It is Sunday morning and the roads leading to Chandni Chowk are deserted. We cross the chaotic merry-go-round of Connaught Place in a trice and head to old Delhi. Where are all the people? The buffaloes that amble through the roads listlessly? The children who dart at unexpected moments across the road? It is so quiet. Where are all the vehicles? There is no orchestra of blaring horns, no tinkle of cycle rickshaw bells as they weave their way through the narrow lanes, just managing to miss running over innocent feet and getting run over by speeding cars. Before I realize it, the Red Fort is to my right, imposing and grey in the early morning light, not fully awake.
And inside the Jama Masjid, the sense of stillness follows us. On an earlier trip late one afternoon a few months ago, I remember the contrast the interiors of Jama Masjid presented to the Babel of the streets and market surrounding it. At one of the gates, the cap seller is just taking out his stock, arranging them carefully into a delicate house of cards. He ignores my intrusive camera, shrugging his indifference even when I show him his photographs. I can see he is pleased though; he summons his friend to see them and then calls out to me a few minutes later to share the meagre breakfast of parathas they have all carefully carried from home.
I stand near the gate that looks on to the Red Fort, sharing the moment with families sitting on the steps. And later, from the top, having made our way up the narrow, winding steps, we see old Delhi sprawling before us, bursting at the seams. My mind keeps going back to the past, to the place this must have been, to the better days this area has seen. Now, people are washing their clothes on a tiny stream between the mosque and the fort, vendors are setting up shop all along the road, children are running around trying to catch chicken and each other in a game that makes sense only to childhood.
Back again on ground level, people are quietly doing their own thing. Near the pool in the preliminary cleansing ritual, under the arch staring out blankly into space, on the corridor offering prayer, behind the pillars fast asleep; all outside noises are filtered by the thick red walls along with their worries and anxieties.
Inside Jama Masjid, each individual seems to have found his own space.
Published in the Mumbai edition of Sunday Mid-day…