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Clothes, cakes and a chat: Wandering in Paharganj and the bargain

By Anoothi Vishal

Should the so-called “tourist traps” necessarily be avoided? As a traveler with some pretensions, seeking out the local, looking for immersive experiences wherever I go, even if it’s a short, three-day affair, I have been disdainful of touristy hangouts. “But these obvious kind of places is really where you meet all kinds of interesting people,” suggested a co-traveller once and I have finally found that to be true.

Paharganj, Delhi’s backpacker district, would never have featured on my agenda—especially since I do live in Delhi. And do not need to do touristy things like take a tour guide to see the Red Fort and the Qutab Minar. Or, even just “see” the Red Fort and the Qutab Minar. It’s sad but true that we get so used to living our own versions of reality in the cities we inhabit that we never do land up seeing them with a new set of eyes. And we certainly do not make the effort to take in their architectural, cultural or even culinary splendours the way an Outsider does; well, because all those in some ways also reside in us. If men live in cities, cities live in men too, I read somewhere. And again, that’s true.

But there are corners of the city that lives in me that I have never been to. Paharganj is one of them. I have of course boarded countless trains from the station there. Despaired at the chaotic traffic in its general vicinity, had visions of seedy hotels, drug-dens and ageing hippies in its narrow lanes, but never, never set foot inside the place.

This Sunday, on a whim, I decided to alter that state of affairs and begin my adventures closer home. So I find myself on a hot afternoon disgorged from a friendly autorickshaw on the arterial street of the Paharganj market.

First impressions: It is certainly less chaotic than I have been expecting and much less crowded than some of the other places I have been to in the circus called India. There is far less hustling by touts/shopkeepers than in some other towns in the country. But I am amused nevertheless when sellers of all manner of things from apparel to kites sporadically direct their “hello, madam” greetings at me, urging me into their stores to buy whatever they are selling in the mistaken belief that I am some kind of a lost foreign soul on these shores. I have that kind of a face: In Europe, they think I am European; in India, if I dress in a studenty way, they still think the same.

I do stop by at a tiny shop selling incredibly cheap clothing and land up buying quite a stylish shirt for just Rs 125. I normally pay 10 times that for similar stuff at the malls where middle-class Indians like me invariably land up going these days to fuel the cycle of endless consumption that is keeping our economy going apparently. I haven’t visited flee markets and those selling export surplus like Lajpat Nagar and Sarojini Nagar in years now. But even there, I doubt, whether I’d be able to buy cheaper.

Happy with my buy, I browse at a couple of second-hand bookstores. It would be easy to spend an entire day buried here. One of these doubles as an astrology centre, the other as a café and I am tempted to check out both, but end up wandering, observing all the other tourists speaking in so many different tongues conduct their business here. What is definitely strange is that even here, there are more Indians than foreigners visibly buying up things—fruits, locks, the like. But with a population of one billion plus in this country, we can hardly expect to be outnumbered even in these foreign-traveller-ghettos, unlike, say London.

The Gem Bar, on the other hand, seems to be a destination only for the tourists. It is a dark, cavernous space, lit up by coloured lights. I contemplate going in and buying myself some cold beer on this hot day. But then there’s no guarantee that it will not be warm or served in a tea pot (apparently some places here do that!) and any way I chicken out at the prospect of going to such a dingy place alone.

This is after all is still India and years of living with caution in a country not known to respect its women catch up suddenly. The German bakery, on the other hand, holds no such qualms and terrors. I sink into a chair, order myself lemon-grass tea and a wedge of the tempting, homely lemon cake I have seen in the window. And I write in my little diary. What a perfect afternoon…

The café is filling up and strangely enough I find that most of the backpackers seem to be women travelling in twos. Voyages of discovery by the sistahs, are these? Fueled perhaps by Eat, Pray, Love.

But my mind is already wandering to Europe, as it invariably does when wanderlust strikes, thinking about French fries and other things in Ghent that I visited just a couple of months ago, when I notice a hesitant trio come in: two women, one man. They squeeze into the table next to mine, look around, look at my tea, consult and look at my tea again. “It’s lemon grass, very refreshing,” I offer, they promptly order the same.

“So where are you from?” I check off that box on my list. “Belgium,” they say. Synchronity is not strange if you pay attention to it. “Oh, I was there two months ago, it’s so lovely,” I say, checking off another box. “Where did you go?”; Ghent,” I say, still thinking of the fries. “That’s where we are from,” they chime, one Dutch-, the other French- speaker, excited now. And thus begins an afternoon of pleasant conversation. Strangers colliding into each other’s orbits for that tiny fraction of time. Things that happen only in touristy places.

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