Cities have always intrigued me – more so their existence and how they came to be. Within cities sometimes you end up finding smaller cities that have their own tales to tell, provided people listen. Chandni Chowk of Delhi is one such city within a city. I also remember the first time I visited Chandni Chowk after much hesitation (I am from Bombay. I was born and raised in South Bombay. You can’t even begin to imagine the level of being a snob) and I was honestly mesmerized by it.
Initially, I didn’t think or make much of it, till I walked around in the snake-like lanes, made peace with all kinds of smells around me – from food that was being cooked to an open window of someone’s house from which there were other smells to finally the smell of comfort. I think a place like Chandni Chowk sinks into you only if you allow it to or else it will never become a part of you.
The book by Swapna Liddle is a historic tribute to Chandni Chowk and its formation over the years – from being a part of Shahjahanabad to how it came to be what it is today, over centuries. Liddle’s research is partly through the archives and mostly through what she conjures through her experiences. The book is rich with anecdotes – it chronicles the life of a city through its trials, tribulations and what it has seen through the years. My favourite part of the book was the cuisine of Chandni Chowk and how it has grown over the years. At the same time, the history of Chandni Chowk through all the wars and battles is staggeringly astonishing and deserves a read for sure.
“Chandni Chowk” is draws on a lot of sources as the story of a place progresses – from newspaper articles to accounts of Mughal chroniclers, travelers’ memories, poetry, and government documents (I was fascinated by what I read in this book. It opened a new side of this place for me). What I also felt most sad about is how this place has somehow lost its significance over the years and is lost in the hustle and bustle of the capital city. Perhaps, it will change as more people would want to know more about it. This book is the best place to begin that journey.
Swapna’s writing will compel you to visit Chandni Chowk the next time you are in Delhi (if you’re not from there), and if you are from Delhi, then it will make you want to go there again and again and discover the true essence of what was it and how it is today. Liddle’s writing is nuanced and at the same time full of brevity – she doesn’t cramp too much and that makes it way easier to read about a place. If you like reading about places, their history, their present and what they mean in today’s times, then you must include this one in your reading list.