30-storey glazed buildings with blue-green glass windows. White coloured Tavera jeeps and Indica cars in BPO office parkings. Flyovers under construction. Malls. McDonalds. Indequate public transport. More swanky cars on the road. Dust, smoke and traffic jams.

It's the new face of a city in rising India.

And in this fast globalizing world, each one of these new faces is as indistinct from other as possible.

But while the high streets don their glam looks and begin to look more and more alike, the bylanes in the cities still bustle alive with their distinct character and charm. If the new high streets and mall roads are a rejoinder from rising India, the bylanes are a reminder from an era that saw its zenith centuries ago.

The bylanes are old flesh beneath newly cloned skin. And this is where you experience an unfeigned India.

The labyrynths of Chandni Chowk are perhaps the most famous bylanes in country. Chandni Chowk, literally Moonlight Square, sits right outside the Mughal royal residence Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Shahjahanabad (now known as Old Delhi). The area is vaguely bounded by Jama Masjid and Fatehpuri Masjid.

It is far from correct to say that it's the only place in India offering a glimpse into old Indian cities, but it does stands out uniquely. It is a place which will overwhelm you with its human density and astound you with the volume of business. Tens of thousands of shops of everything imaginable Indian, homes sheltering perhaps a million people, eating joints serving over a thousand delicacies - Chandni Chowk is a surreal maze that is anything but not real.

It is a place where you will love getting lost. A place where there is a pattern in choas.

On a Saturday morning in November of 2007, Ritin and I set out for a walk in this maze of chaos. We have earlier spent many hours together walking several miles in New York City - a city we both love. We have a similar walking pace, compliment each other in knowledge and interests, enjoy similar experiences and are ready to experiment with most gastronomy. If I had to pick one companion for a city walk, I would team up with Ritin 8 times out of 10.

It took us exactly two hours to reach Chandni Chowk from where we live. With a little help from our old but reliable car, a crowded and jarring DTC bus and the swanky new and wonderful Delhi Metro, we did get to our destination by afternoon. And the journey hadn't even begun.

When we finally got there, we were struck by two things: The denseness of people around us. And smell.

Bollywood and Indian poetry have long romanced the idea of mere desh ki mitti ki khushboo (the aroma of my country's soil). To be only fair, the smell is something I love (and at times hate) about India. It can vary from being pleasant, sometimes intriguing to annoying and disgusting. Whatever be it, it is always present and you cannot miss it.

We dived into the narrow alleyways to start navigating this grid of wires, streets, people, shops, food and little patches of sky. It had so much of offer. A doze of life that will both satiate and stimulate your curiosity at the same time. We wanted to take it all. The question remained how?

Food.

Chandni Chowk boasts of a excellent variety of good quality street food. The trick is to eat a little bit of everything (else you would need 52 visits of Chandni Chowk to try out all offerings). We started to pick and nibble small portions of things that came our way. We probably explored about 2% of the possibilities, but we just kept stuffing our stomachs ... pani puri, chole kulche, freshly baked homemade cookies, lemon soda in a marble bottle, chuna kattha paan, burra kabab, seekh kabab and kheer at Karims, hot kachoris, rabri malai, one by two namkeen chaach in a 12 inch glass, and one more lemon soda in a marble bottle ... a real treat.

That afternoon, when we visited the Jama Masjid, I offered two rakats of shukrana namaz. I couldn't but admire the enormous red sandstone courtyard in the mosque and the vision of Shahjahan who built it in 1656. We also stepped in the Sunahari Masjid on the other end of Chandni Chowk. It was from here that Persian emperor Nadir Shah watched the plunder of Delhi in 1739 when more than 30,000 people were killed. Aah Dilli! Your story wrings the last drop of blood out of my heart.

That was Chandni Chowk. From fabulous food to dilapidated huge havelis, from magnificient mosques to sites of mass murder - it can amaze you, enthrall you, inspire you and depress you. Whatever be your tastes and interests, it is sure to strike a string in your heart.

Keep your senses open.


Written: Nov 2007