My earliest memory of Old Delhi draws me back to the serpentine lanes and bylanes of Chandni Chowk, when I used to accompany my father to Khari Baoli, Asia’s largest wholesale spice market, bargaining my way through workers rushing with goods on heads or carts. The rhythm in the chaos presented a completely different world. It was a world that was madding yet enriching.
I would try to guess the aroma of individual spices — the clove, cardamom or cinnamon — in that highly fragrant air, the limited knowledge of spices making the place a realtime school and I was often left dumbfounded at a shop. There was always a spice or two that I had never seen before. It was there I was introduced to star anise.
Then there was a saffron seller, to reach whose shop we had to climb two levels of steep stairs. And once the family at the first floor had quizzed us to their heart’s content, we would be allowed to wait for the seller in his room. The sheer process of watching him unlock a huge safe with a number of keys, take out small plastic containers filled with saffron from around the world, sitting wrapped in cotton beds, would make me feel as if we were characters from a fictional world of secrets and unknown places.
Wiser, I would then follow my father out of Khari Baoli as I knew next up were treats unmatched. Looking back, these were trips that introduced me to Natraj ke dahi bade, Chawri Bazaar ki chaat, Nai Sarak ki kachori, Fatehpuri ki kulfi and a lot more appetising delights. We would relish these delicacies there and get them all packed for home too!
Even today, these memories make me think of Old Delhi as a place for explorers and not a chaotic setup many dread about. Recently, I was tempted to go down the memory lane once again. The plan this time was to not only relish the delicacies that were a part of my growing-up years but also pay a visit to Mirza Ghalib’s haveli and spend some hours wandering in the those lanes, soaking in nostalgia.
Right from the moment I stepped into Chawri Bazaar, the aromas of various foods tingled my senses and the sights and sounds of people going about their chores had me hooked. A chaiwalla making masala tea atop his jugaad coal stoves to the walk through the rooms where Ghalib spent last days of his life, Old Delhi had worked its magic again. It is always that right mix of untouched old and new that doesn’t let this place lose its enchantment.
Though Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, famously know as Mirza Ghalib, was born in Agra in 1797, it was Delhi that saw the best of him after he moved here. His residence in Gali Qasim Jan, Balli Maran, is a heritage site not
only for archaeologists but also a pilgrimage for his fans. The Mughal era look of the place, with bricks, sandstones and a huge wooden gate, Ghalib’s couplets and literature for the company, is a perfect way to end a day
in Old Delhi.