The best tea shop in Old Delhi is not a shop at all. It’s a cart, a bottle of propane, a guy, and his assistant. In cycles of roughly two minutes, he heats a pot of water—shallow, so it boils almost instantly—and tosses in pinches of cardamom, salt, cinnamon, and ground nutmeg. He adds milk and then lifts the pot high off the flame, letting in fresh air and allowing the flame to roar with startling ferocity. In a developed country, this operation would likely require welding gear and most certainly would not be allowed on a street corner. But there we are, idling on the sidewalk, under a balcony, feeling the heat from his stove cut through the already stultifying night.
He pours the finished product into narrow glasses while placing a new pot of water on the flame. The glass is nearly too hot to touch, the tea too hot to drink.
He repeats this cycle unceasingly into the night, the flame bellowing to announce each fresh cup. I’ve never consumed anything like it. It’s sweet and spicy and warm and rich, all at once.
As mesmerizing as this performance was, two things struck me.
First, it is not a performance at all. What appear to be theatrical flourishes are actually motions of refined efficiency, born of necessity. The tea-maker gets 10 rupees per cup, about 12 cents in U.S. currency, and that’s the tourist rate. For every 30 cups he makes, he grosses India’s average daily wage. Once he pays for ingredients, propane, and his assistant, his take-home pay is surely far less than that.
Second, the amount of activity going on beyond the tea-maker, in the small plaza where three of Old Delhi’s major streets converge (“major” meaning a street that can accommodate two cars heading in opposite directions), renders his pyrotechnics nearly unnoticeable. They pale in comparison with the multidimensional chaos of bicycles, scooters, tuk-tuks, pedicabs, hand carts, and foot traffic—and, yes, the occasional cow—that makes Old Delhi what it is.
Imagine a subway platform when two trains arrive simultaneously during rush hour. Now imagine that the trains that never stop coming. Then you’ll get a sense of what Old Delhi crowds are like. I went there on a Sunday. My guide said it was a quiet day.
Estimates are that Old Delhi’s population density exceeds 30,000 people per square kilometer. I am not a geographer or an expert in GIS, but I’m going to wager that reality is double that number, at the very least.
Old Delhi covers about 6.1 square kilometers, meaning that 190,000 people, at a minimum, live here. It could be 300,000, or maybe it’s 600,000. Whatever the actual number, it’s a medium-sized American city compressed into an area not even double the size of Central Park. Old Delhi was founded 400 years ago by Shah Jahan, India’s great Mughal ruler and the builder of the Taj Mahal. It was known as Shahjahanabad, and its walls encircled the city’s riches. Today, Shah Jahan’s city has become a cordon for the lower castes.
So consuming is Old Delhi, I suspect that many of its residents spend their entire lives there without leaving even once. Many of them probably don’t have the means to leave. Most of them may have no motivation. Everyone they know, and everyone they have ever known, lives there. I’d have been instantly lost without my tourist guide, forced to navigate a million blind corners and not get swept up in the crowd.
Old Delhi’s buildings, which cover every inch that isn’t a street, have accreted to five and six stories over the centuries. There must be rooms that daylight never reaches. I don’t know where the waste goes. I don’t know how people have sex. The power lines that splay from poles and disappear into crevices make cobwebs look as orderly as Mondrian paintings. Delhi Boogie Woogie, it is not.
Perhaps no urban environment accentuates the human body—the sheer physicality of everyday existence—so much as Old Delhi does. Traveling even a block requires contortions, dodges, near-misses, collisions, stutter-steps, and more contortions. But Old Delhi does not promise enlightenment. We are not eating, praying, and loving in Old Delhi. We are surviving. Everyone moves every which way, dodging, contorting, touching, because they have places to go. The only way a city of a half-million people, within a city of 18 million, survives is by everyone doing his or her part.
Many of them appear to be in the business of transport. Nearly everything Old Delhi could possibly need must be imported from the surrounding city and beyond. The food that feeds Old Delhi—be it bulk ingredients for the restaurants, stock for stores and stalls, or everyday measures of fruits, vegetables, dough, and dairy—must make its way through the warren of streets under human power and, therefore, at human scale. There are no big rigs and no loading bays in Old Delhi. Almost anything that arrives there does so by bicycle or pushcart or in the arms of a courier.
Many of the world’s old cities have devolved into museums, if not outright destroyed. Not Old Delhi. Its residents do not live there for nostalgia. They do not play roles for the pleasure of tourists. They aren’t choosing it over other options. They are living it every single day.
I spent only a few hours in Old Delhi; I’m a tourist, not an expert. And yet, some places—too few, I’d say—leave such strong impressions. It’s a poignant, useful foil for the places about which I claim some expertise: 21st century American cities.
Old Delhi is surely no one’s idea of a perfect city. But it illustrates the futility of perfection. It is as incredible as it is unplanned. Even if someone wanted to plan for a place like Old Delhi, no one could—not in a thousand years. And yet, Old Delhi functions. It doesn’t function in that it leads residents to self-actualization. But it does facilitate survival. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have so many people. And, while it might be cold comfort (as if anything is cold in India) to the residents, more public activity happens on one corner—as I saw at that tea stand—than happens on all the street corners in all the suburbs in all the metros in all of the United States combined. If that’s an exaggeration, it’s not by much.
Midtown Manhattan at its craziest does not come close.
But Old Delhi provides a foil for the style of living that, thanks to the various forces of technology, petroleum, economics, and imperialism, became standard in the 20th century and continues to maintain its grip on our landscape and culture. The density of Old Delhi surely is no one’s ideal. But it demonstrates the varieties of human experience that are possible when we abandon the idea that a life without a front yard is not worth living.
Let us consider how twee is a cup of tea, poured from a kettle and steeped just so. You may picture it in a Victorian drawing room, with a fire lit and a cold rain falling beyond the windows. Or you may picture an inferno in the heart of India.
The question is, is it crazier to live in the former by choice or the latter by necessity?
Featured image: Old Delhi street, via Wikipedia Commons.