Chandni Chowk. Famous for its Mughal architecture, for its crowded streets, for hot tandoori chicken, mutton kebabs and sweets, for the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, for the sheer intensity of the people you bump into…Chandni Chowk was where we decided to spend a free Friday morning and afternoon. We travelled by the metro, but being snobbish English students, we decided that asking for directions or visiting the Red Fort would be too touristy on our parts, when we were, we like to believe, Delhiites by now. So, instead of asking an experienced rickshaw driver to take us somewhere, we decided to walk in some random direction. We were confident that it was an impossibility to be truly lost in the midst of such a crowd.
Our efforts led us to Sis Ganj Sahib Gurudwara. Having never been to a gurudwara. we were excited to get in. We had vague notions that entry required us to cover our heads and remove our shoes, but for the most part, we were lost. We looked around us, and watched many devoted Sikhs walking with their eyes fixed to the steps leading to the gurudwara. Finally, we found a counter to drop our shoes, and climbed up the stairs, A man standing on the side with a basket of glittering scarfs offered us one each to cover our heads. Once we were in, the sound of Punjabi music filled the air. None of us could figure out the words. but the devotion it carried sounded so alluring that we stayed silent the entire time we were inside, We sat on the carpeted floor, and looked around at the imposing pillars, the intricately designed ceiling, the unblinking singers and a golden structure in front of us. We had no idea what anything was called, nor what to do other than gape foolishly. Around us, people were flocking in in large numbers, bowing on the ground, praying fervently, meditating close-eyed, and singing along softly. We felt left out, as if they knew some divine secret we didn’t, as if the songs that were being sung conveyed some magic we couldn’t understand, as if their faith made them look beyond the sheer beauty of the gurudwara into a place which transcended worldly beauty, as if they could comprehend the voice of God and we were deaf to it. We were awestruck by the magnanimity of the faith of those around us. As we descended the stairs and returned the scarfs, the man smiled at us gratefully, as if we’d made his day by visiting the gurudwara. When we went to collect our shoes, the lady who gave it to us reverently touched it with her forehead, making us feel almost ashamed for our absolute inability to understand the godly purpose of the actions of everyone around us.
By the time we left, it was raining. As a Keralite, I regard Delhi rains with contemptuous disregard, or at the most, with suspicious disdain. How these Delhiites call a few drops of water which are randomly sprinkled on to the earth ‘rain’ is much beyond me. For me, rain had to be accompanied by thunder and lightning, heavy winds and continuous shower to earn its title. But today, even I had to concede that it was raining and wasn’t just drizzling like usual. We didn’t have umbrellas, so we decided to face the rain with just our whining voices as protection. Whatever Chandni Chowk may be otherwise, in the rain. there’s just one word to define it: “messy”. The streets get flooded, ugly puddles form right in the most unlikely places, ruthless rickshaw drivers race one another to splash waters on defenseless pedestrians and you just end up getting really slimy.
Still unrelenting to visit the Red Fort, we conceded that the Jama Masjid was worth our time, since it was, technically, a mosque, and not a tourist spot. Technically. jama Masjid was a place I loved to visit, for the simple exhilaration I get when I realize how tiny I am. The massive, dull red structure takes my breath away every single time. We walked in barefoot, to find the place flooded till our ankles. We waded through, exploring every corner, remarking how beautiful Indian architecture used to be, and feeling the coolness of the stones with our feet and palms. We also got a peek at a manuscript of the Quran which was 1,400 years old and a footprint of the Prophet etched in stone before the old man closed displaying these closed up his tiny cubicle and went for lunch.
We roamed around the streets after we came out. Careful not to step on cow dung, we watched with fascinated revulsion as meat vendors sold lamb brain, thick slabs of fat, wet, live hens and even a lamb’s head on the sideways. The smell of freshly baked rusk, the heat of the oil used to fry jalebis, the softness of the milk sweets, the white thickness of freshly made lassi, the mouth watering scent of tandoori chicken; all combined with our cold selves and wet shoes soon made us hungry. Sooner than we thought, we turned around and rushed into a restaurant.
Finally, we ended up going to the Red Fort too, admitting that a trip to Chandni Chowk wouldn’t be complete without that. By the time we got back- wet, muddy and happy- we were already in love with Old Delhi; even the most hideous parts of it: the dirty streets, the perennial crowd and the unceasing, dirty rain. We felt like we belonged, lost in the middle of it all.