The end of Delhi’s street culture?

I was saddened but entirely unsurprised to see in a recent BBC report that Delhi’s excellent street hawkers were being evicted before the Commonwealth Games. With grinding monotony it seems that vegetable sellers, cobblers, presswallahs, hawkers and other undesirables that the city depend on are being moved off – often despite applying for licenses that never come.

According to the National Association of Street Vendors, Delhi has something like 350000 hawkers that sell their wares on the streets. Most live a hand-to-mouth existence and, if they are the main breadwinners in families of perhaps five people, the economic fallout from a large section of Delhi’s working class will be enormous.

The streetwallah’s plight follows Delhi’s drive to evict as many beggars and ‘undesirables’ from the city as it can. Andrew Buncombe’s piece for the Independent here is worth reading.

Earlier this year I read a fascinating book, Trickster City; an anthology of writings from the ‘belly of the metropolis’ by young, working class writers dealing with slum life and eviction. A voice rarely heard – an almost Dickensian cityscape rarely seen by Westerners and desperate to be hidden by the State authorities.

The irony is that many countries celebrate their street culture – especially food – and make them a tourist attraction: one has only to think of Singapore and Vietnam. Delhi’s depressing desire to imitate a corporate driven monoculture is certain to lead to a lessening of the city’s heritage.

My images start with Kishori Lal and his family. Lal, a tailor from Rajasthan, set up his little stall outside the wall of a ‘big man’ twenty two years ago. He takes up the story: “There was no footpath here then. The tree that you see on the footpath is standing on a narrow strip of land between two sewage lines that run underneath. I asked the maali (gardener) to plant it there and got
the sapling for him. If I have any trouble, the Saheb helps me out. After so many years here, like this tree I have also taken roots in Delhi. But who belongs to this place? Even the sahibs are from outside.”

India - New Delhi - Kishori Lal, a tailor and his family under an Ashoka tree

India - Delhi - A paan wallah making paan in Old Delhi. Paan consists of chewing Betel leaf (Piper betle) combined with the areca nut. It is chewed as a palate cleanser and a breath freshener. It is also commonly offered to guests and visitors as a sign of hospitality and as an "ice breaker" to start conversation. It also has a symbolic value at ceremonies and cultural events in south and southeast Asia. Paan makers may use mukhwas or tobacco as an ingredient in their paan fillings. Although most types of paan contain areca nuts as a filling, some do not. Other types include what is called sweet paan, where sugar, candied fruit and fennel seeds are used.
India - Delhi - A street vendor frying potato cakes on a stall
India - Delhi - A street vendor frying potato cakes on a stall
India - Delhi - A Chai Wallah or tea maker makes tea in Old Delhi, India. Traditionally Indian tea is a mixture of tea leaves, water, sugar and sometimes spices boiled together and strained into cups
India - Delhi - A man eats a plate of street food
India - Delhi - A man eats street food bought from a hawker

Curry love

I was intrigued to read this morning on the BBC website that National Curry Week ends in couple of days. I had no idea that there was such a thing but as I was talking about Pie and Mash the other day being snubbed in favour of fast food at the Olympics, I thought I should pay attention.

Britain’s first Indian restaurant, The Hindoostani, was opened by a fascinating character called Dean Mahomed in Portman Square in London in 1810. It was essentially a coffee house where one could smoke hookah and enjoy authentic Indian food. Perfect for the Colonial English gentleman missing his exotic spices. The restaurant, certainly ahead of its time, went bankrupt and Mahomed ended up running a rather successful baths in Brighton – but that’s another story.

It does seem a cliche but curry is often called Britian’s national dish and, although I have no issue with that, nearly all of the UK’s ‘Indian’ food is actually a Bangladeshi hybrid of dishes from all over the sub continent. Strangely, I’m going to be teaching in Bangladesh in January (more later) and so I’ll be able to judge just what authentic Bangla food is like as I eat my way around the country…

‘Curry’ is a shorthand for lots of dishes that is relatively meaningless. India itself (not counting Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka) is extraordinarily culturally diverse. Hundreds of ethnic groups divided into thousands of sub-groups have such a multiplicity of recipies and I’m sure it’s possible to never eat the same thing twice if you tried. ‘Curry’ seems to have been coined to catch everything that is cooked in a gravy. Some people seem to contend that it comes from the Tamil ‘kari‘ but there doesn’t seem to be a definite answer. Like so much in India…

By the way, if you are interested in the synthesis of English and ‘Indian’ you could do worse than buy a copy of ‘Hanklin Janklin’ a fascinating study of ‘Hinglish’ words by the late and sadly missed Nigel B Hanklyn a long time Delhi wallah.

Last year I had the good fortune to be on assignment in Delhi photographing some of the lesser known dishes the city has to offer. I am indebted to Hemanshu Kumar who runs the Eating Out in Delhi blog for his extraordinary insights and his re-discoveries of several dishes. I don’t pretend to know very much about Delhi street food – it’s a vast subject – but I do know how wonderful much of it is. Some of that work is below. Not a balti in sight. Happy eating…

India - Delhi -
India - Delhi - A butcher cuts up meat for Nihari (a breakfast stew made mostly from Buffallo meat but with some mutton brains)
India - Delhi -
India - Delhi - A vendor serves Nihari from a pot outside his shop. Nihari is a breakfast stew made mostly from Buffallo meat but with some mutton brains.
India - Delhi - A dish of Nihari

India - Delhi -
India - Delhi - A street vendor fries potato cakes on a griddle
India - Delhi -
India - Delhi - a street vendor kneads filled dough ready for cooking
India - Delhi -
India - Delhi - A dish of Daulat Ki Chaat, a chilled milk froth considered an ancient Delhi delicacy
India - Delhi -
India - Delhi - A man eats a small pot of strteet chaat

Delhi’s Classic Cafe

It’s with great sadness that I read yesterday in The Times of India that the cafe on Baba Karak Singh Marg is going to close. The Delhi Walla blog has the full story with pictures here.

A strange little place, it was always a haven of quiet away from the tourist throngs of Connaught Place and was never, despite being in a couple of guidebooks a place where many travellers went because thankfully, they couldn’t find it. I was introduced to it maybe a decade or more ago and always made a point of hanging around there between assignments or when I felt the need to come into central Delhi. Tucked away on the roof of a rather downbeat shopping complex it was the kind of place that you had to know was there. The roof ‘garden’ was of course covered in dust and smog but it but it had lovely views if rather awful coffee. The regular clientelle was composed of distinguished older Indian gentleman who’d gather to read the papers and argue about the topic of the day. When I turned up I was usually ignored as it was assumed I was lost and my appalling Hindi seemed only to confirm the fact that I was an idiot. It didn’t matter and I loved it. The staff, unfailingly polite, would always deliver a very ‘masala’ masala dosa which required a second cup of coffee to soothe the heat of the chillies. I unfortunately never tried the ‘humbergers’ nor the milk shakes but I am sure that whatever their culinary achievement I would have enjoyed them.

The coffee shop for me was Delhi – a Delhi that for better and worse is disappearing fast. The place evoked a gentler, simpler time and a city where people read large newspapers, where motor cars (…any car so long as it’s a white Ambassador) were a rarity and the bicycle was what people rode to work. I’ve written before about not romanticising India but there seemed something about the place that actually spoke to me of a bygone London: the (then) chic shopping area, the red velour interiors of Connaught Place’s United Coffee House (now revamped) and the Embassy. A time where you could cross the road in Delhi without being killed.

The whole saga reminds me of the slow death of one of my favourite places in London, The New Piccadilly. I could write a whole piece about the ‘Cathedral of Cafes’ as Adrian Maddox would have it but suffice to say, despite all best efforts, the developers got their way and it closed. I can only recommend the Classic Cafes website and its book as a homage to past glories. Suffice to say there are few places now in London where you can drink a cup of tea and just think without listening to ‘muzak‘ and enduring overpriced coffees sold in incomprehensible sizes as ‘grande’ or ‘tall’. Coincidently, I read today in the Daily Telegraph about a Californian software engineer on a mission to visit every Starbucks in the World. Well good luck with that: I’m still holding out for a world that isn’t based on a greedy corporate propoganda that sucks the individuality and taste (both literal and metaphorical) out of every attempt at difference in order to leverage the last drop of profit.

Tea stains, cigarettes, chipped cups, formica, worn seats, warmth on a cold day, company, a sense of history, courtesy, civility, conversation, ideas. But I digress…

Back in Delhi, the The Times reports Head Waiter Gopal Singh as saying, “If this place closes, our families will land on the streets. If it’s true that rent has not been paid for years, we are willing to pay 50% of our salaries if that will help”. Delhi is a brutal city and I don’t doubt for a second that that would happen.

I never photographed the Coffee House in Delhi, it somehow always seemed like a little bit of home and a liberty to start taking pictures. I retired there sometimes after photographing at the Flower Market on Baba Karak Singh for my project on Delhi. It’s an image from that set that I leave you with.

I wish all those at the Coffee House my best and my sincere gratitude (I was that heavily sweating firangi with the cameras…). Shukriya.

India - New Delhi - A man greets another  buying flowers with a gesture of Namaste at the Flower Market, Baba Kharak Singh Margh
India - New Delhi - A man greets another buying flowers with a gesture of Namaste at the Flower Market, Baba Kharak Singh Margh

A very old photo of me on the roof of the cafe
A very old photo of me on the roof of the cafe

Ps… if you want to find rather wonderful places to eat in Delhi you could do worse that seek out Hemanshu Kumar and his fantastic blog, Eating out in Delhi