Masala Munch compels me to write another post about India. Still sleeping in a fleece through my last night in India, I nonetheless found Delhi a warm relief from the heights of Srinagar, where it started snowing again the day I left. I have defrosted indeed. In fact, I am sweating, my body once again thrown into another extreme, the humid lightninged-sky night of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This is an another adventure that I will surely tackle later. What is Masala Munch, you ask. Having now eaten about ten bags of it in the past four days since that fateful discovery at Qutab Minar, I have come to the conclusion that it is best described as something like Cheetoes mixed with onion powder and Tobasco sauce. It may be the best snack food I have tried, and not really unexpectedly it is said to smell like plastic if you burn it.
Like many, I agree that cities are best befriended through their food offerings. As with any new friendship, food friendships with cities help the traveler understand what they do and don’t like, what they appreciate and can’t tolerate, and what they will miss when apart from their new friend. Yesterday, for example, I put something in my mouth that I don’t really ever want to try again, something that tasted like gooey potpourri mixed with mint, all wrapped in a steamed leaf. It numbed my tongue and turned my lips red. Karan was clueless as to the ingredients. I should have asked before eating it. Asking a friend’s parents later, I found out that this “palate cleanser,” known as paan, is an absolutely vile mixture of the following: betel nuts (which are a condemned carcinogen that rot your teeth and have become a serious addiction problem throughout Southeast Asia), lime paste (not the fruit, I’m talking calcium hydroxide here), rose petal jelly, and anise seed, all wrapped inside an areca (betel) leaf soaked in water. Autorickshaw drivers through Delhi can often be seen leaning over the sides of their doors spitting thick red wads that initially look like blood, but splatter like water. They are the paan-chewers, though perhaps their palate cleanser is mixed with a little tobacco, just for fun. Why nom nom on one carcinogen when you can nom nom on TWO?
Rumor has it that the stretch of Janpath near India Gate in central New Delhi is hosts the highest concentration of ice cream vendors in the world. That is a record worth telling. In summertime, other vendors with food, toys, and souvenirs share sidewalk space with the ice cream walas as families dressed in loud colors parade slowly down the dirt paths that stretch for several kilometers in each direction from Janpath, all the way from the imposing India Gate to the presidential palace—one of the architectural wonders of modern Delhi. In winter the vendors disperse, likely huddled around one of thousands of trash fires that remain the cheapest heating for those whose work keeps them under the just-too-distant winter sun. These fires dot sidewalks along the larger ring roads of New Delhi, with people even setting fire to little piles of trash on the highway median. While toxic for those huddled and disastrous for the ozone, Delhi’s nighttime fires provide curious gathering points that undoubtedly play a key role in wintertime social interactions among the city’s poor. They are meeting places, unintentional picnic spots, hubs of gossip, argument, and brotherhood. One man’s trash is another man’s…hang-out?
Most megacities in the developing world provide plenty of the same tragic ironies—the Mercedes that drives by the limbless beggar, the five star hotel with a fabulous view of the slums, etc. Such snapshots of inequality and shame are hardly uncommon, yet they rarely provide what should be obvious wakeup calls for citizens and policymakers. Delhi, for all the beautiful elements of which I have boasted, is also replete with those scenes that make you tilt your head and wonder just how much of the obvious inequality is the necessary bedfellow of economic growth. All of this is simply tangential, however, an unfair segue into Hauz Khas village, which just a few years ago was nothing to speak of, just a small enclave of Delhi with rich and poor cohabiting the same residential area that sits near a large park and lake in the south of the city.
Over the past few years, this area has come out of its cocoon in many ways, but by no means getting rid of its dirt alleys or spaghetti-like power lines that wrestle with each other down every wall and street light. Hauz Khas village is wearing just a lot of coverup, you could say. It has retained its original character, its underdeveloped infrastructure and narrow lanes that smell faintly of urine, smoke, and the homecooked aromas wafting from those aunties’ kitchens that have remained the same for years. Residences in HK village, many of them owned by the same families for generations, are now interspersed with trendy cafes and rooftop bars with cheeky names that sell overpriced drinks and fusion food. Delhi’s young and energetic now clamor up the neighborhood’s rickety staircases to signless clubs and lounges that host expat and local bands. What were once basement-level vendors, pharmacies, and food stalls are now havens for vintage Bollywood art collectors, catering to flannel-clad clientele and nostalgic Delhites willing to spend absurd amounts of money on faded posters of the classic films of their time. Designer bridal shops have replaced rusted balconies with floor-to-ceiling glass, fitting brides-to-be in the windows for all to see both the beauty of India’s women and the beauty of their fashion creations. Testament of Delhi’s entrepreneurial and artisanal spirit, Hauz Khas is possibly the ideal place to observe in vivid color the rapidity and limits of gentrification, the beautiful creations and unfortunate casualties of the middle class’s changing tastes. Old and new—pristine and gritty—stray dogs and future brides.