If you want to see how a city breathes and lives, step into the world of Dareeba Khurd in old Delhi
Now that the Metro has made it possible for everybody to reach the heart of the ‘city that Shahjahan built', it may not be a bad idea to actually go there and see how a city breathes and lives. It might be a little disconcerting for those making the trip for the first time but once you go there and are able to overcome the first jolt of culture shock, things will begin to settle around you and you would begin to take in the ‘wonder that is India'.
Your best bet is to get into the yellow line of the Delhi Metro and get out at the Chandni Chowk metro station, exit the station from the gate marked Chandni Chowk. Once you are over the ground follow the crowd. Shortly you will see a temple, one look and you will know that this one is dedicated to the Sun God Surya, the unmistakable chariot of the sun drawn by seven horses looms above you, though of late, the Dark God, Saturn or Shani has for some strange reason begun to have precedence over the God of Light, even in this temple.
Turn right in front of the temple and you will be in a lane popularly known as Natraj Gali as it leads to the small kiosk of the famous Natraj Dahi Bhalle Walah. If you are lucky and there isn't a long queue order a plate and consume it. I am sure you will get some packed to carry with you on your way back.
Cross the road now, almost in front you will see Kunwar Ji Namkeen, if you did not stop at Natraj, you could make amends here. Kunwarji, the more than a century old family business in namkeens and sweets, is an institution. The lane leading in from Kunwar Ji is the famous Gali Parathey Wali. Three of the earliest paratha shops began operations in 1872, 1875 and 1889 respectively; if they weren't good they would not last so long.
The other end of Gali Parathey Wali forms a ‘T' with Dareeba Khurd or Kinari Bazar as it is more popularly known, to the left and Mali Vara to the right. Turn left if you want to go seeking the hidden treasures of Dareeba Khurd.
Dareeba Khurd was the market of the lace makers and even today this is a major business, though you might see a more dominant display of glittering kitsch. Look around, make purchases if you must, but keep your eyes peeled for a black sign board with ‘Heritage Building' written in yellow letters that will appear most unobtrusively to your right.
The sign is at the head of a gated street, the threshold is a time machine, cross it and you step back 200 years, well almost. Magically the noise and rush of Dareeba Kalan disappears as if shut out by a magical curtain. Try to ignore the stinking public utility built by the MCD, which it has not bothered to remove, despite numerous petitions by the residents. This is Nau Ghara, so called, because initially when people built houses in this street there were only nine houses. The houses, more like small havelis, all belonged to fairly well to do Jain merchants. These were Shwetambar Jains and aside from their houses they also built a dharamshala and a temple.
The exteriors of the houses are preserved, by and large, in the shape in which they were in the 19 century or in the case of a couple of them in the early 20 century. It is because of the condition of these houses and the manner of their preservation that the entire street has been listed as a heritage structure by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art, Culture and Heritage).The houses are worth more than a careful look for they tell you a lot about the way living spaces were organised, how Central Asian and South Asian architectural elements had fused together over centuries to create an entirely new vocabulary of architecture.
You can also see how seamlessly was this existing form able to incorporate the wrought iron and cast iron grills, metallic awnings, stained glass windows, carved wooden pillars and hanging balconies of European descent and absorb it so comprehensively that it does not appear alien or imposed.
This process of assimilation of diverse influences is visible all over the city, but it is very easy to detect here because the houses have not been hidden behind ugly hoardings that seem to dominate the frontage of a lot of structures.
There is more, much more to see in Nau Ghara and in another nearby lane known as Chehel Pura, but that, as Jack Lemmon would have said in Irma La Douce, is another story.