Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Photo Essay: Veils, Beards, and Eid Desserts in the Exotic Streets of Old Delhi

A heritage walk with an American in the Muslim quarter of India's capital.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The night sky twinkled with its stars. The crowded street glittered with its decorated electric bulbs. We were sitting on the stone stairs of the dully-lit Jama Masjid -- the world’s greatest and grandest mosque. Our heads were light and our eyes were hazy after indulging in a few shots of vodka.

A plump woman, wrapped in several folds of her black chador, was staring at us intently. Oh, I should say towards my friend. He was an American — a white man. In fact, everyone was gaping at him. Many were coming to shake his hand. A few even shook mine, perhaps hoping to catch the molecules of a white man's skin by touching somebody with so close an access to him!

I rejoiced in this borrowed stardom.

Bazaar Scene - View From the Jama Masjid Stairs

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Bazaar Scene - View From Within

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Bazaar Scene - View From a Side Alley

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It was the last day of the fasting festival of Ramadan and we had decided to roam in the streets of the night bazaar hoping to click oriental pictures — of Muslim women covered in black drapes; of bearded men with skull caps; of eateries selling multi-colored delicacies.

My friend wanted to click Incredible India pictures -- the sort where beggars conveniently sit against a setting of third world glitter, with cows and dogs and filth and people as necessary background details. Except cows, everything was plentiful. The friend was not disappointed. I was happy for him.

Sandals For Your Mistresses, Wives, Daughters, Sisters, and Mothers

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The market street resembled a cheap Hindi movie set. We were the audience and everybody else members of some large dance troupe all set to break out into a hip-shaking song and dance at any moment.

Or was it like a mall — Jama Masjid style?

There were shops selling Pakistani visa forms; wooden carts with pots of biryani simmering in them; mounds of shiny sandals toppling over one another in the pavement; hole-in-the-wall bakeries employing scores of Oliver Twists; chador stalls displaying shrouds in various colors; cloth shops cluttered with mannequins.

The Ladies Do Wear All These Colorful Clothes, But Under the Black Robes

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Most appetizingly, there were gangs of draped girls shopping around in a festive mood. Their eyes, popping out of the veils, were the only part of their anatomy visible to the outside world -- attractive enough to fall in love with but, at the same time, potentially dangerous to stare into them.

Meanwhile, men flocked in great numbers to embrace my friend’s exotic white skin. Such outpouring of physical affection led him to declare that it’s only the Indian Muslims in the entire Islamic world where Americans could still expect to be kissed, and not killed.

Pakistani Visa Forms Sold Here - India's Relationship With Its 'Enemy' is More Complicated than is Usually Realised

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The Art of Street Decoration

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Everyone — old men and young boys, but no women — were calling out to us to photograph them. Unfortunately, we were bored of the beards and skull caps. We wanted these men’s ladies in our lenses instead. But we were scared. Suppose the haughty men took it as an attack on their family honor? What if these demure ladies get upset and start beating us with their sandals?

We also did not rule out the possibility of being misunderstood as streetside Romeos, or worse as Internet pornographers planning to morph their eyes on the faces of naked women.

It was risky and this hesitation became frustrating when we came across an Allah-gifted vision of a lady, covered in black, shopping for lingerie in a roadside stall.

Has anyone ever seen a draped women picking out bras and panties?

It was too difficult not to take a picture. But neither of us had any guts. We were fearful for our expensive cameras; for our drunken dignity; and for our lives. The moment petered out.

Posing Suggestively

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The mood was magical but the street was stinking with a mixed smell of human pee, horse dung, and chicken kebabs. The friend suddenly started recalling his travels in Malaysia. There, he mused, people constantly run down Chinese settlers for their allegedly filthy habits. Those Indonesians would die of heart failure if they visited Delhi, he smirked.

I laughed with a palpitating longing to loll around in all this filth.

Food Scene - The Ramadan Special Desserts

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Food Scene - Deep Fried Bread
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Food Scene - Sewai; Vermicelli, Later Cooked in Thickened Milk (A Ramadan feast is incomplete without this dessert)

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Food Scene - Oliver Twist Baking a Naan Bread!

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We soon noticed an old man following us for a long time. Perhaps he wanted to offer prostitutes. But he was merely selling hundred-rupee-a-night hotel rooms. Still, the encounter was not in vain — he looked like a Persian noble and we asked if he would mind to pose for us. To our delight, Mr. Hotel Agent nodded heartily and happily smiled for us, first for my camera and then for my friend’s.

It turned out he hailed from Kashmir, not Persia.

A Hotel Agent - From the Vales of Kashmir to the Smog of Delhi

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We walked on. There was a picturesque sight of starving beggars, sitting outside the eateries, waiting for the charitably inclined believers to offer them food coupons. Like proper tourists, we started focusing our cameras on these beggars. But somehow it looked too obscene to click their pictures. Isn't it called Poverty Pornography? So we walked on.

The Brotherhood of Beggars

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However, our ardent dream of capturing a veiled woman was still unrealized. The friend sportingly called them the 'caged people'. My liberal heart took offence and a long-winded speech on ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘respect for different lifestyles’ strutted out from my alcoholic lips.

The friend laughed and I shrugged.

We passed by more women draped in increasingly beautiful chadors, decorated with beautiful golden-thread embroideries. Tempted to stop the ladies and hug them hard, we wanted to plead, "Madame, please Madame, let us click your picture.' But we were afraid.
At one point we noticed a jewelry store where the ‘caged people,’ looking happy in their cages, were choosing gold earrings. Our hearts shivered in nervousness as we apologetically muttered if we could take a picture. The pleasant jeweler flashed a big yellow-toothy smile in consent.

Alas, he, only he, then posed for us.

A Jeweler Displays His Ware - But Where are the Women?

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Two hours clicked past since we had begun this stroll. We now walked through an alley and emerged out into a highway. Suddenly, the glitter had gone, the noise was silenced and the crowd had vanished. There were no beards and no veils to be seen. The jolly planet had receded back into its orbit. We were stranded back in the real world. It was very abrupt.

A Lazy Merchant in a Relaxed Mood

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After two days the friend complained of reeling under a particularly vicious virus attack. It was handshakes with all those palms of bazaar people, he supposed. I whispered consoling sweet nothings and decided to go back again.

This time alone.


Anonymous said...

Hi there - thanks for the link to your site. Some great details and pictures here! I'm interested in the idea of 'poverty pornography' - the challenge is always to capture what deserves to be brought to the attention of the rich, but to do so in a way which doesn't demean. Tightrope!

Anyway, will be back again to read more. Cheers
Andrew Morris (

And by the way, I AM writing a book :-)

Katie said...

those photos are just so wonderful, and a wonderful article. I enjoyed it so much!

Mayank Austen Soofi said...

Thanks katie. These pictures were taken during the Ramadan festival. Old Delhi is indeed an very exotic place.

Mayank Austen Soofi said...

Hello Andrew,
You are right about 'poverty pornography'. We must not play with their dignity while at the same time not shying away from showing the unfortunate circumstances of our fellow people to affect the conscience of the relatively wealthy. But sometimes I feel too embarrassed to take their pictures....

Akshay said...

Mayank, sadly I've never borne witness to "exotic streets of old delhi" at least not on Eid. I'm sure Eid in Old Dehli reflects the city - I'm sure it a far grander affair than the one I experienced in Bombay - a celebration to go with the majesty of the Jamia Masjid.

In the end the scenes you describe are pretty much shadowed by the ones in Mumbai except for a stand that sold visa forms for Pakistan here in Mumbai there was a stand that sold visa forms for Dubai.

Mayank Austen Soofi said...

Akshay, does that say a lot about the ethos of Delhi and Bombay? Pakistani visa forms sold here and Dubai visa forms sold there. Delhites are more bothered with their cultural affinity while Bombayites are swayed by the money speak. Hmmm, that is a interesting observation.

zzz-writer said...

its been a wish of mine to visit old delhi, chandini chowk in the evening but always wondered if it would be too late to get back home from there :) looking at this post i am glad i got to see the bazaar in its exotic glory of evening lights and festive mood.thanks for this.

Mayank Austen Soofi said...

You must certainly go to visit Old Delhi in the evening. Articles and photographs can never subsitute the pleasure of real-life experience. And then again it is your own perceptions which should matter to you. Old Delhi is not very far. It is never too late there. And you can always get metro or auto or bus from there. Please go there.

zzz-writer said...

i totally agree with you, now wth the metro its quite possible actually.
btw, i have always wanted to visit the red fort too but have'nt uptill now. sometimes i feel that peple from all over the world come and visit these places and people like me are so stuck in our daily rut that...
i also want to share that a few days back i saw this documentary film on DD- delhi on the food culture of chandini chowk and it traced the origins of such items like sohan halwa (on the name of the master chef at he halwai shop) and also the story of ghante wala. and the halim shop not to miss out the famous parathen wali gali.
it gave a historic background to how this bazaar actually came up, when the badshaah would take a stroll down the road, these halwais would prepare the choicest dishes and offer it to the king and his party.