Our carrier, a model ancient enough to be fossilized as prehistoric and lovingly called “The Tractor’ by the owner, was a self effacing predecessor of a modern, much-in-demand luxury brand. Sturdy but stout, the four- wheeler, a prized possession of the family, had to be ensconced in a safe nook before we could proceed further. The day a weekend and parking space in the narrow confines of the city being usually scarce, we decided to leave our chariot in the dark adjacent alley and walk the short distance. The alley-way was a long, winding, undulating stretch vanishing somewhere into the distant horizon. Our car found space in front of the closed gates of a hospital whose façade was but an insignia of an era long gone by.
It was in this bizarre locale that I spotted the most extra-ordinary beauty bordering on the ethereal. Her pitch black locks tamed by an arm length of chiffon, her perfect hair line, the ivory texture of her contours, the arch of her forehead, the cesspool of her dreamy eyes, the perch of her aquiline nose, her immaculate jaw-line and above all her beatific smile disclosing a set of evenly moulded pearly teeth condensed into a spectral persona of measured perfection.
Her long lost youth was draped in white simplicity. Nor was she adequately adorned. But everything about her gleamed glowed and glittered. Smoky scenes floated by as I captured her beauty in my mind’s eye…………..
An infinitesimal moment of endless gauzes of sequined fantasy swirling on marbled corridors, the petal soft footfalls on cold surface, the fringe of deep, dark eyelashes lifting just a little bit to showcase the bottom less ravines of mesmerizing gaze, the misty shadows underlying the hollows underneath the dark pools poorly disguising the pain beneath the mirth, the heavily hooded demeanours, the careless wink of thousand lights refracting from the valuables carefully ornamenting the fragile forms, the seductive beckoning – the enchanting temptresses with their bouquet of ceaseless charms and entrapments.
I could hear the tinkle of glasses and crystals reverberating in the crowded halls, the whispered conversations of the sophisticates and the cumulated symphony of thousand bells loosely tied around the anklets ushering in long evenings of melodious playfulness drawing to a reluctant close in the wee hours past midnight. Against the backdrop of dark silhouettes she was a remembrance of forbidden galore of a tainted past best kept secluded in the pages of historical romances.
We decided to take a rickshaw to our destination. Halfway down the crowded path we decided not to torture the puller anymore. The elevated road and our cumulated girth made onorous demands on the man’s emaciated frame. A city can best be explored on foot. The road was brightly lit, flanked by shops and bar-be-que stalls, selling beef kebabs, on the left and the Mosque on the right - Jama Masjid, built in 1658 during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, an ensemble of minars and domes, stood like a dark knight enduring in brooding silence the ravages of history. This was my first close-quarter-view of the behemoth, (which is an absolute shame as I take pride in categorizing myself as the quintessential Delhite).
Kareem, though not comparable with the spatial extravagance and architectural grandeur of the historical assemblage, can still lay claim to fame and antiquity. It was started in 1913 as a small tawa restaurant adjacent to the city wall. It is going to complete its centenary in 2013. I was surprised to find that the motley of sit-and-eat arrangements was located off the main road almost hidden from public view accessed through a sliver of a meandering pathway.
I had heard much about its ambience and gentry but was still pleasantly surprised by the wide cross section of the populace frequenting the spot. From locals to foreigners to tourists from other parts of the country, they were all there. The spotlessly clean vessels to the framed accolades adorning the walls, the understated elegance of the delicacies and the unceremonious attitude of the supervisors spoke volumes. Kareem is the only restaurant in the world which serves the goat foot soup and brain curry for breakfast. Highly recommended by BBC and National Geography, no doubt, it is the much coveted food joint for the West meeting the East. Kareem is the only restaurant which caters to foodies from 7.00 am in the morning to 12.00 pm midnight. I am told that the relaxation in operating time is by a special permission of the Government. It is also a fact that at midnight the horde of gluttons still thronging around the premise are perfunctorily told to leave. Fame and de-fame both attribute to legend.
Our culinary choice included tandoori fish, a dark golden brown slice of unfragmented wholesomeness, raann an enormous hind leg, like the ones you see in English movies poking out of silver salvers, suffused with exotic ingredients, mutton korma, an irreproachable blend of fluidity flavor and taste, and tandoori rotis which melted in the mouth like butter. The difference in class could be made out from the aroma itself which was less of an assault on our sensory organs and more like a lingering caress on our palates.
While coming back, we had to traverse a tricky bend almost blocked by an SUV filled with burqa clad figures with kohl-laced eyes scanning the periphery – a burning example of a society in transition where tradition jostles uncomfortably in the crammed space of modern comfort. I got what I wanted. Walking through the roads, passing by the shops, snatching a few pieces of conversations and looking into the eyes of passers-by, I gleaned fragments of an old world habited by people who looked different, behaved differently and articulated in a different way. Crevices in the cocoon spilled out a culture (tehzeeb) which once formed the bed-rock of the cityscape. Currently, defamed by misplaced fundamentalism, it perhaps bemoans its slow demise, under star bedecked wintry nights, when unknown travelers like me tread past the sands of time.
Post Script: The romantic escapade was followed by a subsequent revisit which was, in short, a complete anathema to my preceding venture. It had rained the previous night resulting in the usual pandemonium which the city experiences as an aftermath to an unexpected downpour. Roads were choc-o-bloc and metro came to a stand still. Stranded at Kashmere Gate and surviving a stampede at the metro station, I decided to take the road which was the biggest blunder of the day. As I came out of the station, I realized that I was once again in the labyrinthine gullies of the walled city but now in broad daylight.
The mud-splurged roads interspersed with ankle-spraining pot holes, the heavy congestion of traffic, the inability to get a transport to my workplace and my limited knowledge of the area added a strong potion of disillusionment to my earlier euphoria. I cursed myself for being a romantic fool and having ever imagined that the rugged landscape of this part of the city could be shrouded in anything but a film of mystique expansiveness.
The transcendence of time was more than apparent. The trot of the cattle’s hooves and the groan of the cart wheels were now replaced by the cacophony of honking horns and haze of polluted emissions. The azaan and the nahabat were drowned in the angry shouts of the rushing multitudes whose feeble attempts at surviving the Draconian drudgeries of modern civilization were an every day priority. The solicitous hospitality had been overpowered by disinterested detachment. The cityscape presented a grey, dirty, dingy, bleak and lackluster facade.
I was lost. So was lost the nightscape of not so long ago when I had trodden these alley ways inhaling deeply the fragrance of by-gone imageries. The stars had winked at me mischievously then. The sun hid in shame behind the dark descending clouds today. End of a lost era…..end of an illusion…………the rude, crude reality cackled with ominous glee as I at last sped towards my destination in a three-wheeled machine leaving behind trails of black dust and smoke………and a sadness which spread vapour by vapour in the quickly evaporating surreality, a figment of my imagination………..