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Unreal Delhi

Pagdi apni yahaan sambhaal chalo 

Aur basti na ho ye Dilli hai

Take care of your turban here 

This is no other city but Delhi.

– Hatim

Delhi has long been a coveted seat of power but none have been able to hold it for long. Conquerors, invaders, and rulers have tried to call Delhi their own and in the attempt, the city has been attacked, destroyed, and razed to the ground but it resurrects each time with remarkable resilience, each time stronger and more dazzlingly alive. 

While many who’ve temporarily held on to Delhi have been desirous of leaving behind a lasting mark of their legacy, it’s actually the city that stands permanently. The culture of Delhi absorbs and assimilates rapidly, the cultures of the countless number of people who come to the city with packed bags. Perhaps that has enabled its staunch, indestructible resilience. 

As such, Delhi has taken on a persona of its own. It is loud, dominating, and aggressive in its stance, just like its people and still somehow, soft and beautiful as it clings to the stories of lore that lurk in the narrow, winding gallis of North Delhi with its poetic architecture, its old bustling markets, and myriad communities that exist side by side. It doles out history with its sizzling, mouth-watering food even as south Delhi looks eagerly towards the West with its glittering skyscrapers, consumerist outlets, and hip cafes that cater to an increasingly hip crowd. All of this resides with its population of 25 million people that make up the chaotic streets, hurried rush of life, time-is-money attitude, and polluted air that makes you gasp for breath. 

This is our attempt to dive into the culture of Delhi that is characterized not only by its ancient monuments and its brisk pace but also by the day-to-day lives of people who live in Delhi and have seen its many qualities and flaws up close. The flaws and qualities mingle like colours to paint a more authentic picture of the city’s quirks that are unique only to itself.

This isn’t just another touristy guide, this is unmasking the real Delhi and its vagaries that only its natives will understand.

Jamun in Dilli Summers Near India Gate

A boy stands with a jamun purpled-tongue sticking out cheekily. A vista lined by jamun trees under which vendors sell their wares with India Gate visible in the distance.

The jamun trees that line the avenues near Rajpath and India gate were part of Lutyens’ plan for Delhi which was originally meant to have ‘a sea of foliage’. The trees are over a century old, crouching over the roads with their lush full-bodied foliage, to protect people from the harsh glare of Dilli summers. Come March, the green of the trees gives way to delicate white flowers which as the summers ripen, turn into juicy purple jamuns that grow heavy and drop to the ground. They’re picked up by passing schoolchildren and jamunwallahs who then mix the purple berries with salt and chillies to sell them. The trees are loved by birders as well. Twice a year, flocks of starlings rise over the jamun trees and dance around the India Gate.

The Many Erudite Museums of Delhi 

A child stands, digging his nose and staring at an old Indian sculpture in front of him. There is a couple cuddling behind a sculpture while a photoshoot takes place in the same room.

If you’d like to spend an afternoon in the quiet pursuit of knowledge then you can head to any one of the numerous museums of Delhi. There’s something for everyonewhether you be one of those rare species who get excited about stamps, a science buff, an art connoisseur, or simply a person who’d like to giggle at a 200-year-old toilet. These places house a lot of culture in one spot. 

Trace the turns of history in the National Museum, lose yourself in the poetry of Mirza Ghalib’s life and haveli, ride an ancient steam train at the National Rail Museum, marvel at the mind-boggling range of art at the National Gallery of Modern Art or press your face up close to the glass to stare at dolls depicting historical events from Europe and Asia at the Dolls Museum. Be prepared to spot couples canoodling in corners and pouting selfie enthusiasts.

New Age Jagratas

A jagrata in progress, with people dancing and a singer singing on the microphone.

If you find the lane in your house blocked by a tent during Navratri and the people in it are in the throes of devotion, you’re probably not going to get any sleep that night. The jagrata much like its name suggests an all-night affair where Hindu goddesses are venerated with bhajans, spirited dancing, and loud choruses of “Bolo Jai Mata di!” Mata Rani’s bhakts mean business with their gigantic booming speakers, an enthusiastic emcee, and Bollywood songs of love turned bhajans with sick riffs. Their bounds of creativity when it comes to remixing Bollywood songs to devotional ones are admirable, Their flashing lights are at par with the 60s discos. The best you can do during a jagrata near your house is join in.

Metro Olympics 

A scene from the Delhi metro on a typical day. People look into each other's phones, a person can be seen carrying of another's bag and passengers sit or stand around.

The sprawling metro network has become an important part of the city and offers plenty of the culture of Delhi under one roof er… coach. It serves several important functions. It gives you a workout of at least ten minutes before you can get to the platform. Climb upstairs, climb downstairs, walk long hallways, climb stairs again or test your tenacity in trying to get a spot in the crowded elevator/escalator. If you’ve managed to get pushed out of the elevator, make your way to the platform in time for the arriving metro. The ordeal isn’t over yet. Strategise your position so that you may get a seat in the horde of people prepared to propel themselves inwards. If not, grab hold of the pole to get over this latest emotional hurt by putting on an indifferent air and looking around randomly.

Unapologetic Aunty Culture

A neighbourhood aunty on a balcony literally looks daggers at a couple passing underneath the building. Two women gossip with each other.

From the vantage point of their balconies, aunties in Delhi take on the role of CCTV cameras. They will peer at you unapologetically, confident in their entitlement to having opinions on your lifestyle, clothes, and shortcomings. They’ll stare at you with disapproval writ on their faces if they spot you with the opposite sex. This important piece of information will be passed to Babli aunty next door when she comes out on the balcony to dry her clothes, which in turn is passed on to Poonam aunty when she comes out to water her plants. They have a veritable network of information, that’s always buzzing. Sometimes they congregate in the evenings in their respective balconies. We hope to God that you have a working water pump because the mind games they’ll play to fill their tank with water are mind-boggling as I once found out one fateful day when I had oil in my hair and no water in the taps. 

Thrilling Raavan Dahan in Mohallas

A Raavan Dahan is taking place with the effigy of Raavan fire, rockets flying in different directions and people watching.

While the tourist guides claim that the most spectacular Raavan Dahan takes place in the famed JNU stadium, we’d recommend walking into any mohalla nearest to you. What’s unique about Dussehra in Delhi is that every mohalla has its own villainous-looking, fat-moustached effigy stuffed with different firecrackers. Going to the stadium means waiting in serpentine queues and watching the effigy burn from a distance… not quite so in the mohallas. The experience is up close, sometimes too close. When the effigy top burns and crackles, it goes completely berserk with firecrackers whizzing around people. Well, Delhiites are made of sterner stuff so some stand their ground while the others run for it. 

The Powerhouse of All Miscellaneous Groceries and Info – The Kirana Store

An uncle gossips with the shopkeeper of a kirana store named 'Nirmal store'. Other customers wait disappointed for their turn while a kid asks the shopkeeper for chocolate.

If you’ve just moved into a new neighbourhood, you must head over to the local Kirana store where you’ll not only acquire all that you need for your house but also vital inside info of the inner workings of the place. The uncle or aunty who presides over the shop is a powerhouse of information. Yes, yes you can head on over to that glitzy supermarket for your whole-wheat fettuccine but we recommend settling for a nameless pack of macaroni with a generous helping of what’s what. What’s more, is they’re open till late at night and are particularly adept at closing shop at lightning speed when the cops come around and then reopening it when their backs are turned. So if you have nicotine or sweet cravings in the middle of the night, you can amble over in your pyjamas to get your fix.

Aggressive Impatience of Delhi

A traffic snarl in Delhi with a variety of vehicles including bikes, auto, cars, cycle, an aeroplane and birds. All the drivers are stressed out.

Anybody who’s ever seen Delhi has seen the mad hurry everyone seems to be in. There’s no time to stand and stare and if you choose to do so to set an example, you’ll be jostled along with a few choice expletives. The pulse of Delhi is impatience. There’s never enough time. 

The impatience is evident when the metro doors open and a wall of people don’t let people get off because they must get in. It’s palpable in autos, buses, on the roads, in shopping malls and God forbid, if you step into Sarojini market on a weekend. Tempers are quick to flare and beat-ups become routine during traffic jams after you’ve watched it happen the fourth time in horror. The puncher won’t even wait for the punchee to get out of the car but will go up to them and push their fists in through the window. With all this impatience. Delhiites still find nano-intervals in their sentences to abuse you as a person who does unspeakable things with your sister in a friendly way.

 Dilli Poolis and Its Friendly Jingle

A delhi policeman nabs a man and asks him "Mask kyu nai pehna be?" while a thief tiptoes behind the back of another policeman leisurely sitting on a chair with a cup of tea balanced on his stomach. Barricades blocking the road say 'Delhi police, dil ki police'.

If you’ve ever heard the jolly ‘Dilli poolis’ jingle, you’ll form an opinion of them like they’re a warm fuzzy glove or dove. They’re neither. 

Sure, they do help but they have their own unique methods of doing so. They helped me get an auto to the airport on the day of the lockdown after bullying the auto driver with their sticks and telling him off for not wearing a mask. However unorthodox their methods, I remember feeling grateful. Their policing is so efficient, that even the good people of the city fear being on the receiving end of anything when it comes to the police. The criminals? This screengrab from their official song should give you an idea.

A man is carried bodily by two policemen.

Cholesterol-Laden Experimental Street Food

Food stalls with a food blogger taking videos of the food being cooked. Customers stand around the stalls eating while a dog looks away from some of the food from the stall in front of it.

The street food in Delhi is iconic that just standing near a sizzling street food stall waiting for our orders has us salivating, expanding waistlines forgotten. But there are some daredevil cooks who’re treading into realms of cuisines that look great in theory but are deadly in reality. We’re talking Jack Daniel Dal Makhani, Fried Snickers, Fried Oreos, Pasta Pizzas, Butter Chicken Maggi and behold, the Red Bull Milkshake. Food bloggers can capture the process of inundating food items with kilos of cheese and Amul butter in the name of food porn which sets hearts fluttering but nobody prepares you for the heartburn later on.

With all its brash and unpretentious authenticity, the culture of Delhi claims your heart for its own. Perhaps that’s why it’s called dilwalon ki Dilli. 

 

All illustrations created by Tavisha Singh .

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