Insights, Sources and Other Pieces of Wisdom About APAC – Part 3: Andrew Jerina

Part 3 of the series is a lovely personal story by Andrew Jerina on Old Delhi, which I’ll leave uncommented for your reading pleasure.

I’m sure everyone doing this is going to tell you that summing up a
region so large in a single artefact is nigh on impossible. A guy I
regularly played football with once told me “after living in India for
6 months, I thought I was starting to understand it, after living here
for 3 years, I realise I never will”. He was right, every turn will be
something new and every little thing apparently has such deep roots
that you will never dig down to them all. But this quote wasn’t mine.
I thought about plannery reading (Amartya Sen, especially Development
as Freedom or the Argumentative Indian, anything by the numerous
‘father’s of the nation’ – Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Bose etc. the short
stories and poetry of Rabindrinath Tagore) but to me they seemed easy
enough for people to find for themselves. I sensed something more
personal might be of more use, so I settled on a journey I took
several times – from my flat in Gurgaon to Karim’s restaurant in Old
Delhi.

For most of my time in India, this journey would have required me to
take a pre-booked cab and this tale would be a dull one of nothing but
the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway and its traffic. We didn’t have a car and
public transport (beyond local cycle rickshaws and the very occasional
auto-rickshaw) were non-existent. But in the last 6 or 8 months I was
able to take the new Delhi Metro. It was a 20 minute walk from our
apartment to the station. We could have taken a rickshaw but the
haggling was such work we tended not to. Anyway, I enjoyed the walk.
Gurgaon is not designed for walkers, it has been built over the last
decade to serve India’s burgeoning middle-classes. Anyone with a bit
of wealth simply does not walk, so no provision for walking is
provided. For this reason, our walking was seen as highly novel and
amusing.

I would pass the local market place where cows crowded around the
rubbish looking for scraps and every waiting rickshaw wallah would
hound us to jump aboard. Crossing the road we’d pass the huge new
Marriott hotel, alongside which a number of ramshackle huts selling
tyres, flowers, laundry services or whatever else huddled together.
Further along, past the gates of the Palms Town & Country Club (of
which, for the final year of our stay we were members – regularly
partaking of the pool and of Geoffrey’s English pub, though not
usually on the same visit as the pub did not allow shorts – a high
level of decorum being required at all times, just like real English
pubs.) Past a shiny new mega-hospital (private of course) and across a
dusty and life-threatening dual carriageway to reach HUDA City Center
station. This station was a terminus which also had space for a
shopping mall built around it (as pretty much everything in Gurgaon
must.) Open “on time” to much fanfare, building was still not complete
when we left 6 or 8 months later. Often as you entered, a hail of
welding sparks would fall from somewhere above.

Unfinished stations aside, the Delhi Metro itself is as slick and
modern as any I have travelled on in Asia, you could easily transplant
it to Seoul, Singapore or Shanghai and people would not bat an eyelid.
Remarkably, it remains clean. In a country known (at times unfairly
but often with some justification) for piles of rubbish, paan spittle
and open urination and defecation it is interesting to see the ‘No
Spitting’ signs being roundly observed and no rubbish being dropped.
Give people a positive environment and they will maintain it, give
them squalor and why not add to it? Being the first station, I always
got a seat and watched as the elevated line ran past Gurgaon’s
ever-growing plague of malls, its empty scrub-land residential plots
and soulless steel and glass office buildings and on up the MG Road
into Delhi. If it hadn’t got too busy and the way been blocked I might
catch a glimpse of the Qutub Minar as we reached the Southern end of
Delhi proper. My hopes always raised at this point that we were almost
there, but from here the metro stops came regularly and progress was
slow.

The closest station to Karim’s is Chawri Bazaar – a brass, copper and
paper market established in 1840 and with a rich history. Originally a
place for royalty and nobelmen to visit courtesans it took a turn for
the worse after we British pulled down the mansions following the
First War of Independence (Indian Mutiny if you read British
textbooks) in 1857. I’d emerge up one of four inconspicuous staircases
from the modernity of the Metro into the cramped, bustling streets in
the heart of Old Delhi. If I were to walk 20 or so metres and turn
around, you wouldn’t even know the Metro was there – a different world
hidden deep below these old streets. Rickshaws, carts, people, animals
vie for the limited space. Some of the wares being peddled may have
changed but I can’t imagine the atmosphere is much changed since the
market was first established.

I’d walk down the narrowing lanes and catch occasional glimpses of the
minaret or one of the three huge domes atop the Jama Masjid, India’s
largest mosque. Eventually you emerge beneath it. Sandstone and marble
fill the view. But it’s hard to stop and take it in as the business of
the bazaar (now car-parts rather than decorative paper or copperware)
went on around me. I’d circle around the mosque to the opposite side,
all three roads off the square look exactly the same so never 100%
sure I was turning down the right one I’d hope to spot the Karim’s
sign pointing down an alleyway no wider than two men stood shoulder to
shoulder. The first time I thought this couldn’t possibly be right,
but it is right. At the end of the alley a man sits cross-legged,
shoes off tending to numerous huge silver pots which bubble away all
day long emitting delicious aromas. Opposite, two others tend to
kebabs over hot coals. Around this little square all doorways seem to
belong to Karim’s. I always favoured the open fronted space on the
right where you could better see the comings and goings.

Karim’s has been open in this spot since 1913. Serving the finest
mughlai cuisine in a form as close to that which was served to the
Mughal emperor’s themselves as you are likely to get. There is no
ceremony, simple bowls of food chucked down on tables followed by
breads served by hand. This place is no secret, it’s in all the
guidebooks, but it absolutely does not lack any authenticity for it. I
was never brave enough to try the brain curry and the naan was always
a bit too heavy for my liking but everything else I tried was
exquisite. I miss the place and the journey to get there.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that most of Indian life is rural but much
of its urban life, old and new, is in this journey. I shall leave it
to you to understand what you will from the description rather than
seeking to impose an interpretation of my own. 

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