In Chandni Chowk, a frenetic market in Old Delhi, a man with one leg hopped over to me and issued a friendly warning.
“Watch out for pickpockets,” he said. “And don’t shop here. They’ll rip you off.”
(“Here” referred to a touristy street on the fringes of the market.)
Since arriving in India’s capital, I had grown delirious with excitement to buy everything within my reach, a vulnerable state that impairs your senses. I was wearing the sartorial equivalent of beer goggles. Through these lenses, objects on Delhi’s shelves and racks looked so beautiful. I was destined to bring home some duds.
The world’s second-most-populated city can be disorienting, even for visitors who aren’t suffering from retail ecstasy. Traffic defies laws and physics. Streets are a rushing tide of bodies, cars, tuk-tuks, carts, motorbikes and cows. Monkeys leap between rooftops and power lines, inches above passing heads. Add to this madness the bewildering maze of stores and stalls selling shoes, scarves, saris, satchels, jewelry, spices, textiles and housewares.
Before plunging into Chandni Chowk, or Moonlight Square, I dabbled in a few serene shopping experiences. At Khan Market, an upscale destination in New Delhi, I floated in and out of spotless air-conditioned stores. My favorite was Fabindia, the Barneys of India, where the fashionable customers seemed to have stepped out of exotic fashion magazines. Dilli Haat, the government-run emporiumnear Lodhi Garden, showcases a rotating cast of regional artists and their crafts, such as papier-mache animals, bamboo and cane jewelry and handcarved wooden elephants with a surprise inside. (Sssh, it’s a baby pachyderm!) However, one of the most artful objects was not for sale: the elaborate mustache of a Rajasthan carver.
This sweater set of shopping venues was tidy and composed like a proper lady. My shoes stayed dirt-free. By comparison, in Chandni Chowk, I needed to wash my feet — and ankles — afterward.
The Old Delhi bazaar inhabits a sloppy bowl of noodly lanes near the Red Fort, the palace garrison of the fifth Mughal emperor. You don’t stroll the area; you tumble into it and lift your head every so often for gulps of breath. Despite its guidebookish location near the historic site/UNESCO attraction and the circling souvenir hawkers, the 17th-century market is authentic.
“Old Delhi is an old market and an Indian market. It has better quality, too,” said Abdul, the sage with the crutch. “New Delhi is a tourist market and double the price.”
At first, I tried to shake the man with the unsolicited advice. I thanked him, pressed a few rupees into his hand, and wandered off to explore a street with glittery jewelry stores. I entered one shop to inspect a pair of earrings shaped like lamps with fringed shades. A sign on the door said that prices were fixed. Outside, a parade float with two white horses, a pair of Jainist deities and countless followers streamed by. Through the crowd, I noticed the mystery man leaning against a building, smoking a cigarette.
I left, and he followed. I would enter a store; he would wait. Finally, I faced my tail. After a quick conversation, I asked him to join me. His winning pitch: to show me elegant gold and silver pieces sold by Jainist jewelers.
Abdul led me to Naughara Street, a tranquil lane lined with white buildings brushed with Easter egg colors. The proprietor ushered me inside the ground-level store and excitedly presented me with a holiday card from the Obamas, who apparently are customers. He told me that he exports most of his wares but encouraged me to peruse the glass cases. I tried on a silver bangle tipped with leopard heads and a necklace with spaghetti strands of semi-precious stones. I could afford neither. Then the power went out.
Out of the darkness, a pair of bell-shape enamel earrings trimmed with tiny garnet beads called out. The lights came back on, as did the credit card machine. I took it as a sign.
For textiles and clothes, Abdul suggested Ghante Wali Gali, a wholesale section of the market that offers bottom-feeder prices. We climbed up a long staircase stamped with images of Hindu gods used to deter unsanitary behavior. (Bad karma to spit on Vishnu.) At the tippity-top, I removed my shoes and entered a raj’s den rich with silky fabrics. A seller approached with several scarves draped across his arm, as if he were a magician. He didn’t produce a bunny, but I think he might have briefly hypnotized me. Before I knew it, he was packing up three scarves and I was agreeing to a price (about $12 each) without haggling.
I bargained harder at Lakhan Lal and Sons in the New Mahesh Cloth Market. Women’s clothing hung like colorful kites waiting for a breeze to lift them up. I honed in on a turquoise Punjabi salwar kameez (dress, flowy bottoms and scarf, all matchy-match), but I only wanted the main attraction. The price started at $80 for all three. I proposed $20 for the dress. Back with $60 for the set. I had to explain that Americans don’t typically wear pants under dresses, unless they are going to Coachella. We volleyed for some time before I motioned to Abdul that we were leaving. With a sigh of defeat, the owner offered me the dress for $30. I agreed with one stipulation: Could he could please remove the mother-of-the-bride sheer sleeves with ornate cuffs?
He rattled off an address in Hindi and off we went to the tailor, who de-armed my dress for free. To pass the time, he let me play dress-up with a vintage silk sari that cost $200. I twirled and curtsied, and then yelped to be liberated from the tangle of fabric.
On our way to the shoe vendor, I detoured into a street-level shop that resembled a dollar store for accessories. Baskets overflowed with cheap costume jewelry. Dangly earrings stuck to the walls like pinned butterflies. I picked up a plastic pouch of pearl-studded bangles and showed them to Abdul. He nodded his approval and I threw down hard cash: 50 rupees, or about 80 cents.
At Rayyan Enterprises, shoes trotted up all four sides of the store to the ceiling. The Made in Rajasthan leather flats came in solid colors and ornate patterns, with narrow toes and low backs. My eyes watered with happiness and my head spun with too many choices. I chose five and winnowed the pile down to two: lemon-yellow with gold stitching and purple brocade with a matching pom-pom.
The shoes are one-size-fits-all and ambidextrous, with no difference between left and right. I wedged my feet into the first pair and strutted up and down the cluttered runway. Abdul, now elevated to soul-sister status, expressed his delight. The yellows pinched, however. The man in charge asked to see them. He slipped them over his tube-socked feet, walked a lap and handed them back to me. They were now my size. I asked Abdul which ones he preferred. He provided the correct answer. I left with both for about $10.
Hours into our shopping excursion, my arms were bent with shopping bags and my water bottle had reached a dangerously low level. I had not eaten, nor had Abdul, who appeared to subsist on tobacco. I told him we were done. But then, across the way, I saw rows of perfect O’s glinting in the sun. Glass bracelets!
I bought three boxes of bangles (gold-speckled red, hot pink, silver-blue) for about 65 cents per dozen from the Variety Bengal Store on Ballimaran Corner. I added them to my expanding stash and looked up to see that Abdul was off again. Despite losing his leg in a train accident, he could reach some serious speeds.
We reunited at the Afghan Store, an apothecary-like shop that specializes in spices and teas. An employee showed me seasonings commonly used in Indian cuisine and explained their uses: star anise for rice, for instance, and tamarind for soups and sauces.
“There are five or six spices we use daily,” said Deepanshu Chopra. “In my home, we use saffron every day. And for every meal, we use curry for the proper flavor.”
I knew that I should buy saffron, a bargain at $8 a gram, but at that moment I couldn’t focus on future meals. I wanted instant gratification. At the front of the store, I grabbed some popped lotus flowers and ate half the bag on the cycle rickshaw ride to the cashmere store.
At Delhi Handicrafts Emporium, near the Red Fort, Sunil Jain offered me a cup of tea (accepted, of course) and a lesson on pashmina (I’m all ears). He said that 90 percent of the products are fake, with goat or sheep wool posturing as goat hair. One way of testing the authenticity is to burn an edge of the material. If it smells like hair, it’s the real deal.
“This is a way of checking,” he said, “because everyone is not an expert.”
In addition, Jain said the lighter the weight, the better the quality. Also, if the material shines, the manufacturer has added silk strands. But that’s not a cause for embarrassment. Most Indians wear a mix of fibers because the weather is often too warm for pure pashmina.
“You have a preconception in your country that pashmina is expensive,” he said after the demo. “But in India, no, it’s not.”
I asked him for sample prices. A scarf blend starts at about $20, he said, and a 100 percent pashmina costs more than five times as much. And the tea and cashmere class? Free.
By the time we exited the shop, the plump orange orb was starting to slip down the hazy sky. We both knew that the sun was also setting on our day of shopping.
I told Abdul that I would catch a cab back to my hotel, but he said that I shouldn’t waste my money. He escorted me to the Chandni Chowk Metro station and explained the process of buying a token and boarding the train.
I tipped him mightily and said goodbye. He left me with a final piece of wisdom: Watch your bags and don’t talk to anyone.
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Chandni Chowk is in Old Delhi, not far from the Red Fort. You can enter the marketplace from Chandni Chowk Street; look for the old sweets shop Jalebi Wala. The closest Metro station is Chandni Chowk on the Yellow Line.
Walks to Remember
C -257, Suraj Mal Vihar, Delhi
To orient yourself, take a pay-what-you-wish walking tour. The two-hour Free Heritage Walk leaves at 9:30 a.m. and explores the market, mosques, temples, rooftops and more.