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Sunday, 31 May 2009

For the people

Published: December 23, 2007, 17:16
I returned from my annual leave with two nagging feelings: a haunting nostalgia and a lost opportunity to visit Delhi — the epitome of India's glorious past and a promising future — during my recent trip to the country.
It's difficult to move on to Janpath — meaning "people's boulevard" in Sanskrit — from the bigger canvas of Delhi. Mile-long bazaar
Situated in Lutyens' Delhi, Janpath is popular not because Sonia Gandhi stays at 10 Janpath but for the mile-long haat (bazaar). The place is true to its name and feels like it has been around since time immemorial.
Here you will find the small market stretch bustling with activity. Shoppers and tourists explore the plethora of shops that sell goods ranging from clothes to costume jewellery and other accessories. Food stalls quench the tired shopper's hunger and thirst during the gruesome Delhi heat or spike the chill in the notorious winters with ice-candies. Adding to the enigma is a cluster of Tibetan antiques shops, which bear the typical mark of the kingdom.
The law that rules Janpath's lanes is: "Ask and it shall be given unto you; negotiate and it will be at the rates given by you". The market is frequented not by visitors but old-timers and tourists. The buyer-and-seller chemistry is fascinating and may seem like a tested relationship — a kind that exists between old friends.
Known chemistry
The friend who took me to Janpath for the first time interacted with the vendors there as if they had known each other for ever. The man quoted Rs500 (about Dh50) for a kurta (shirt), to which my friend snapped back: "What brother? Do we look like firangis [foreigners] to you?" And the following tête-à-tête finally fetched us the kurta for just Rs50 (about Dh5).
Some elements have long been associated with Janpath. There are the village women from Gujarat who sell embroidered wall hangings and hail customers in French, Spanish, Italian or German, much to the surprise of baffled passers-by.
The urchin, nagging shoppers to part with a coin or two while eyeing their milkshake from Dee Paul's, flashes a mischievous smile as he tries hard to hide his right hand inside his shirt to exhibit an ostensible handicap. Adding to this crowd is the blind beggar around the corner, who can see!
Between blazing summers and harsh winters, there is the occasional drizzle of rain as well as of luscious black jamuns (Indian blackberries) that pour down from the trees along avenues — an experience that belongs solely to Delhi.
When Kate Winslet, after the success of Titanic, visited India in search of nirvana (inner peace), she visited Janpath. And — can you believe this? — she went unnoticed. No one is a celeb here; this place belongs to the commoners.
Shopping and snacking from roadside vendors is typical of Delhiites, whether you are a millionaire's kin or a sarkari babu's (government officer) daughter.
Some people occupy their particular spots every day — the panwallas (who sell chewies wrapped in betel leaves nailed with a clove), chaatwallas (who sell a delectable sweet'n'sour mixture), golguppewallas (who sell mouthful-balls of fried dough with sweet-and-sour fillings), the chuskiwallas (sorbet-on-stick vendors) and tikkiwallas (selling hash browns with mint chutney). There are also kulfiwallas and jalebiwallas selling Persian sweets, reminiscent of the Mughal days.
Designed to please
Another unforgettable attraction at Janpath is the mehendiwallas (herbal-tattoo artists), who are sprawled out on the pavement and offer, for a pittance, to apply intricate designs on your palms. And, they do this within 15 to 20 minutes! The sweet scent of the ground mehendi leaves mingles with garlands of pearly white jasmines set off by deep fuschia-pink roses — the bouquet is sweeter than the best perfumes in the market.
One can spend hours just observing Janpath's motley crowd. I remember the fruit vendor who managed a windfall from an over-enthused foreigner who paid Rs100 (about Dh10) for bananas from the holy land of Benaras.
I searched in vain for a glimpse of Janpath while walking through Dubai's Meena Bazaar. Janpath is unique. For now, I tell myself as I look forward to my next annual leave … Delhi is not far.

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