November 05, 2008

Old Delhi

The first time I went down to Old Delhi, I went along with a friend – I didn’t know if it’d be safe to go alone. If not anything else, there are a number of narrow winding lanes and being the kind of person who can get lost on a straight road quite easily, I was anything but enthusiastic about going there alone. It was night. And, as everyone knows, you do not experiment with being alone and on foot anywhere late at night if you can avoid it. Especially if you’re a woman.

The next time I went down to the city, I didn’t take anyone along with me. I went there in broad daylight. I got a bit lost: went a kilometer down a road I hadn’t intended to take and then walked all the way back. Nothing untoward happened. What struck me though was that there were so few women on the streets: it felt as though there was one woman for every fifty men, and the vast majority of women who were visible wore burqas.

I had lunch at a restaurant there. Mutton with a piece of potato and tandoori rotis. Floating in oil but amazing nonetheless. A friend later said that a single woman at that restaurant is rather unusual. But then again, a single woman almost anywhere is an anomaly.

Once I had eaten, I went to the Jama Masjid next door which is India’s largest mosque. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan at a cost of one million rupees around 1650 and lies about 500 m away from the Red Fort. Unlike Hindu temples, although they require footwear to be removed, they allow people to carry their shoes into the mosque so there isn’t a massive pile of shoes at the entrance. The red sandstone isn’t unbearably hot even at midday and the marble is cool to walk on.

After leaving the Masjid, I walked down Meena Bazaar which lies between the Masjid and the Red Fort. I bought a ‘hair band’ which I’m in love with because it looks like a ‘gajra’ of fresh jasmine. And I visited the tomb of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

The mosque is a beautiful structure and I’m glad I went there. I don’t think I would want to go there again though. Not alone, at any rate. I was so unnerved by the time I got there that I don’t think I really managed to appreciate it.

There wasn’t anything "strange" which happened to me when I was in Old Delhi.

The lanes are narrow. The by-lanes are not exactly clean. There are shops which sell nothing but rat traps which is hardly reassuring. The buildings make one think that it would be easy to make someone disappear in them: that if one was trapped inside, there would be absolutely no one who would either know, or, for that matter, care.

Women (and children), I discovered, are not allowed to go up the towers of the mosque unless they are accompanied (by a man). And women are not allowed to enter the mosque after Maghrib (Sunset) prayer. The men in the streets overtly stare in that sickeningly lascivious way that only men can. The waiter barely listened to me when I gave him my order. The shopkeepers at the bazaar kept trying to sell me a niqab.

I don’t remember any of that happening the first time I went to Old Delhi. Do men not publicly leer at women who appear to be attached to another man? Or did I just not see it at night? Either way, if I ever go back of my own volition, it probably won’t be without a man in tow.