I stepped out from the Metro station onto the earth’s surface. In the dark, my feet found something brittle that soon became loose and wet. A not altogether inviting smell soon emanated. But not for long, as my senses suddenly began to grapple with a thousand more alien impressions all seemingly accompanied by their own ambient cacophony. My stomach growled; I hadn’t eaten for the best part of a day. I needed to feast.
Guileless, amongst the moist grip of humidity I found my way into a narrow ramble of potholed alleyways no wider than the length of a pool table; either side of which an array of aged crumbling buildings rose up to form claustrophobic cages of cement. Life amongst this intricate maze of noise, sound and colour bustled with candor. People slid past one another as if escaping from an ever forming and contagious mass-moshpit. Motorbikes and bicycle rickshaws honked their horns and bells respectively as they channelled through the crowds at alarming speeds, as mobile food stalls trialled their wares as they weaved with acute precision through the animated surrounds. Street dogs fought amongst themselves over a bag of anonymous content as a cow licked a wall next to a crouching blind man. The intensity of the moment was my acid as my naïve curiosity saw me further into this bazaar of pure vigour.
The fusion of smells played off the back of one another, as if each individual aroma was counteracting with the other with each and every step that I took; spices, sweat, incense, urine, perfume, rotting flora, slow cooked mystery meat, kerosene and…well…fear, mostly that of my own I must add. But as a stranger fresh off the boat from a foreign land, I supposed that was only natural. It was exciting yes, as my adrenaline surged amongst the current medium. But, should I have been milling around in one of the oldest parts of one of the oldest cities on earth amongst the everyday life that was not that of my own? Was I welcome? Was I in danger? Was I stupid? To only one of those questions do I have a precise answer. I had noticed the glances and lack of other western tourists though. It is true to say that I hadn’t exactly planned to be here, an unexpected fork in the road had led me here and with little knowledge of the area at that. Yet, by this point in life however, I’d ventured down some of the darkest and dingiest alleyways on the planet, and the very nature of my current footing among the vibrant purr of inner-city life dictated that I was anywhere from dark and dingy. And if things should get dark and dingy, well then I’d just have to wing it, just like I always have.
Whilst weighing up these said thoughts I noticed a hole in the wall eatery of kinds. A young boy stood on a stall stirring a vat of rich, colourfully appetizing looking sauce. Over his shoulder in a tired and almost broken room of chipped plaster and exposed brickwork a few tables and stalls sat under the dim glow of a dangling light bulb. Around one table three men sat drinking chai and eating naan. I approached the boy who looked alarmed at the sight of me but soon smiled when I gesticulated hunger by rubbing my belly and pointing at the food in the vat. The boy turned and shouted into the depths of the broken room where seconds later a much older man possibly the boy’s father appeared dressed in a white cotton kurtah shirt to which he was wiping his wet hands upon. The man looks at me disinterestedly. I asked if it was ok to get something to eat and his eyes narrowed. I was unsure as to whether or not he understood or to whether or not he hated my person. I gestured food to my mouth from the vat and then pointed at the one of the empty tables. A wry smile then appeared upon the man’s face as he barked an order at the boy and offered me a place at the table. The boy stirring the vat of curry burst out laughing.
As I sit on a rickety wooden stall the three men on the opposite table all stop their transactions and stare at me. A naan and a bowl of curry is soon placed in front of me by the laughing boy along with a small glass and a steel decanter of water. He returns to the stirring of the vat. I slowly pour myself some water to buy myself some time as my eyes dart here and there looking for what is only natural, if not customary for me, cutlery. The eyes on the neighbouring table never leave me. Was it curiosity or loathsomeness? Or something else altogether? I couldn’t decide. In fact, people from the street had now stopped to watch my next move. My being here an unusual feat it would appear, even in a city as diverse as this, with some 21.75 million people with its multiple ethnic groups and languages, an Englishman and his curry was seemingly a show for the ages. This isn’t The Ritz you toff. My stomach groaned in anticipation, there would be no cutlery. It didn’t matter. My fate sealed I began to tear off a piece of naan, my stall wobbled with uncertainty on the uneven ground and I prayed for my own dignity that I wouldn’t stumble and bring a world of hot molten curry crashing down upon me. I mopped up some curry sauce with the naan and tasted; sublime. And with that I began to wolf down the meal to the best of my abilities. The tender chicken still attached to bone and cartilage was scolding hot to the touch and my clumsy approach to tackling the meal with my hands often saw the curry sauce run astray down the backs of my wrist; there was obviously a technique to all this that in time one can master. But for now, I would just have to be the amateur showpiece of the local eatery.
Amongst the audience a young man appears, with a dirtied face and clothes from a hard days graft. He looks at me in a manor no different to any other in the eatery. Yet, there is one thing about him that troubles me somewhat. In his hand he holds a hammer. I pretend to pay no heed by continuing to scoff at my curry. The young man approaches my table and sits at the stall opposite, slamming his hammer on the table in the process. I stopped feasting momentarily to look the young man in the face; his dark eyes penetrated my skull. I offered him a nod as a welcome gesture and in return he offered me nothing. A hit of adrenaline breached me as I began to eat a little faster, yet at the same time I try not to allude to the idea that I was actually bricking it by allowing my underlying fear to be paved over with an arrogance best served by my own natural ignorance.
All the while the Hammer-man would sit in silence and watch my every move, his right hand never straying too far away from his trusty hammer; a dull and well worn tool that thankfully was free from any suspect or clareted materials (for now). He orders nothing during my time there as his lips never part. The scenario was probably nothing, or it was everything. Travelling can often relate to the roll of a dice; a gamble, a risk, or just an indivisible choice. I continued to feast until the empty void was filled. As I began to rise his hand seemed to get twitchy. I quickly and confidently patted my stomach as if satisfied with the meal and let out a hearty gasp. Apart from Hammer-man the rest of the clientele let out a friendly chuckle. I’d won my audience over. All smiling and contented like the clown with the best gag I looked back at Hammer-man. He grimaces at me. ‘Okay then,’ I contended as I briskly made my way past him and over to a desk where the restaurateur sat counting some rupee. I asked how much and he looked at me sternly as if weighing me up.
‘100 rupee,’ he confirmed. 100 rupee for a succulent fare with a side dish of fear, an undisputable bargain. I settled my bill and headed back out into the orchestra of the technicoloured night along a tangle of ancient alleys, an anonymous tourist. The beginning of a new learning curve had already begun, an adventure starts from here. This must be the place, India.