Red Fort.

I had a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do last week, and since it was the right kind of day- you know, the kind of day that has the right amount of sun and wind and freshness; the kind of day you want to literally grasp with your hands- I decided to explore the Red Fort. 

I asked Mrs Khera, over buttery toast and sweet papaya, how to get there. Simple enough- take the Metro Station to Chandni Chowk and once you get there, ask someone to point the way to you. So I did that. Kurta and backpack and sunglasses and all. 

Stepping into Chandni Chowk was like stepping into a another world where past and present kind of spill into each other. Fruit sellers at this corner, a kebabwallah in that corner. Bright glass bangles and sequinned jholas and embroidered chappals. Flies everywhere. Dust. Lots of dust. Cars crawling along, easily being outstripped by the rickshaws. When you turn a corner, there is a long stretch of busy road ahead of you, and looming up at the end of it, is the Red Fort and it is impossible, completely impossible, to describe what that first glimpse is like. The road itself is a bit of a delight- like the rest of Chandni Chowk, it's a mixture of old and new. Crumbling havelis on one side, cracked and touched with sun, and right opposite, a McDonald's. 

The intersection that lies before the Red Fort is a busy one. Trucks and buses roar past and the smoke chokes you. I attached myself to a family, figuring that if all six or seven of them, ageing grandparents and toddlers- all equally unsteady- could make it through alive, I'd be able to as well. And then I found myself standing in a wide, open courtyard alongside many people, some walking and some sitting on stone steps and some taking photographs. A long wall, red brick at once both soft and hard, looked down upon everyone and behind it, the fort with the Indian flag swaying gently. 

There is a long line of shops, once you enter the fort, that you have to cross before getting to the main entrance. Shops selling clay souvenirs and glass bangles, heavy silver earrings and embroidered carpets ("Straight from Kashmir, madame,"). I lingered there because they are a feast for the eyes. Colour and texture and movement even in the stillest of objects. 

And then I walked along and suddenly the sun was above me and I was in front of a big gate that led to where the main palaces stand. Showed the guards my ticket, got my bag checked, wondered vaguely whether there were any terrorists around, and found myself walking down the long path that leads to where the Durbar used to be. 

A long, low building, with marble pillars beautifully etched with flowers- were they flowers, lotuses maybe?- and I lingered, touched it and despite the brightness of the sun, the marble was cold under my fingertips. There are long pieces of rope- or maybe velvet cloth, I don't remember now- that stretch across and prevent you from wandering into the actual hall. They keep you firmly outside, but your eyes can see. I tried imagining myself back to five hundred years ago, I tried seeing the courtesans, low and shuffling, high pitched and cackling, turbaned and moustached, dripping with jewels. Almost did, before I got shoved by a loud mouthed guide pointing out the marble slab where the Peacock Throne had once stood.

The Peacock Throne. I want to see it; I don't even know if it still exists. Taken away long ago, but even now, its absence can be felt and the slab of marble on which it is supposed to stand looks slightly forlorn. Or maybe I'm just being fanciful but it's difficult not to be, when you're standing in a place that is so full of history and you're standing alone. 

The Diwan-i-Khas, its ceilings stripped of  its gold and silver, but not the words that gave it legend: If there be a Paradise on earth, it's this, it's this, it's this. Or maybe, it's here, it's here, it's here. I don't know but it's not difficult to see why. 

I didn't have a guide so I don't know what the various buildings I saw were called. Passed by the Moti Masjid- they wouldn't let me enter- it was closed for prayer. Aurangzeb built it specially for himself; he used to go there and pray. I stood on a stone just under its window and looked in and all I saw was white marble, made whiter under the sun. It sounds so cold but it wasn't cold at all; just very calm and peaceful. You can feel its peace just by that glimpse through the window. 

I wondered around the gardens, saw a few more palaces (for want of a better word). Warm red stone and cold white marble. Dry and cracked pits where water used to flow once. Weeds where flowers used to grow. There was an artist sitting under a tree, painting part of the...I don't remember the name now. But it has a twin right opposite it. I wished I had a camera because that moment- the concentration on his face and the swift movement of his fingers and the sun that fell on the dome and the wind that made the surrounding uncut grass sway gently- was perfect. A moment worth capturing. 

Had a drink at a restaurant that's tucked away at the back. Basket chairs on a low verandah overlooking trees, with glimpses of mahals from where you sit. 

Went back to the Nahr-i-Bihisht, the stream of paradise, and stood at the white railings that overlook Delhi city. I went up to a museum that houses war relics and it was crowded and sweaty and miserable so after walking very quickly, from Entrance to Exit, I went back to the Diwan-i-Khas to get rid of the taint. 

On my way out, I looked back at the fort. The sun was lower in the sky now and it bathed the red stones, making them glow. There were a few other people, standing still amidst the crowd, also looking at the fort. It's difficult not to stand there and look and to be overwhelmed by the sheer insignificance of people compared to something like that; ironic, because most of the charm, for me at least, lies in the fact that you can still feel traces of people- dead emperors and courtesans and ministers- in there, and that is where the magic lies. People have created history and rendered themselves insignificant by it. 

The peace of the Red Fort- for there is peace there, a calm and a quiet that exists in spite of the tourists and the noise and the excitement and the shops- disappeared the minute I stepped foot into Chandni Chowk's busy roads. Felt again the smoke from the traffic clog my eyes and my nose. 

Outside the Metro station, I ate a plate of fresh watermelon and drank a glass of nimbu pani. 

A sense of belonging. A sense of coming home. 

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