City Walk – Gali Kebabian Street, Matia Mahal
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The shutters are pulled down. The doorways are closed. The place is empty.
This is Karim’s, in Old Delhi. From early morning to late night, the iconic restaurant would always be crowded. The diners would wait for their turn to enter in any of the three eating halls by standing about the alley.
Now no one’s here.
(No thank you, coronavirus.)
But the temporary closure of this gastronomic landmark due to the ongoing pandemic has opened doors to other possibilities, other explorations.
The restaurant complex is tucked at the front of Gali Kebabian street, thus named because it was traditionally home to kebab makers. Now, unencumbered by food scents or pressing crowds, the visitor can quickly cross through this part of the alley and wade deeper into it.
You shall be surprised to discover that this is one of Old Delhi’s most atmospheric streets. The lane, at first, captivates with its very interesting, weird shape. It begins on the Matia Mahal Bazar road in the form of a tunnel, and a few steps later, suddenly distends into a wide unwieldy space—where lies the aforementioned restaurant. A casual stroller might feel as lucky as a chicken piece elbowing its way through the diner’s throat, finally falling into his comfortable, big stomach.
Immediately afterwards the lane constricts into a narrow wedge. The walls here are beautifully discolored with the patina of several seasons. One notice board is painted in a neat Urdu script, advertising the services of a plumber with a “licence number.”
Soon the lane again widens into an opening. Here would be the stall of cook Naimuddin who is famous (among the locals) for his delicious haleem, prepared right on the pavement. This morning, against all odds, the pleasant man is present, fussing over his much-loved dish, bubbling in the gigantic cauldron. His wooden ladle is so huge that you could use it as an oar to row your boat across the Yamuna.
Naimuddin re-opened his stall following the lifting of the lockdown. He generously gives away the exact recipe of his haleem without being asked, and also offers a spoonful of it to taste.
In the old times, when Karim’s hogged all the attention in this street, and Naimuddin used to be everyone’s cool discovery, a curious explorer was most likely to turn back at this point. One assumed that nothing more interesting lay further ahead. And in any case the lane doesn’t go anywhere; it’s a dead-end alley.
But the true beauty of the street begins from here. Both sides are lined with the most beautiful flights of staircases. Additionally, the twisting and twisting of the lane itself evokes adventure and suspense, as you wonder what might appear next. Arresting sights wherever you look—in terms of doors and windows. One door is particularly noteworthy with metallic flowers welded onto its metallic surface. At one place, half the wall is painted with a shade of the most ethereal blue, while the rest revealing an array of raw bricks. The contrast is like two vastly dissimilar pieces of music merging harmoniously into each other.
Here, the lane gets even narrower. A pair of birds, possibly the pets of a house-owner, are perched behind a grilled window, which is small enough to be a roshandaan (ventilator). The birds are intently looking out at the passerby, as if imploring to be set free.
A few steps later, the lane reaches an impasse. The flâneur stands in front of a residence with a facade of three beautiful arches. The air is humming with the steady drone of an AC. A woman is peering out from behind a curtain.
The walk ends.
The discovery of an impasse