into the sky, obscured occasionally by the manic tangle of wires overhead.
And then, the road took a gentle turn and suddenly, the Jama Masjid was gone.