Paharganj: Bizarre Bazaar
From the immaculate Lodi Gardens to the stylish Connaught Circle, from the stately Humayun’s Tomb to the posh Diplomatic Enclave, Delhi has some lovely places. Paharganj refuses to be one of them.
Our Coleman cooler on wheels, with over-ambitious pretenses of being a minivan-taxi, sputters to a halt on Paharganj’s Main Bazaar Road. On this cold Delhi evening, Architect Cheech and I are deposited half-alive yet full of life — India road travel now giving us hefty gravitas in the wanderlusting world of global nomads.
From Indira Gandhi Airport to Central Delhi, our able Punjabi driver zips through streets like an overzealous 8-year-old on a trainer bike…unburdened by training wheels. That everyone else drives with the same artistic invention lends some sanity to the entire affair. Then too, why drive on a 2-dimensional plane when you can drive on six? More importantly, we now know how an ant colony must look like, from eye-level. This knowledge carries eternal value for, after all, we are in India where Reincarnation is but a fact of existence.
Paharganj, from a budget traveller’s standpoint, is the legendary backpacker ghetto in Central Delhi. On a sombering historical note, the Partition of 1947 that severs Muslim-dominated northwest India (now present-day Pakistan) from the rest of the subcontinent, displaces many Hindus, who hike hundreds of miles south fleeing religious persecution. Many find their way into Paharganj. In the 1960s, the organic growth of the Hippie Trail transforms Paharganj into a commune of cheap accommodations for many hippies and other animals disinclined to bathing. Today, its scent is of succulent spices and smelly socks.
Our first reaction to Paharganj is shock. Not the theatrical Hitchcock-ian sort involving screaming showering women, eyeballs jettisoning from their sockets. In contrast, Paharganj elicits a quiet, almost reverential, disbelief. The kind one falls into when discovering a corpse in a trash pile.
The darkly-lit main street of Paharganj stretches out in front of Cheech and me like a stricken steamship run aground. Buildings on each side are unpainted, in hues of gloomy gray, looking abandoned. The air smells of mixed cement.
We feel like we are walking into a ghost town, but we tread on, smiles on our faces, invigorated by this architectural manifestation of a beached sea freighter. Backpacking is competitive business after all. The more misery the more stripes one earns as a legit traveller. India is the ultimate testing ground for hardcore backpackers, so be it danger, disaster, or diarrhea, Cheech is hellbent on getting her due share of suffering in this trip. Her single-minded lust for dysentery worries me. To my mind, I can always make shit up.
From Main Bazaar Road, we turn left to a dark alley, looking for our guesthouse. Cheech skips with a fright, excitement, and a giggle as two stray cows interrupt our path. But this is India, so we, in fact, interrupt their slumber. As other countries (the Philippines being a glorious example) have stray dogs, India has stray cows. It’s rather charming; a bovine utopia unthreatened by man’s appetite for ribeye. That is, until you realise that stray cows mean stray cowpooh.
We dodge a pile or ten along the way, yet fail to evade the scent. But the guesthouse is adequate, the night has imparted its share of excitement, and sleep comes deep and calming.
An early morning reveals a different Paharganj. The lifeless grays of the night are now interjected by colourful shawls, sparkling kurtas, and glittering bracelets. All this is proffered by the countless shops bursting like a comet-tail down the street. It’s as if overnight, somebody invented coloured TV. You turn on the switch from Channel Night to Channel Day, and Paharganj conflagrates in colours…and even more cowpooh.
The main road extends all the way to the New Delhi Railway station. So, it’s no surprise Paharganj has become the ideal place, location-wise, for backpackers to start their journey across the subcontinent. As such, all manners of things are sold here: scarves made of pashmina wool (goat-chin hair), blankets, wood carvings, omelettes, Van Gogh’s undies, an old Michelin tyre, and Kitkats. You can even get your ears cleaned, street-side.
Sitars, guitars, ukeleles, and somebody’s grandmother are all on offer alongside North Face backpack rip-offs. Cheech uncovers some gems in her own shopping expedition. They include fastidiously-embroidered jackets from Jaisalmer and those elaborate multi-coloured bags Beverly Hills designer Simone Camille shrewdly peddled to Julia Roberts and Hollywood for USD 2,000 dollars. Similar bags only cost $30 dollars in Paharganj and with better style, shape, and detail. Architect Cheech now proudly owns the far superior Paharganj prototype.
I’ve been to many bazaars in Indochine where selling is loud and energetic. But in India, it is intrusive and chaotic. Rickshaw drivers accost you in mid-stride insisting where you intend to go requires their services. Only to realise 100 rupees later that it is a mere 50 metres away. Beggars insinuate their way into your breakfast, their palms pleading just below your nostril, while you hope to enjoy your crepe-thin masala dosa shall it manage to make the complex voyage from your fork, around their arms, into your mouth. Already persistent shopkeepers are backed-up, subtly, by middlemen ploughing the coffee shops, falsely befriending travellers, and slyly leading them to a shop of purportedly better value. This is true. It is better commission value for the middlemen. To the tune of 30% added to your cost.
I do a little bit more exploring and accounting of all that I take in. According to my mental records, the roundabout on Paharganj’s Main Bazaar Road is shared by:
1.) street hawkers whipping up steaming Masala Chai & mouth-watering dosas,
2.) fruit stalls of oranges, grapes, and pomegranates
3.) a constellation of trash (some dry, others wet, many vomit-inducing) thrown offhandedly
4.) men expertly spitting chunks of food or phlegm or a purplish amalgam of both
5.) a herd of cows enjoying their morning, ehem, cleansing
Paharganj is an overwhelming affair, almost stressful, not always pleasant. It’s labourious to find some quiet time, relax over a good book, and sit back enjoying the streetlife. Most travellers treat it as little more than a pitstop to the grander things the rest of India has to offer. And with good reason. There is petty crime, dirt, commotion, and incessant selling. Not the properties for an ideal vacation.
But with the benefit — perhaps even benevolence — of hindsight, you realise India isn’t a vacation, it’s an experience. So if you give it a chance and perhaps chisel a bit more diligently into the woodwork, you discover good things slowly taking shape…even in the putrescence of Paharganj.
The Open-Hand Café, at the end of the main road, is a coffeeshop with a purpose. Alongside spot-on espressos, they sell clothes and handicrafts made by battered women, people with HIV, and those with little chance in life. Today, the humble coffeehouse has 6 branches around India and exports around the world.
The Paharganj branch of Open-Hand Café is a cozy loft. There’s a common couch at the ground floor where we get to chat with other travellers. We compare notes on how to survive Delhi Belly.
Architect Cheech snuggles up with a cushion in one corner, where she gets to enjoy a lovely plunger-coffee with a croissant, leafing dreamily through the Hindustan Times, educating herself on all the Bollywood stars and accompanying gossip. Her cursory knowledge after a 30-minute read makes her a devout fan of the admittedly-stunning Katrina Kaif but finds it horripilating that she is going out with Salman Khan; hirsute, aged-looking, and rather gross as he is, she mutters aghast.
In Open-Hand Café, the baristas are impeccable and take pride in their work and their company. It’s easy to get information on sights to see, where to stay, what to look out for. It’s even easier just to stay in the coffeeshop all day.
I also like the compact streetside bookshops along Paharganj. You can even haggle over book prices. And there are numerous second-hand books available at highly-reduced rates. Sure, the selection is limited. But there is something a bit more special about purchasing a novel in India (and set in India no less) from a quaint bookshop on a busy shopping alley than buying from a big chain bookstore. Off the streets, it is as if life has been breathed into the books themselves, what with the grit and grime of Paharganj infused into its pages.
Cheech can’t find Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Shadow Lines, but the shopkeeper assures us they have it in their tiny stock room back in the alley. We walk a few steps into the interior where we find a room no more than 20 square metres in size yet filled to the rafters with books on all subjects. Instantly, I’m drawn to reverie by the warm wooden scent of all the pages. I like how the author Trevanian describes it; “the aroma of learning.”
Back on the main road, browsing through shops upon shops, I realise Paharganj is truly the best place for a bargain. Shop owners here are aggressive and competitive. There is no price coercion between merchants. You get offered a price for a shawl in one shop, and a head pops out from the next shop dropping that price by 5 rupees. It’s a dog-eat-dog world amidst all the cows.
At dawn in Paharganj, vendours with pushcarts brew steaming Masala Chai on-the-spot. It’s a great way to jumpstart the day. On the cart is a fired-up gas stove on top of which is a beaten-up tin pot holding the mix of Assam tea and masala spices. Goat milk is slowly stirred in. The tea is brought to a volcanic boil. And at this point, I’m entranced. Snapping out of it, the brewing is somehow done, the concoction is theatrically poured through a strainer, teamaker’s hands raised high-up in the air, the masala chai cascading like a waterfall into a lake…which in this case takes the form of a shotglass. It holds the promise of a new day. If Cheech is lucky, it holds the essences of diarrhea too. But for me, I get a grand performance and a lush pot of tea for 10 rupees. Incredible India.
So there you have it. Paharganj is where the Hindustan journey will start and end for us and for many backpackers. We take it it as it is. Sometimes festering, mostly fantastic, and all-around phenomenal.
I hope they never clean up the cow-shit.