The Moonlit Maze

by Mandy Huggins

Marnie and I are lost. Irredeemably lost in Chandni Chowk; hopelessly tangled in a sensory overload of nighttime noise and colour. The criss-crossed lanes and alleyways were easy to navigate in daylight. They were benign, a safe place for two women to indulge in an afternoon of haggling and people-watching; tiny streets replete with smiling shopkeepers, the aromas of roadside food stalls, and glass bangles glittering in the sunlight. Now the same lanes have mutated into a chaotic labyrinth, and we have no silken cord with which to retrace our steps to the main street. Anish, our tuk-tuk driver, must surely have given up the wait and left by now...

 We first arrive in Old Delhi's 'moonlit market' in the hot dust of the afternoon. Screeching macaques chase across the rooftops, and placid cows, the colour of clotted cream toffee, amble alongside us down the narrow streets. Shopkeepers sit in the languid shade of their doorways, sipping chilled lassi and gossiping with their neighbours. We are much in demand, as customers are scarce; most are waiting for the cool of the evening.

The market is organised into different areas, or kuchas; each selling goods of the same type. In the textile kucha, rickety wooden steps lead us up to endless shelves of sari fabrics.  Bolts of jewel-bright silk are unrolled across the floor, billowing like parachutes in flowing rivers of emerald, turquiose and violet. Mr Rajdeep sends his assistant for cups of sweet milky chai, and we allow him to woo us with his silver-tongued sales talk and artful flattery.

When we descend to the street, armed with our bags of bounty, dusk is already turning to night. We attempt to retrace our steps along the narrow lanes now crammed with shoppers, as they wander between silversmiths, falooda stalls, and stacks of marbled paper in every colour of the paintbox. In the dark and bustle it is all too easy to lose any sense of direction, and as we pass the same sweet shop for the third time, I admit defeat.

Electrical shops confuse the eye with strings of garish lights, and bangles, sandals and spices appear to dance before my eyes to a discordant symphony of bicycle bells and car horns. The syrup-sweet aroma of the jalebi stall clashes with the pungent mulch of rotting vegetables and the sandalwood scent of incense.

Dark, unblinking eyes are watching us from every doorway. There are no female shoppers on the streets except for us, and every time I turn around there appears to be a growing number of men following us. There is a man in an unidentifiable uniform ahead, and I catch his eye and try to ask him for directions. He simply shrugs, and amazingly not one of the men in the gathering crowd admits to speaking English. Yet when we were in the shops, nearly every salesman had a good command of English patter. As we walk on I'm almost sure I feel a hand grab me, but I can't be certain that it's not just my imagination. As we dodge another procession of handcarts and porters with swaying loads, I hear a call to prayer, and quickly say my own.

As if in answer, a gangly teenager stops me at the next corner. 'Rickshaw, ladies?'  

Our saviour is called Vishal, and he promises us that he has a  bicycle rickshaw nearby. He leads us quickly through the alleys, turning left, right and left again, winding deftly between hawkers  and slumbering cows. In our haste to keep up I don't notice for a moment that he has led us down an unlit lane. I pause, unsure, my heart lurching.  He turns and beckons, and Marnie shrugs. What choice do we have? I follow him on blind trust, my sandal squelching in a pile of something soft.

Within minutes we are outside the market and perched on the narrow rickshaw seat.  We keep a tight grip on our carrier bags of scarves and sandals, and Vishal struggles gamely with his bulky cargo, swerving between lorries and smoke-spuming tuk-tuks.

Then, without warning, he pulls up at a huge junction and refuses to go any further.  He explains, with an emphatic shake of the head and a toothy grin, that he is not allowed to ride into New Delhi and he must drop us off here.  

We walk to the corner clutching our map. There are no street signs. Unfortunately, for this map to work at all, we'll need to know our starting point. We realise that we are still hopelessly lost.

But as we look up and down the street, Anish pulls up at the kerbside, apparently unconcerned, as though this were exactly where he had planned on finding us all along.