Originally published: October 16, 2015
OK, time for a confession. I don’t get Delhi. The popular culture of this city is the epitome of Indian kitsch. I don’t mean the stuff they sell at Bombay Store directed at foreigners and urban yuppies (Seriously, how many interpretations of Horn OK Please can Indian design firms come up with?! I’m almost glad the Ministry of Environment is planning to ban those signs from truck bumpers because apparently they lead to noise pollution. I like how sorted their priorities are. Of course, the fact that Delhi is the most polluted city in the world is quite insignificant to their order of things.) Ah, I digress. Back to the Delhi Kitsch.
It is Navratri Time, and for the uninitiated, that means that every respectable Resident Welfare Association worth its name will organize a Mata ki Chowki. Usually it’s a bunch of aunties singing their hearts out, calling out to the Mother Goddess, albeit slightly off key, till late at night. But I’ll gladly put up with that because it also means free food. The people in Old Rajinder Nagar love giving out free food. It’s their thing! Diwali, Lodhi, Navratri, Summer, Winter, Rain you’ll be sure to find a bunch of rickshawallas and civil service aspirants hogging down free food in the by-lanes of ORN. And it’s not even ‘free food’ (aka leftovers distributed for free) Oh no!
Last time I remember there was a Mata ki Chowki at the place I lived earlier. I had just moved in and had an exam the next day. But I texted everyone I knew “Free Food! Come visit!” and being the dutiful friends that they are, they promptly turned up with a few extra people in tow. And what food it was! Paneer, Chhole, Tandoori Roti with makkhan, Pulav with dry fruits, Gulab Jamun, and to top it off Filtered Coffee from a machine! I consider it big enough a deal to capitalize all those words! And if all this wasn’t enough, they even gave us fruits to take home. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of this city. But I’ve discovered two things I love about it – it has a big culinary heart and knows how to live life with unashamed abandon!
Why the sudden reminiscing? Because there’s a Mata ki Chowki happening underneath my window right now. It’s so loud that in spite of wearing noise cancelling earphones, I can still feel the music. Even my laptop is vibrating, though I don’t know whether it’s from the sound waves or in protest. But I’m glad for the excuse to take a break from studying. (it’s not that I can’t concentrate. I have a special skill – you could even put me on a horse in the middle of a noisy, loud baraat with a book and a flashlight and I’ll read unperturbed). But this Chowki is cool enough that it needs a special mention.
Since I’ve been to a total of two Chowkis in my life, I can’t judge whether it’s an exception or the rule. However, it is straight like a scene out of Delhi Belly (Recall ‘Teri tirchhi nazar ne dil ko kar diya penchar?’). First, there’s an ostentatious red satiny pandal. It started off innocently enough with aunties belting out the usual tracks. But then as the sun went down, there came an orchestra. I heard a saxophone. I went to my window to double check.
And then I heard him – the magical voice belting out my favourite Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan song, but for the slight modification. Here’s how it goes down in Delhi – “Tere bin nahi lagda dil mera dholnaaa, ohh kaaliyeeee, shera waaliyeeeee, tere bin nahi lagda dil meraaa”. That was just the beginning. It kept getting progressively better. I can’t even recognize the musical instruments anymore. It’s something like ‘tun tun tun, JAI HOOO! boom boom bam bam, peeeep boooop, AHO!’ I wish I could have a live feed of it just to prove that I’m not being hyperbolic. It’s like a rave. Except that people are high on spiritual fervor and suitably sanitized versions of Bollywood songs.
Now they have upped the tempo. I think he’s playing a composition that he made up on the spot. (Tere mehnat ka jalwa laal ho gaya/ tere bhakto ka jeevan kamal ho gaya! Oh maaa!) I can see a definite Bollywood influence. Hm, with the kind of singers we have these days, he might even make it big someday. After all YO YO Honey Singh was popular in Delhi even BEFORE he was allowed to obliterate whatever semblance of music was left in Bollywood. Well, there’s an idea! Maybe I should go down and get this guy’s autograph. You never know.