City Walk – ITO Crossing, Central Delhi

Bond, James Bond

One morning at Delhi’s most irksome traffic intersection.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Not again! My Blueline stuck in the traffic jam at ITO. I curse the bus, the city, and kick my way out of the chicken coop. I run up on the footbridge escalators (yes, an escalator!), show my thumb to the people below, and hop, skip, jump to the other side.

9-6 muggles glumly walking past Delhi Police headquarters to their highrises. What’s this nukkar-ish place: rickety stalls, mangy dogs, lafanga boys and a… chhola bhathura stall. I’m starving! Rs 10 for a plate and worth the grease. Run by a guy from Faridkot, this stall is pumping up people’s paunches since 1978.

Why are so many young men in polyester shirts crowding under a neem tree? I squeeze through and there flutter pink-coloured leaflets announcing vacancies for lower division clerks and naib tehsildars. These folks must be the city’s unemployed.

This being a recession time, I too may be fired from my day-job. Will I, too, then come here to apply for the post of railway clerks? Umm, most likely I’ll spend daytime reading Jane Austen in… where?

The nearby building of Jamait Ulaima Hind, an Islamic organisation, is an unlikely spot for reading in solitude but trust Delhi to spring surprises in most unexpected of places.

This place is quiet, spacious and mysterious: a modern structure topped by an antique-looking dome. No one stops me as I enter. The stairs are lined with potted plants. Three boys are reading an Urdu daily. “Brother, where’s the way to the dome,” I ask. “Go inside, and up.”

Inside is beautiful: a pool, palm trees, and lampposts like the one around which Auduery Hepburn danced in My Fair Lady.

I’m now facing a stylishly-built masjid with low-hanging ceiling fans. But where’s the dome? “Up, upar,” says the man at the reception.

So, up the stairs. Cold air and traffic noise sneaking in from an arched window. While paint peels on the wall suggest the map of USA (or is it Zimbabwe?).

Hush, there’s no one here. I reach the first landing, lumber across to the other end, creak open a cobwebbed door, walk up more stairs and step out onto the roof. The dome is inaccessible and invisible.

The destination remains elusive but what the heck, it’s beautiful out here. So quiet that you wonder if you really are in ITO.

Few minutes of sunshine and I’m out of the Jamait building and back in the nukkad. And wiser.

ITO is more than a traffic bottleneck. This is where Old Delhi merges with the New. On one side lies the Mughal glamour: Khooni darwaza, Dilli Gate and Red Fort. On the other, the British razzmatazz: India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhawan.

Even the landmarks here speak of this mix: from Delhi’s Last Mughal (Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg) to Delhi’s first Deputy Mayor (Ram Charan Agarwal Chowk).

But the present is more rocking. Look around the bazaar and marvel: the sports stall (cricket bats, tennis raquettes, footballs), the Uttaranchali music stores (singer Narendra Singh Negi is the bestseller), the patri wallas (cigarette lighters, wrist watches, TV remote covers) and — the best part — people watching at the traffic light. Angry-looking commuters in buses, hijras pestering for money, chikki-wallas, and bike couples clung tightly to each other as if there’s no tomorrow.

But this is the lung, a rather smoky lung, not the heart of ITO. The heart lies across the crossing on Deendayal Upadhaya Marg. Here, tucked in between tree leaves is a small box where a traffic cop is operating buttons that decide when that blessed red light will turn green.

“ITO is a VIP intersection,” says Mr Cop who did not wish to be named because well, he did not wish to be named. “The Chief Minister pass here daily.” Wow.

9 am moment

City Walk -  ITO Crossing

Let’s eat grease, outside the chhola bhathura stall

City Walk -  ITO Crossing

Need a job

City Walk -  ITO Crossing

What’s the way to that dome?

City Walk -  ITO Crossing

Inside the Jamait Ulaima Hind

City Walk -  ITO Crossing

It’s a mosque or a resort?

City Walk -  ITO Crossing

Want a chikki?

City Walk -  ITO Crossing

Mountain melodies, an Uttaranchali music store

Mountain Melodies in Smoggy Delhi

The heart of ITO

City Walk -  ITO Crossing