Taking the Plunge in Delhi: the Chandni Chawk Bazaar

The first item of business on my first full day in Delhi is to visit the Red Fort. Several lifetimes ago, when I was 23 and living in Sapporo, Japan (in Hokkaido) teaching English, I joined a tour of teachers on a two week jaunt around India. As superficial as that encounter might have been, it jolted me significantly in ways that Japan had not. The Red Fort was one of the first places we stopped to see, and I was blown away by its palaces, harems, and tales of royal intrigue and excess. I even wrote a poem about it.

The Fort would be my second World Heritage site (after Borobodur) on this trip. It serves as the location for India’s Republic Day, coming up soon on Jan. 27. The Prime Minister ascends to the main Lucknow Gate and with the flag flying overhead, he delivers an address to the nation, similar to the State of the Union speech in the U.S.

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But the Fort is closed and the steel barriers are pulled up tight. A single piece of paper taped to the metal gate announces the Fort is closed due to a delegation of “VVIP” dignitaries touring the facilities.

So that means I turn on my heels, face the busy street I avoided earlier with a harrowing taxi ride from hotel, and figure out a way to cross. People stride into the middle of traffic fearlessly, then use their hands to indicate to drivers how they plan to move, whether they will step directly in front of a moving car, pedicab, or rickshaw. I even see women in saris do this, and find it hard to believe the street is not littered with the maimed and dead.

I step away from the main intersection of Red Fort and Chandni Chawk bazaar (“Selling-Place” (chawk) and “moonlight”) and weave my way through two lanes of traffic only, step on a raised median strip, then do the same thing w/ a skip and a bounce to reach the other side. “Survival of the fittest,” I think in self-congratulation, then look to my side and see an old woman with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, using a cane, who has just come across the intersection. Clearly, a different cultural logic is at work here…but I won’t put my body on the line to investigate!

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The marketplace is a warren of narrow lanes, alleys, and an occasional courtyard that feed people to and from the main thoroughfare…which passes in front of a Sikh gudwara (long story there), a Jain temple, the Town Hall with a statue of Gandhi in front, a Baptist church and school, and about a thousand little businesses jammed into storefronts that are probably 3 x 3 meters. No windows, perhaps a back room or tiny upstairs, and every inch clogged with merchandise. I first walk through a section that has cell-phone accessories, then one with electrical parts, then pharmaceutical supplies, then household electronics (don’t forget the size of these shops; no chain stores here) and emerge to a street full of rickshaws, scooter-cabs, cars, wagons, cows pulling carts, bicycles, motorcycles, and between them pedestrians everywhere. The flow of vehicles and people is non-stop.

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And yet there are stationary people too: street vendors selling food, spices, tea, used clothing, sweets, toys, and so on. Below them are beggars squatting on the filthy and frequently broken pavement, their hands outstretched, imploring. It’s still mid-morning, so there are also clusters of what appear to be orphaned or abandoned children (all boys) who appear to be living on the streets. In one doorway, an older boy (of perhaps 10) is still stretched out and either asleep or sick, while younger kids (from 6 to 8) talk among themselves and huddle around him to keep warm. Their clothes are predictably dirty and their faces and hands unwashed, with some holding little chunks of scavenged food.

A thought registers: what if I were to drop a 100 rupee note in their midst? what difference would it make in this day of their lives? Food first? Maybe it would buy something fun to play with, or an item needed for survival (like a pair of shoes, although I don’t see any of these boys wearing any) on a cold and dreary January day. But I continue on, and do not meddle in a scenario I did nothing to create and cannot possibly change long-term. Is this how Hindus or Tibetan Buddhists consider karma to work?

I decide to keep my eyes open for a Nehru-style vest, and even try a couple stores for sizes and colors. I then see a shop selling “ammunition and firearms” with dusty front windows and yet there are employees inside, and so I decide to enter to ask a question.

The proprietor is a man in his late 60s or early 70s, with white hair growing out of his ears, who was watching a cricket match until I came in. I ask him about gun control laws in India, and whether private citizens can own weapons. He explains the licensing procedure, and how anyone with a clean record can own a gun but that purchasing a firearm must be sponsored by an elected official, politician, or senior government employee. There are bribes to be administered and money to be made, and so the criminals have the easiest time of it! No semi-automatic rifles or pistols are available to the general public either. My last question is about the Newton school shootings of Dec. 2013, and how much play this received in the Indian media. “Not that much,” was his reply. “We are busy with other things.”

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I fail in trying to find a vest, but encounter many stores selling wedding apparel for women. These are all run by men, who pull out sari after sari for the entourage of women from the bride’s family to consider for purchase. I never see anyone trying on this fabric, for that’s all it is…ready to be tailored to the measurements of the bride. Storefront mannequins often have rather generic Western faces and impossibly buxom figures, body shapes similar to what one might see when Hindu female deities are depicted!

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Amidst all these stores, vendors, pedestrians, and moving vehicles, I come across the entrance to a second-floor music store and head up the steps without hesitation. They have drums of all sizes suspended from the ceiling, along with vinas (see photo), guitars, brass instruments, and, hooray, a nice selection of bamboo flutes. I try several (using a babywipe to cleanse the wind hole) and find a double F model that seems to like me and plays easily. A couple photos and I’m done for the day.

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All I have to do now is find the metro entrance, and cruise back to the Heritage Inn area in style and comfort. There are no signs anywhere for a major public conveyance, and I have to ask many people to get a sense of the alley I have to follow to reach the portal in a wall that leads to the clearing where the station is found. For a whopping $0.20 (10 rupees) I get a 15 minute ride back to the North Delhi neighborhood adjacent to the university. The afternoon is oppressive with cold, smog, and traffic noise, and I drag myself back to the inn. But I notice en route (and not more than a couple minutes from Heritage Inn) a museum dedicated to one of India’s most famous advocates for social change, Ambedkhar. I vow to return.

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