The air is full of smoke and the streets are full of people and every kind of litter and dirt. Phaharganj bazaar is described by my guidebook as being a bit of a ghetto. I guess that’s fair, but as with other ghetto-like places it is full of colourful people and activities. I warily start to expand my locus of activity and visit a chai wallah. I won’t need to worry about the dearth of cakes and chocolate in my diet here, as you almost need to ask them to put some chai with your sugar. And I’m coping with the cow’s milk as the sugar masks everything. Still, these little glasses are a lifesaver and two to start the day has already become normal – at 4-5 rupees each (15c) it’s a break from Sydney prices!
Later on in an Internet café I start talking with a guy who looks like he just popped down from Valhalla for a visit. He is about 5’ 6”, of stocky build with flowing white hair, an Imperial and moustache, and clear blue eyes.
‘You’re Canadian?’ I venture carefully.
‘Why, yes. Thankyou. And you are Australian?’
Mutual appreciation sets in. We realise we are wasting our Internet time chatting so we head off for chai. Bernie has been here for four months and is flying out tomorrow to join his girlfriend in London for Christmas, so he’s planning on doing some gift shopping in the surrounding bazaars and alleyways of Paharganj. He comes to this part of the world regularly and has spent some time running white water rafting trips up in Nepal. He looks like a very fit individual and at 51, probably still outguns most of his young paddlers. Like most Canadians I’ve met he’s very relaxed and easy to hang around with.
We chat as we walk, dodging auto rickshaws, phlegmatic cows, cowed dogs, bicycles, potholes, sludgy puddles and dirt. Everyone squeezes by each other in the most narrow of confines. You dice with danger when you step out without looking behind you. Now I know the urgent hallo-hallo-HALLO! behind me isn’t a salesman but a cyclist trying to get past.
Bernie leads me down a narrow alley full of bead wholesalers. Stacks and stacks of plastic bags full of beads of every colour and shape. Bernie knows what he is about and asks for some Rajasthani beads which have bumpy silver inlays. While he haggles I run my hands over glass baubles of every colour and hue, hand painted ceramic and metal and smooth stone varieties. The proprietor obliges Bernie by breaking open some bags and selling him ten each of three varieties. ‘That was really nice of him to do that,’ he said as we left. ‘He is a wholesaler after all.’
Bernie has a nice way of bargaining that I am keen to imitate. ‘Lots of smiles get you a long way here, and so does acting the clown and not taking yourself too seriously,’ he explained. I watched him buy some sweets at a roadside stall. ‘50 rupees? Do you think today it might be 40?’ he asks smiling. He gets a friendly head wobble in return along with the desired price. But another time he attempts to buy two large pieces of a peanut brittle-like sweet. The vendor says 20 rupees and Bernie offers 10. When the vendor won’t budge Bernie pockets his money and we walk away. ‘I won’t pay double the going price just because I’m a tourist,’ he huffs. ‘And you know what? He will think about that lost 10 rupees for a long time. I know he will.’
We next spy a man doing a roaring trade from a swish looking coffee machine. We wait for five men in front of us to be served – he’s a popular man. I warily eye what looks like an instant coffee jar. We wait for the milk to be steamed and the mixture to be stirred. We even get some chocolate sprinkled on top. And the result? Bloody marvellous. There be cardamom in that coffee mixture and it is deliciously fragrant; not the rank instant coffee flavour I was expecting. My mental secretary Miss Jones takes a note of the location.
Next Bernie takes me to visit Mr Om, who runs a large perfumed oils emporium. It is a very clean place with several levels and the air feels fresh and removed from the street. Shelves are stacked with every kind of incense (cones, blocks, powders, sticks), oils and bottles and potions, packages and displays.
‘You can buy a pack of ten oils for 1,000 rupees,’ Bernie is telling me, ‘and you can usually mix and match. You probably don’t want the cannabis one there,’ he says grinning. ‘Get as much sandalwood as you can as that’s the most expensive. Amber is also a favourite of mine and I will get the nine flowers for Catherine. It’s wonderful stuff.’
Weaving through the streets, turning left here and right there, jumping up on steps to avoid oncoming motorbikes, I am slowly starting to grab visual cues as to where I am instead of being hopelessly disorientated. ‘Aah, here’s my potato man,’ says Bernie. We have been passing potato vendors everywhere but Bernie favours this man. ‘I always come here as I now he uses good oil.’ We watch the potato pieces being flipped and prodded over the surface of the flat-ish wok. They are then loaded into crisp round banana leaf bowls with a toothpick sticking up in the middle. Potato man then sprinkles salt and herbs over them and squeezes some lemon as the finishing touch. ‘He always remembers me, too,’ says Bernie stabbing another piece of potato with his toothpick. They are to-die-for-delicious. ‘Having whities hanging around your stall is good for business. He will remember you too, now.’
It seems like hours have passed since we entered the bazaar labyrinth and I no longer feel like it’s the Minataur’s maze, although the temptation to drop breadcrumbs is still there. Bernie shows me a good German-style patisserie that does cinnamon buns and croissants and he explains head wobbling to me while we munch and sip Marsala chai. Much of it is easy to read in context, but he caught my interest when he said there is a certain head flick between men when you are all scrabbling to get on a public bus. ‘It means “I’m going to try as hard as I can to get a seat and I know you will try as hard as you can to get a seat”. When the seat is claimed, that’s it, no argument. It’s over.’
We turn a corner and a man dragging a heavy medieval-looking cart laden with cotton bales trudges by. ‘Never get in the way of a working man,’ says Bernie. The street is also home to many cows that dolefully plod around eating garbage and generally get in the way. Walking behind such a one whose flanks are caked with manure, Bernie sagely observes that this may not be such a smart idea. Yes sir. I’m with you sir. Bernie also wisely advises to give the bulls a wide berth as you never know when they might decide to get aggressive. ‘I saw one go mad in a market in Mysore, and the result was absolute chaos.’
I finally say goodbye to Bernie after a long evening of walking, talking and discovering. I have a lot to thank him for. His generous crash course in all things Indian has left me feeling a lot more confident and less of a greenhorn. Today Paharganj bazaar, tomorrow Delhi!