“Sir, Madam, please, jump in, you’ll bump around, smell and hear everything going on and if you have questions Vijay, your driver has driven rickshaws for 20 years” was our guide Sanjay’s parting shot on commencing what a blind tourist might call heaven Delhi-style.
. Originally meaning moonlit market, ChandiChowk was designed by JahanAra, the daughter of the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Built in the 17th century, it is one of India’s oldest and busiest markets. ChandiChowk and the surrounding streets of central North Delhi reflect the intense rhythm that is modern day urban India as it attempts to deal with the confluence of cars, rickshaws, carts, motorbikes, animals, pedestrians and pushbikes.
Our ride through this dawn to dusk wholesale markets was my sensory overload enlightenment. During the 30 minutes among squawking traders offering traditional Indian clothes, artefacts, saris, embroidery clothes and street food our roller-coaster of inhaled exotica included smells so pleasant and putrid. I recall our oohs and aahs for The paratha(wheat pancakes), rose petal drinks, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla cumin, turmeric, jasmine, marigolds, sandalwood, incense alternating swiftly with the eee’s and aaw’s of garbage, urine and diesel. Overlay this with the intense soundscape of vehicle horns, barking dogs, hawkers, trader chit-chat, sirens, wedding drums/bells and the distant Azan and you know you are experiencing something truly unique.
ChandiChowk seemed like something of a highlights reel of our India tour, a journey of intoxicating excitement, astonishing diversity and enduring unpredictability that left us pondering our sense of privilege at having experienced such spiritual richness, culinary decadence, historical splendour and cultural multiplicity.
The noise excites us as we lean forward to hear our guide and we find ourselves recalling those tips you get - the “th” sounds like a d, the r sound rolls slightly, the w and the v are reversed and the first part of words are emphasised. Like so many guides we encountered, Vijay had a substantial inventory of Truisms, Sayings and philosophies - it was a pleasure to listen to. The sign outside the custom tailoring service “Same day service. We do suiting, shirting and panting”. While wanting to deliver warnings about hawkers “the water is tap water and all the goods are fakes, don’t converse, they can hear you from anywhere”, we didn’t encounter behaviour of so-called touts, scammers and hawkers to be intrusive, aggressive or disrespectful. Whether you were visiting a monument, a mosque, a temple or a palace, there was little or no obstructing, touching or discernable abuse. Vijay hands us all manner of handicrafts, fridge magnets, key rings and the like I say “are you the hawker who drives rickshaws or the rickshaw driver who hawks?” He doesn’t respond, nonchalantly continuing “you like, how much you pay for this ...”
As Vijay helps me to disembark, He goes into a minor fretting frenzy as he anticipates a spectacularly disastrous exit. We laugh and wonder why we didn’t learn a few Hindi words like left, right, up, down to allay fears!. I probably didn’t pronounce the Hindi word for blind “andhaa” properly either as it goes.
All smiles as we said thankyou “dhan'yavāda”
And a day or so later, I’m still saying dhan'yavāda reflecting on our ride, I’m still trying to comprehend the confusion, the thrills. An incongruence of indelible memories, as enigmatic as it was stimulating with or without the benefit of sight.
We ask Sanjay “can we do that one more time” as the din of the “pedestrian hostile chawri bazaar” and the Azan subsides in the background.