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25 July 2014 Society Impressions

A Night Walk In Old Delhi

A Sehari walk—before the fasting begins for the day—at night in the streets that offer more than a feast

It's well past 11 pm on Saturday night and at least 35 people are gathered, exchanging smiles and getting introduced, not in party clothes with hair letdown, but in comfortable linen, along a narrow, rutted street outside gate no.5 of the Chandi Chowk metro station in Purani Dilli. The air, heavy with humidity, makes sweat dribble down foreheads incessantly. Unconcerned, the 35 of them march briskly ahead into a walk that would last as long as the night itself. 

Chandi Chowk, however, seems groggy, as if it were just waking up after a day tired from fasting. These very streets would, in less than an hour, be wide awake to hundreds jostling around, haggling and gorging, characteristic of a Ramzaan evening in this part of the city that barely sleeps through the season. 

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Not just a fourth who are foreigners, but each one of the 35 young and old, seem alien in their surroundings as they begin their journey – a 'food walk' set out to taste every delicacy the season has to offer, in shops tucked away along cramped, grimy streets. After gaping suspiciously at them, families in cycle rickshaws carrying polythene bags full of goods, and men whizzing around in impeccable white kurtas and skull caps, finally declare them 'tourists'. True to the word, even Delhiities turned tourists in their own city. Thoroughly charmed by the energy and colour of the night, they kept clicking; first, Cheeni Bhai, outside his 80 year-old banta (lemon soda) stall, atop a large iron box (making him appear much taller than his five-feet) greeting his customers with a neatly choreographed namaste and a broad grin; then Khan chacha making his perfect, cheesy, spicy omelette and half-fry and later into the night Shafi dada, with his flowing white beard, secretly revealing the 180-year-old recipe of his celebrated kheer. Even weary men sleeping shirtless on wooden-carts which they seemingly pushed around all day, were not spared. 

Curious about Indian ways and love for food brought a sizeable number of French, Canadians and Italians living in Delhi, especially women, to the 'sehri walk' after they read about it on the internet or heard of it through a friend, they say. While old Delhi food walks take place all year long, it is during Sehri that the clock turns upside down. "Quintessential breakfast cuisine in old Delhi, nihari (slow- cooked beef), is made only for breakfast and not after. This season, however, it is available only at night, after 11 pm due to Roza," says Anubhav, an HR expert by profession and a food connoisseur by passion, who organizes these food walks. 

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Anubhav's food walks are inspired by the Old Delhi walks, focused on heritage, which have been conducted for over a decade by organizations such as Indian Tradition and Heritage Society (ITIHAS). He initiated the food walks with a focus on the variety of delectable, yet little known, non-vegetarian food besides sweets in the region. Breaking the stereotype of foreign women dreading 'Delhi rapists' and the 'Delhi Belly', Anna (50), a French lady who is a new Delhiite working at a news agency quips, "I've had all kinds of street food in the months that I have spent in Delhi, even Golgappas, and I haven't had a problem. I shouldn't speak too early though." 

Having devoured the omelettes, nihari, chicken kabab, mutton biryani, kheer and shahi tudka, it is time to lug oneself up to the splendid Jamma Masjid. Inside, the din and bustle of the street drown in the calm that permeates the shrine that towers gloriously in the 4 am moon light. In a few minutes, tourists are rushed out in preparation for morning prayers. 

It is time to bid goodbye. While most Indian women on the walk didn't turn up unaccompanied, Anubhav is concerned about how the others would make it alone to their homes. A Canadian, Stella (28) says, "Don't worry. It's only the media hype that makes Delhi appear unsafe. It's never difficult to find helpful, friendly people in India."

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