Thursday, January 13, 2011

The thirteenth to the twenty-first

The tourist card is a brilliant way to travel around Delhi. For 300 rupees, unlimited rides on the metro for three days. And I made sure I made full use of it. In fact, when I returned it, it was after riding on the last train on the last day, and running to the counter as it was closing. And I even got a Rs 50 refund. I wish I could have attempted the Metro Challenge though. Pass through all the stations in the metro on all the lines at least once and see how long it takes. Thought I managed to cover four lines in their entirety, the new fifth one remained elusive. Well, the line is going nowhere, and there will always be another opportunity to visit Delhi. And it is the only consolation I can offer myself. And the trains were definitely much more crowded than I remembered. Maybe now that the metro actually covers a considerable amount of the Delhi NCR area, an even larger number of people find it useful. But, the truth is this. No matter how many times we ride the metro, how many times we walk in and out of the stations without giving them a second glance, the shock of stepping out of the station at Chawri Bazaar, and stepping right into the middle of Bazaar Lal Kuan road in the middle old Delhi in simply unmatched. And it happens every time, irrespective of how jaded a metro traveller you are.

And it is near this station, in the Hauz Qazi area, in a small, well hidden gully off a busy street leading from the Gate No. 1 of the Juma Masjid, that the Hotel Karim is in. But directions are unnecessary. All one needs to do is to close their eyes and follow their nose, a nose led by the aroma originating from the seekh kababs slowly cooking over charcoal fires. And while you hang around the place waiting for a table to begin gorging, take a little time to study the menu. And order immediately when the fellow comes down to take your order. For there are other hapless souls waiting. Being cruelly tempted by the aroma wafting through the whole courtyard. And when it was finally my turn to choose, I could not but go for a combination of the seekh kabab and the mutton biryani. The spice of the kebab to tickle, and the warm subtle taste of the biryani to soothe the tongue and leave it demanding more. Stepping outside, the streets beckoned. And I followed. In search of an old mosque I had once seen in a painting, in a picture book bought on a whim at the Delhi book fair.

Though there was nothing black about it, it was the Kala Masjid to anyone I asked for directions. In the painting I had seen, the Kalan Masjid was a tall building next to a few hutments surrounded by large fields. The present day path to it led through ever narrowing streets. I wondered whether I would even recognise it. But as soon as I laid my eyes on the long flight of stairs leading to the main doorway, I knew I had arrived. But it was only the stairs that were visible. The rest of the building was hidden behind the houses that had sprouted since. A little game of cricket was progressing in full spirit at the bottom of the stairs with one kid studiously ignoring the demands by his mother to come home and finish his homework. Homework could wait. They were more interested in getting me to convince the muezzin to unlock the roof. The roof? I asked. Yes, the roof, they said. They wanted to play on it and they were seldom allowed on it. The roof seemed to offer an intriguing prospect. The roof was, as I remembered from the painting, was a neat arrangement of small white domes that offered interesting opportunities for taking pictures.

The muezzin was a short, jolly fellow. With a quiet voice and an infectious smile. I asked whether I could take pictures inside, and he gladly said yes and proceeded to tell me stories of the mosque. The neighbourhood kids, meanwhile seeing that the muezzin was busy talking to me, tried to sneak up onto the roof. One by one. A game of hide-and-seek followed. And as more kids were chased out, more came back in again. Finally, the muezzin gave up and asked if I wanted to take a look at the roof. The opportunity I had waited for and, I had the sneaky suspicion, so had the kids. I went up to the roof, and so did the game of hide-and-seek, with the kids now being chased away from the roof. Their game of cricket forgotten for now. As I stepped out, the sun was low in the sky. The outside scene had changed with vegetable vendors loudly hawking their wares. As I turned a corner, the Kalan Masjid seemed to be a piece of Old Delhi preserved in a snow globe. A living snow globe. The best sort there is.

It was fun to be a tourist in Delhi again. And this time I had made it a point to go to all the places that I never had during my stay there. The Khan market, Safdarjung's tomb. And Gurgaon. Just to see what all the talk was about. With one more day of stay in Delhi left, which I had reserved to meet a few old friends, I could finally proceed northwards. To Jammu and further. I had, in a corner of my mind, a vague feeling that I would somehow end up in J&K during this trip. It was looking like it was going to come true. And the cold looked very inviting.