In the belly of Delhi

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 11, 2018
Here and there: Every inch of the Main Bazaar is crammed with stalls, eateries and shops. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Here and there: Every inch of the Main Bazaar is crammed with stalls, eateries and shops. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   -  The Hindu

Grand toilet tales: The International Museum of Toilets is a short metro ride from the Main Bazaar. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Grand toilet tales: The International Museum of Toilets is a short metro ride from the Main Bazaar. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   -  The Hindu

The Main Bazaar, or Paharganj — a travellers’ hub where all manner of firangis converge — is often unfairly blamed for the city’s signature sickness

There’s a name for nostalgia and, as far as I’m concerned, it is Main Bazaar. Just the other day, in Delhi on work, I decided to book myself into one of those backpacker places I used to frequent. The ₹65 per night lodge I stayed at when I first came to India 30 years ago is gone and rates are significantly higher — I ended up shelling out ₹2,232 this time. But unlike the good old days, I got a clean attached bathroom. Also, one would have to trudge to the GPO to fetch letters at the poste restante, until the cybercafés came and changed that, but now all cafés and hotels offer free Wi-Fi.

However, by and large, the Main Bazaar, also known as Paharganj, has remained more or less the same — a travellers’ hub where all manner of firangis converge: Spanish punks with tattooed foreheads, Danish druggies with colourless eyes, American preachers with pierced nipples. Food and beer are cheap, and shopkeepers address foreigners in broken Russian or Hebrew to clinch a deal.

Small bookshops such as Jacksons sweep up the literature left behind by tourists, so it’s a great spot to pick up foreign editions at bargain rates. As a film buff I enjoy spotting locations where Holy Smoke! (starring Kate Winslet and Dhritiman Chatterjee) as well as Dev.D (starring Kalki Koechlin and Abhay Deol) were shot — the latter was filmed in Arakashan Road, a few blocks north of Main Bazaar.

Dating back to the Mughal era, the bazaar was originally a grain market situated just outside the old city’s Rajasthan-facing gate, where custom duties were collected. When the New Delhi Railway Station was built in the 1920s, the area was overtaken by cheap lodges and dhabas. It is possible even today to stuff yourself silly here without paying more than ₹50 for a thali or a plate of chhole bhatura, but the advent of foreign tourism (starting with the hippies of the ’60s) also means that Main Bazaar is your best bet in Delhi to try some affordable, cosmopolitan grub: be it Japanese, Korean, Thai, Nepalese, Israeli, or any of the many types of Conti. I am always amazed when the bill arrives in Main Bazaar — usually under ₹500 for a dinner for two.

The place I prefer nowadays is the slightly pricier Metropolis Tourist Home (1634 Main Bazaar), which began as a tiny dhaba around the time the railway station was inaugurated, and later grew into the bazaar’s first proper hotel. It features one of the cosiest imaginable rooftop restaurants with terrific wood-fired pizzas and, compared to restaurant rates in the Capital, it is good value. Besides, one can dream oneself away to Italy for an evening without having to fly all the way there. So on my latest Delhi trip, I treated a couple of friends to dinner and the total damage for three sublime pizzas and many chilled beers came to ₹2,342.

Though I must admit I had some trouble convincing my Delhi friends to come to Main Bazaar, as their wives presumed that they were going to end up sampling bad drugs and indulge in immoral illegalities. Just goes to show that Delhi wives don’t trust their husbands much! Even the usually over-optimistic Wikipedia issues a warning: “tourists are advised to avoid the area”, which is “noisy, filthy, and full of touts”.

Hygiene is, of course, a concern and many backpackers end up with ‘Delhi-belly’, the city’s signature sickness, which is a cousin of Colombo craps, Egyptian enema, Rangoon runs and Singapore shakes. Strictly speaking, however, Delhi-belly wasn’t invented in the Main Bazaar, but a kilometre away in the tony Connaught Place where, during World War II, foreign soldiers kept hogging and boozing until their bellies gave way and they ended up spending much of the war in the latrines.

Luckily, in case one develops an urgent need to see a toilet, one can take the metro from the RK Ashram Marg station (at the western end of the bazaar) to the International Museum of Toilets (get off at Uttam Nagar and take a rickshaw), which is the perfect sightseeing spot when one’s gastric system is up to mischief. It gives you perspective.

Over my years of travel I’ve seen many illustrious restrooms — the one where the Beatles peed after beer-binging in Liverpool, another at a bar in New York in which poet Dylan Thomas’s bladder exploded (leading to his untimely demise the same night), a protected monument in Texas on which hardrocker Ozzy Osbourne urinated and for which he was arrested, and a commode in Madhya Pradesh upon which the author EM Forster sat. But I’ve never before laid eyes on such a potty collection documenting 4,500 years of scatological technology.

At the toilet museum one can see the throne of a French king which has an inbuilt bed pan, so that he could defecate while holding court, study Indus Valley Civilisation sewerage systems (yes, India invented the first real toilets) as well as Roman emperors’ golden chamber pots, and other exhibits including samples of toilet humour as well as poopy poetry. It is truly one of the most mind-altering museums, and besides it is open all days of the week and entry is always free.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com

Published on July 14, 2017

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