Delhi is a city of contradictions. For every posh colony, there’s a slum next door. Exotic for some and realistic for others, Delhi has an almost schizophrenic pulse that is as elusive as it is omnipresent.
Fluctuating between torrid and steady, it’s been quite a few years for my love affair with this city. I’ve watched jazz quartets flown in from Mexico on Sunday evenings and I’ve scrounged the dirty by lanes Of Paharganj looking for an easy fix on empty afternoons.
Here are five essentials I’ve gathered in my unprecedented knocks and run-ins with the city. It isn’t a definite guide to understanding Delhi but it is a vagabond’s view of a social fabric that’s as blatant as it’s layered.
1. Purani Dilli’s old-world charm
When I first came across Old Delhi, it felt strangely familiar, almost as if I knew the place from a previous life. Find your way to an erstwhile Mughal stronghold, Old Delhi or ‘Puraani Dilli’ as it’s commonly known on a busy Friday evening or a quiet Sunday morning. Take your shoes off and cast aside your anticipations and take the longer walk to the Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin, the mausoleum of one of the world’s most famous Sufi saints. The courtyard transforms into a haven for qawalli post Maghreb namaaz. Find Kareem’s, order the Mutton Qorma and stop for a masala chai at Saleem’s Tea Stall. An easy way to reach Old Delhi would be to take the metro that cuts quite smoothly through the Capital traffic, but a slightly more romantic way to access it would be to catch an auto-rickshaw. I was lucky enough to get a ride with one where the auto-wallah doubled as my tour guide through the ruins, smoke and beauty of the unexpected heart of Delhi.
2. Delhi’s quintessential shopping guide
Connaught Place is the urban centre of Delhi. From archaic colonial office complexes to some of the most beautiful buildings like The Statesman Building – you will find everything from used books to cheap silver jewellery here. To narrow your search, follow the Janpath Lane for silver jewellery to Tibetan artefacts like Buddhist gongs, bamboo-shoot pickles and little metal Buddhas. Try the chicken pepper steak at United Coffee House, first opened in 1942, alongside government men clad in safari suits on their lunch breaks and the cold coffee at DePauls, a famous compact coffee shop that’s been around since 1952. I was once lost in this maze and ended up at Palika Bazaar – a ‘chor bazaar’ of sorts that had an eclectic showcase ranging from sex toys to aspiring fashion designers masquerading as salesmen.
3. Exploring Delhi’s cultural melting pot
During my unplanned excursions through the length and breadth of the city, nothing has quite made me want to return slowly and surely each time other than India Habitat Centre. Foreign film screenings, international cultural meets and the allyoucan-eat breakfast at All American Diner is a Sunday spent well in the capital. I’ve come across a Chilean sitarist, a tribal graffiti artist from Orissa and a transgender theatre activist at this one place. It truly is a spot in Central Delhi where the most unexpected people congregate to share ideas, dreams and a laughs.
4. Hauz Khas Village
Dig into the lesser known markets scattered around Delhi. Hauz Khas Village, in South Delhi, is an urbanised village with a history tracing back to the reign of the Delhi Sultanate. Spotted with fashion boutiques, film production houses, art galleries, restaurants and bars, it has quickly become one of the busiest spots in town. Back when I first discovered HKV (as it’s fondly called by the newbies), Ziro (quick drinks and irresistible cheese maggi) and Dzuko (authentic Korean food) were the unconventional places to be at . Unfortunately, they’ve both been shut down now. A refreshing alternative is Yeti – the perfect place for original Himalayan food with a beautiful view of the reservoir. If you hunt enough, you come across vintage posters of Bollywood film classics available for as cheap as 100 rupees. Weekends can get a bit hectic in this area but it’s almost worth skipping the traffic and walking up the road to the village since some of the best underground live music and stand-up comedy gigs happen here.
5. My kind of day in Delhi
An ideal day in Delhi for me would start with a swim at the Siri Fort auditorium. Siri Fort, with its easily accessible sports complex overlooking Mughal ruins dating back to the 14th Century. After having worked up an appetite, I would stop at Rose Cafe for their home-made coffee cake, their fresh mint lemonade and agile pasta done to perfection. Post breakfast, I would rent a cycle and make my way to Lodi Gardens. Cycling around Lutyens’ Delhi is the ideal way to explore the cleanest and greenest parts of the city but it tends to get crowded with cars on weekdays. I would follow this up with a spread of sandwiches and wine at the Lodi Garden, if the weather allows it. Lodi Garden, while being a fairly popular spot with tourists, is beautiful to go to on a wintry Sunday afternoon. Get on to Little Black Book Delhi to check the listings for the plays for the day and make your way to Akshara Theatre to watch a production first-hand. Personally what I love about Delhi theatre is the camaraderie and improvisation the actors bring to the audience. A small but immensely talented industry, don’t be surprised if one of the actors starts addressing you directly in the middle of an act. With the sunset setting in, I would go to 4S at Defence Colony for cheap drinks while watching the ‘match of the day.’ Grab the best sushi in town at Guppy by Ai at Meharchand Market. I’m not one for upscale affairs but the Chirashi Seafood Salad and the Gari cocktail is too indulgent a combination to pass up. Drive around Lutyens’ Delhi aimlessly later at night and get off at Amar Jyoti for some kulfi. Admittedly mainstream, nothing quite beats a typical day in Delhi done the traditional way.
How many of these unique Delhi-things have you experienced? Did we miss something? Tell us in the comments below.