I was trying to park between two poles. With the entirety of my focus on the breaks, I kept inching closer to one of them. And suddenly, a jerk, a shudder, and then silence. “What did I hit?” I looked around. “Nothing,” my friend Aarushi was also holding on to the hand brake. “The car stalled.” “Oh.” That was as close to the pole as I was willing to risk. I turned off the car.
I’d learnt how to drive fresh out of school, but was almost immediately shipped off to lands near and far chasing those pesky degrees. And now that I had a little extra downtime (thanks, COVID), I thought I’d practice driving again. Maybe get my license this time around!
Read: In Your Own Backyard
I don’t venture far. My lack of faith in my own skills is only part of the reason, the remaining has something to do with trusting only South Delhi roads. Yes, I know, I’m that girl. But driving around my neighbourhood—I guess we’ll call it that—has made me notice a lot of details I’d missed in the 17 years of living here. Speed breakers are only one of them.
There’s a rhythm to it, it’s almost like a dance. Step one is to grab one of three unlucky license-wielding friends willing to risk their lives for me. I’m kidding, it’s probably safest to be inside the car when I drive. Step two is navigating out of my ridiculously over-parked colony and hitting the road towards Greater Kailash (GK) Part II.
Time for a Snack
The GK II M-Block market holds quite a few fond memories for me. The bars and restaurants keep changing, but there are a few solid ones I always recommend. Most first dates for me are at Uber Lounge, a broody restaurant with a hookah bar in the basement. I know the staff, and it’s an easy escape if things go south.
If things are looking up, I usually move to one of the brighter places around like Big Fat Sandwich & Pizza, or Nik Baker’s. Fig & Maple is great for a rooftop brunch (pre-COVID), followed by an assortment of ice cream sandwiches to share at Pearl’s. All these places are now open for take-aways and delivery. On Sundays, I like splurging on a chia bowl at Nut & Bowls, partly for the name, and partly because it’s delicious.
Read: On Higher Ground
This vegan café is open for diners to sit in as well, after a quick thermal screening and trusty ol' sanitisation. But what’s a drive without some danger, and I turn into Chittaranjan Park (CR Park). Cars, electric rickshaws, bikers, babu-moshais, from every direction; it keeps your toes greased. My other driving buddy, Pranav, once told me about a bird dropping dead on his windscreen from the sky. I don’t remember where it was, but I like to think it was here.
I’m not a “real” Bengali, my mother likes to say. I don’t like fish, I can survive on butter chicken for years, and while I thought I spoke the language quite fluently, my colleagues tend to disagree. Real or not, my love for phuchka transcends all conditioning. But there’s no way you can stop at just phuchkas at Market No. 1. The Hot Kathi Roll stall is my favourite. When I was younger, my father used to bring me here for the paratha rolls. I remember his disdain when I once brought back rumali rolls—the kind I preferred—for him. Here, however, I bee-line to the Chinese Chaat counter. It’s probably terrible for you, but I’ll have another one, please.
My mother often does her guests-are-coming sweet shopping at Kamala Sweets, and I use that time to munch on some jhaal muri. You can try Kolkata-style biryani, Mughlai food, momos, cutlets and chops, and the works. There’s of course the fish market, but that’s usually where the not-a-real Bengali in me draws the line. No, thank you.
Sauntering through Time
Just across the Outer Ring Road, a little ways from the now-desolate Epicuria and INOX in Nehru Place, there’s a sudden and drastic shift in the energy. I’m not one to talk about vibes, but as you approach the Lotus Temple Complex, the trees aren’t the only things that glow green. Do places have auras? I guess this one does.
This Bahá’í House of Worship was built in 1986 and sits in the midst of 26 acres of gardens, pools and walkways. Designed by Iranian-Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba, this lotus-shaped marvel oozes tranquility. While there is a visitor’s centre talking about the Bahá’í faith, the temple itself is meant for people of all faiths to worship in harmony. It has, however, remained shut ever since the lockdown.
I don’t think I had ever driven further down the road, but to my surprise, it quickly changes into a cobblestone street. Quaint and quiet—the latter due to the pandemic, perhaps—it leads you straight to the Kalkaji Mandir Metro Station. As you turn in, however, years of tyres and rain haven’t fared the stones well. Make sure your car is used to some roughing up before driving through.
Read: Eat Or Delete?
From here, the way to the Mehrauli– Badarpur Road is pretty straightforward. I drive through there for a very special reason: monkeys. More specifically, packed troops of infant-carrying rhesus macaques. They line the woods and the walls holding up the Air Force Station to the right, and the Tughlaqabad Fort to the left.
Tughlaqabad was the third avatar of modern-day Delhi. Legend has it, this 14th-century fort was cursed when Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq—the first ruler of the Tughlaq dynasty in 1320—poached workers from the Sufi saint Nizamuddin to build his city. The saint decreed that the fort would only be occupied by shepherds, or it would be unoccupied, but the sultan spent four years building it anyway. A mere 15 years later, it was abandoned.
There are stories of djinns floating around, but it could also have been the water shortage. I guess we’ll never know. The fort is stunning in the early evenings with the right weather. There’s a path leading off the Mehrauli–Badarpur Road, which you can take to hike around the ruins. The monument is open for visitors and is best explored on foot. Make sure you go in a group, however, as the fort is sprawling with numerous underground rooms to discover. Tughlaqabad Fort is also a paradox in the way that it’s well known, but also forgotten in Delhi’s maelstrom of monuments.
Trails of the City
On the other side of the fort, away from Faridabad, you can see the expansive Jahanpanah City Forest. It is, quite literally, my backyard. Incidentally, Jahanpanah was the fourth city of Delhi, built by Ghiyasuddin’s son, Mohammad bin Tughlaq. The Mad King, if you will.
I drive homeward through Alaknanda Market, where I stop at least once a month to pick up an extra copy of OT. There’s also a chaat stall inside with mouthwatering aloo tikkis. But I’ve managed to not indulge myself just yet.
Instead, I park the car at home and walk down to the entrance of the Jahanpanah City Forest. The 800-acre wilderness is set right in the middle of the otherwise bustling South Delhi, and covers Greater Kailash II, Alaknanda, Chirag Delhi and Tughlaqabad, among other neighbourhoods. Although it has an origin steeped in history, the forest today has no remnants of the old city of Jahanpanah. Very little of it remains today anyway.
The forest, however, is a welcome escape. I walk past the gardens and playgrounds manicured by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and into the proverbial wild. There’s a roughly four-mile long tarred track around the circumference of the forest, with dozens of little trails snaking through. The constant cacophony of peacocks calling out to each other, crickets chirping, leaves rustling, and unidentified animals scurrying along the bushes remind me that there’s life outside of our omnipresent pandemic isolation.
I like following the trail that leads to what I like to call my rock. It’s just a bunch of giant boulders piled on top of one another to climb, sit on, and simply watch the expansive green stretch for miles around you. The forest is also great for a quiet stroll or a quick run. It is, however, extremely easy to get lost if you’re not familiar with it. There aren’t any street lights or trail markers, and after dark, it does get quite eerie.
The more you know.
A New Dawn
The pandemic has turned the world upside down, but it’s heartening to see Delhi rebuilding itself. If there’s anything my explorations have taught me, it’s that you would be hard-pressed to find a city as resilient as this one. From Lal Kot to Siri, Tughlaqabad to Jahanpanah, the city has rebuilt itself into Firozabad, Sher Garh, Shahjahanabad, and New Delhi. The spirit of the city doesn’t stall, quite unlike my car.
What will we call it next?