Lost In Delhi's Moonlit Market

We are lost. Hopelessly lost in Chandni Chowk, the ‘moonlit market’, in a sensory overload of nighttime noise and colour.
The streets that seem so benign in the daylight quickly become the place where two unescorted women feel a frisson of apprehension.

We arrive at Delhi’s oldest market in the hot dusty afternoon. Shopkeepers sit in the languid shade of their doorways, sipping chilled lassi with their neighbours. Customers are scarce, waiting for the cooler evening, and screeching macaques chase across the rooftops.

In the textile kucha steep wooden steps lead to a cornucopia of saris and fabrics in every colour and pattern. Bolts of jewel bright silk are unrolled across the floor. They billow like parachutes, before settling in flowing rivers of emerald and cerise.

Mr Rajdeep sends his son for cups of sweet milky chai, and we allow him to woo us with soft cashmere shawls and artful flattery.
When we descend to the street, dusk is turning to night. We retrace our steps along narrow lanes and alleyways, now crammed with shoppers and hawkers. There are silversmiths, falooda stalls, and tiny shops selling marbled paper. Electrical shops flash brightly with strings of garish lights, and the streets become a confusing swirl of bangles, sandals and spices.
In the dark and bustle it is easy to lose any sense of direction. As we pass the same book shop for the third time, I admit defeat.
The syrup-sweet aroma of the jalebi stall merges with the pungent smell of rotting vegetables and the smoky scent of incense. A discordant symphony of horns competes with music blaring through tinny speakers. As I dodge a relentless stream of handcarts and porters with swaying loads, I hear a call to prayer, and quickly say my own.
At the corner a gangly teenager stops me. 'Rickshaw, ladies?'
Vishal promises that his bicycle is nearby, and leads us quickly through the alleys, turning left, right and left again, winding skillfully between shoppers and sauntering cows. In our haste to keep up I don’t notice for a moment that he has led us down a tiny unlit lane. I pause, unsure, my heart lurching. He turns and beckons. I keep going, on blind trust, my sandal squelching in a pile of something soft.
Within minutes we are outside the market and balanced precariously on the narrow rickshaw seat. We grip our flimsy carrier bags of bounty, as Vishal struggles gamely with his bulky cargo, swerving between buses, lorries and smoke-spuming tuk tuks.
Then, without warning, he stops at a huge junction and refuses to go any further. He explains, with an emphatic head wobble and a crooked smile, that he is not allowed to ride into New Delhi and he must drop us here.
Diving across sixteen lanes of traffic we find a restaurant on the corner. A bowl of tarka daal, two cold beers, and we step back out into the street clutching our map.
We walk to the corner and turn to each other with a shrug. Unfortunately, for a map to work you have to know your starting point.

We are still hopelessly lost.

M Huggins

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