A SKETCH OF INDIA
RENATO REDENTOR CONSTANTINO
September 1, 2009
Animesh the Navigator triggered the thirst.
The first stop was in Old Delhi, the walled capital of the Mughal dynasty whose foundations were laid down in 1639 under the rule of Shah Jahan, son of the emperor Jahangir and father to the emperor Aurangzeb and the great Taj Mahal.
If India had pores, a stream of sweat would flow through this old walled city, home to the Chandni Chowk - once a moonlit bazaar and corridor to nobles in search of late night merrymaking.
In its days of glory, Old Delhi was the destination of calligraphers, artists, dancers and artisans. Today, grandeur remains as architecture -- across the road from the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, which can hold up to twenty thousand worshippers -- and as ghosts crisscrossing countless lanes and alleys.
Arriving at deep dusk, Saroj the Scribe is the first to step out of the rickshaw as the call to prayer is issued by the minarets. Animesh and I follow. Faithful legions, many in pristine white, conclude their ablutions and slowly clamber up the steps of the northeast gate of the immense house of worship. From the street, offal and the soot of asphalt and engines pave the footfall of hundreds of pedestrians, vendors, beggars and businessmen hawking their status and wares.
Everything is spilling color, flavor and sound, like a romance of chaos. Yet all that is offered is a sliver.
This is India. Exceptionally real yet intangible. Elusive and intoxicating.
The night we plunged into the universe of passages, we were heat-seeking missiles. The aim was the dhaba called Karim's, a simple eatery of great fame which holds one of the secrets of the old city. It is a key to Mughlai cuisine with a culinary lineage that went back centuries.
The restaurant is a complex composed of four or five dining rooms and an open air kitchen and a square where an occasional motorcycle would weave and honk its way through as uniformed servers carry "gastronomic delights that once tickled the palates of a generation of Mughal emperors."
A step inside Karim's is a stroll inside the house of noise; we are everywhere and we are home.
To our left is an unfurled Indian flag under which a seated man clothed in regal Islamic tunic directs ladles and great silver pots filled with stew. There is an open oven, where various kinds of bread are baked. Crouched men stick and retrieve unleavened chapatis and bright naan from the hot tandoor.
To our right, a decadent fragrance of spices and roasting meat billows out of a long charcoal-filled clay trough. Sparks fly as the griller pokes and caresses angry embers. Behind him, a gang of cooks prepare shaped and skewered meat.
Haji Karimuddin, the son of Haji Noorimudin who was chef to Bahadur Shah Zafar at the summit of the British Raj, opened Karim's in 1913. Today it is run by Karimuddin's son Haji Zahuruddin. Their bloodline extends back hundreds of years to the chefs who conjured feasts in the courts of Mughal emperors till the dynasty was toppled by the British in 1857.
Here in Karim's, grilled mutton burra is unlike any in the world. Here, seekh kabab is unrivaled -- all the variations in the Middle East cannot compare. Here, the simple weds perfectly with the profligate: a salad of raw onions and lemon with freshkly baked bread sprinkled with cumin seeds goes well with alo gosht -- a great preparatory potato stew -- and khadai gosht -- an incredibly fragrant, promiscuously spiced mutton stew. Here, only a kheer can conclude the searing experience: a small dessert of cold milk mixed with rice and pistacchio nuts scooped with a tiny wooden spoon.
Two hours after the feast for three, the teeth of our six eyelids withdraw. Movement is slurred. Things slow down. Hunger is sated and the evening is at an end.
We step outside -- to the pavement where working people exhausted from a full day's work have begun to fill cots strewn along the sidewalks.
Old street lamps flood the road with yellow light and shadows. The time for sleep is near but the incredible din of human chatter has yet to subside.
This is India, where a single night might feel like an endowment of everything -- a year packed in a day or a single inspired moment. It fills the pockets of the mind, like a clutch of shiny stones that can be taken out any day -- a reserve of mystery and joy for pondering and for lean times. #
Photos by Redster.
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