Heat, chaos and memories: Pahar Ganj in June

A lady with a heap of marigolds, with several men and two traditional cycle rickshaws behind. Pahar Ganj, Delhi.
This scene, with the heap of marigolds and the cycle rickshaws, could just as easily been captured when I first came to stay in Pahar Ganj in 1980.

I flew into Delhi two weeks after Alan, diverted by a family wedding. As usual, we elected to stay in Pahar Ganj, located just opposite the New Delhi railway station and beside a major stop on the Delhi metro system. This means you can get on the metro at the airport and reach Pahar Ganj in 30 to 40 minutes, which is a lot faster than going by taxi during daytime hours. (Delhi traffic is legend.)

Pahar Ganj was where I settled shortly after I arrived for the first time in India in 1980. I stayed there for six weeks, just getting used to being in India. I was in Pahar Ganj again for a couple of days in 2009; it was my first visit back to India since Alan and I left together in 1982.

I really didn’t recognize Pahar Ganj on this second arrival nine years ago. The area had changed massively since I’d last seen it, becoming the densely built, extremely crowded, noisy and motorcycle-overrun place it is now. In that way, it’s representative of Delhi, a city that has become a very different place from what it was decades ago.

Nine years ago, I landed in March, just as the cold season was finishing. It was mildly hot and I felt reasonably comfortable. This time, I arrived smack in the middle of the pre-monsoon hot season. To enjoy the day, we need to get up really early – 5:30 AM is about right – and get out of the hotel. It’s okay to be out on the streets until about 10:30 or 11:00 AM, but whatever time we get back, we return bathed in sweat, ready to shower and take a nap, read or write.

Pahar Ganj has always been a popular location for backpackers and other tourists. It’s convenient for transiting in and out of Delhi, and its streets are filled with hotels and restaurants for all budget levels, plus souvenirs, clothing, shoes, foreign exchange shops, small grocery stores and more.

One change I’ve noticed this time is the large number of locals shopping here. This isn’t something I remember from the past. I see Delhi residents in the clothing shops, the fabric and shoe shops, and buying beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables in the market branching off the main Pahar Ganj road.

I also notice that Pahar Ganj is now an attractive evening destination for young people, whether friends, couples or small families. I see these fashionably dressed folk arriving on motorcycles or by rickshaw, and enjoying the abundant variety of street food and the trendier local restaurants.

Pahar Ganj, Delhi, at night
Pahar Ganj by night

Memories of Pahar Ganj

The first time I came to Delhi, I was 23 years old. I had traveled alone before, but only in the United States and Britain. So India was a huge shift in perspective for me.

After a couple of false starts at other accommodation, I landed at the Sri Lanka Buddhist Pilgrim’s Rest, located at the top of Pahar Ganj, just opposite the New Delhi railway station. It’s still there, but now it’s a huge modern building, accommodating seemingly hundreds of people. When I stayed there in 1980, it was a small walled compound with just eight or 10 rooms ranged around an open yard with a well.

I loved staying at the Buddhist pilgrim’s rest. It was clean and modest, and my room had plenty of space to spread out a yoga mat for morning exercises. Afterwards, I’d go out into Pahar Ganj and find a hot-milk seller. The hot, rich, sweetened milk, topped with some of the clotted cream that rises to the top of the boiling vessel, made a good breakfast. Then I’d go into the market to buy tomatoes, cucumbers, fruit and a pot of yogurt. This was usually enough food for the rest of the day, and if I got hungry again, I could always go out for dal and chapattis.

I enjoyed having a routine, and some fruit and vegetable sellers began to recognize and expect me. This made me feel very good. I had a little Hindi phrase book, and I practiced new words in the market. Soon I was able to ask the price of a new fruit I wanted to try, and specify a half-kilo or quarter-kilo. I could say “thank you” and a few other pleasantries. By the second week, I was able to buy cloth and get it made up into Indian-style pants and kurtis.

All this made me feel like I was settling nicely into India. Soon I ventured out to explore Delhi, often walking around the city for several hours at a time. It didn’t take long for me to find a Tibetan meditation center in South Delhi, and I started going to meditation practice there. I would come back by bus in the evenings, and though the buses could be a nuisance – they were crowded, and sometimes men engaged in “eve teasing,” bumping up against me on purpose – I felt safe enough.

I made several friends at the meditation center, which gave me the chance to go meet people in other parts of Delhi. I met an Indian girl who was part of a dance troupe, and got to attend one of their rehearsals. I started taking Buddhist teachings in Lodi, giving me another new and pleasant place to go.

And there was always Nani to hang out with. Nani was the wife of the man who managed the Sri Lanka Buddhist Pilgrims’ Rest. She was much younger than her husband, close to my age, though she may have been as young as twenty. There were plenty of places in Delhi Nani wanted to go, and in the guise of showing me around the city, she got to gratify her youthful desire to get out of the house. I was quite a suitable companion to guard her both from the risk of being harassed by random men and from her husband’s disapproval.

We went to the Sikh gurudwara on a Sikh holiday to observe the exotic rituals and eat prasad. One day we went to a girls’ cricket match at a nearby stadium. I didn’t understand the game at all, but Nani cheered loudly and critiqued the teams; it turned out she had played cricket on the girls’ team at her school. Nani also loved going across the road to the New Delhi railway station to drink tea and eat snacks in the upstairs dining room. Prices were low, and the huge room had a lingering Raj atmosphere, with large old colonial-style basket chairs to sit in, huge revolving fans and expansive views of the city, framed by wooden window frames with peeling green paint.

Sometimes Nani and I would chat in her kitchen while she prepared lunch for her husband. I remember her making a grated carrot salad with chopped green chilies, salt and lemon juice; she told me solemnly that it helped her husband’s constipation.

Nani told me the story of how her marriage had come about: Her husband had been her gym teacher in school, and after going away from their town or village for some years, he came back for a visit. She was about 18, and had already left school. She asked him, “Why aren’t you married as yet?” He said he hadn’t been able to find anyone. “Well, you can marry me,” she said, and so he did.

When I walk around Pahar Ganj today, it can be hard to remember what it was nearly 40 years ago. But when I look up, I can still see a few old-style buildings, and narrow alleyways still evoke a sense of mystery.

Narrow alleyway in Pahar Ganj, Delhi

Walking down the market street, I can still breathe in the scent of ripe mangos, mixed with the sharp odors of freshly ground spices. We can still get a delicious cold lassi, so creamy that it coats our lips like a flavored balm.

A street shot in Pahar Ganj, Delhi, showing a lady buying mangos from a street vendor.
One of the wider streets in Pahar Ganj. Fruit sellers offer the ripest mangos, jamuns, lychees, peaches and more.

And despite the area’s reputation for skeevy touts and hustlers, the people of Pahar Ganj can still be kind. As we walked in the bright sun yesterday, I opened my glasses case to discover that one earpiece of my sunglasses was loose, with the hinge screw rolling around at the bottom of the case. I closed it and resigned myself to squinting. Then a few paces on, I spotted an optician’s shop. I walked in and showed him the glasses. He took them from me and gestured for me to put the tiny screw on his glass counter. Within 30 seconds he’d replaced it, tightening up the other screw for good measure. “Dhanyawad,” I said, one of the few Hindi words I remember. He handed them to me with a smile and a gracious nod.

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