Free Press Journal

Moments out of time at the moonlit crossroad


Uday K. Chakraborty makes a nostalgic visit to Old Delhi

Om Prakash Gupta sits cross-legged on a platform in his silver of a storefront shop in Old Delhi. Before him is an array of fat silver bracelets worn by women of the Indian desert areas, turquoise from the Himalayas, and the gold rings Gupta maintains are similar to those favoured by the Mughal emperors who once held court just a furlong from this spot.

MY wife sits considering the jewelry in front of us, wondering which of these pieces she should buy, or if she should buy at all. I am a modern Indian professional, impatient with wasted time and eager to rush to my next project. But here I seem unable to move on.

But there regime is severe, demanding the sharp edges of individuality sublimate themselves to time’s grille of intermeshed lives. Outside, future brides shopping for marriage jewels, carts pulled by bullocks, placid cows, beeping motorcycles, creaking ‘autos’ carrying loads of tiny uniformed school children and well-fed Delhi housewives, and ancient rickshaws and bicycles make a traffic jam Indian style, but the bustle is like a dream. No one is going anywhere here, I suspect.

And, so we just sit with Om Prakash, have another cup of sweet and milky tea, and allow ourselves to be beguiled by tales of his ancestors who bedecked the Mughal court with jewels, or so he claims. He does not pressure us to buy. Her life moves to the slow rhythms of the birthing and dying of many generations. It makes little difference if my wife decides today or tomorrow or next year. There is time.

Red Fort of Delhi as viewed from the busiest street of Chandni Chowk of Old Delhi.

Red Fort of Delhi as viewed from the busiest street of Chandni Chowk of Old Delhi.

In Old Delhi there is always time. From the stately courtyard homes, somehow made even graceful by the Old Delhi custom of not hiding the ravages of the centuries, to the smell of the area, that of decades of Attars and cumin and kerosene and dirt and laundry spread out over fences and air being sucked in and out of millions of lungs, it reverberates like a heartbeat.

Offering its long arms in embrace, time is what brings me, its critic and manipulator, back repeatedly to Old Delhi. As I sit drinking tea with Om Prakash, I sense what is both small and vast about my humanity. I am not important here, only one of the multitudes of lives swept up in the drama, but mighty enough to be part of the spirit sustaining that drama for three centuries.

This Mandala of past and present, birth and decay, family and caste, all woven together by Old Delhi’s ancient linking of lifetimes, in many ways has little room for me, a child of the modern era, but the poetry of it all holds me in its sway, whittling my ego and stilling my impatience.

Here even the most ordinary act hints of time. Eating sweetmeat at Ghantewalah (The Bell Ringer) Sweet Shop evokes the legendary elephant, who, enomoured of shop’s sweets, ceaselessly rang its bell in 1970 to demand samples, thereby giving the business its names. Here Paranthawale Galli is run by the Hindu businessmen selling Paranthas and Nizams’s Mughglai restaurant and Byriany shops by the Muslims – both selling their traditional mouth watering food to a multi-religious crowd, which are attracted not only for their taste but also to be part its tradition. Here shopping for copper goods at Chawri Bazaar conjure up the dancing girls who flirted from its windows a century before.

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Everywhere I go in Old Delhi, this river of the past encircles me. Together we wend our way deep into life’s interconnections, and its continuity. Even exuberant flesh-and-blood beings of the present – the generations of jewelers like Om Prakash, merchants displaying red bridal saris and wedding wreathes of crisp-rupees, artisans sitting on their hunches on street curbs crafting rings that will sell for thousands of dollars, women weaving garlands of marigold and jasmine for temple gods – mingle with ghosts of the area’s ever-present past.

Indeed, a monument of the 17th century, the Red Fort, built by India’s fifth Mogul emperor, Shah Jahan, is still the hub of area activity. The Prime Minister addresses the nations from its rampart every year on the Independence Day from its red sandstone ramparts. Formally rajahs and courtiers on painted elephants and white horses with crimson tails spilled from it on to the wide and spacious Chandni Chowk, then the ‘moonlit crossroads’, now Old Delhi’s jammed main artery.

The platform where the jeweled Peacock throne from which Shah Jahan reigned over his world once rested is empty today, plundered by a Persian conqueror who ravaged the area and caused the Gate of Blood (Khooni Darwaza) to be erected further down on Chandni Chowk in remembrance of his cruel pillage.

Sitting here with Om Prakash’s jewelry displayed at our feet, I reflect how Old Delhi assuages the human need for beauty, sending the senses soaring. It is a district that lures to sniff attar of lotus and jasmine and the eye to linger on the flowing folds of silken saris.

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Those things are Old Delhi’s ever present motifs, modest but enduring against the backdrop of New World commercialism. Families and marriage, and doing one’s duty to honour one’s own spot in the scheme of things, mould life Old Delhi style.

It is fitting that one of the most celebrated of the area’s lanes are Kinari Bazaar, where shops sport both glittering marriage paraphernalia and fierce masks of Indian gods and goddesses. Here the deities seem to stride the cluttered streets, overseeing that Old Delhian sacrament, the continuity of life.

In Old Delhi, I understand, the future will certainly be almost identical to the present. Time feels flattened out on this spot where Gupta come to sell jewels in the same manner as two centuries of past Guptas have. So today, while my wife continues to sit gazing at Om Prakash’s jewelry, I shall watch this teeming life flowing past me. After all, in Old Delhi there is always time.