I like stories with happy endings. One day, while walking past Lal Kuan on my way to Chandni Chowk, I came across a strange sight - a shop with wooden shutters. That was surprising for a couple of reasons. One, this was certainly an oddity in a society that suffered from a siege mentality and kept itself imprisoned behind iron gates and barbed wires. And, second, those who have seen sectarian clashes in Delhi will know that the Lal Kuan-Farash Khana area used to be a flashpoint for communal violence. So, in this area, any shop without iron shutters stood out like a sore thumb.
The wooden door - painted a bright green - stayed in my thoughts till I bumped into my friends from the Walled City - Guru Santosh and Salimbhai. I described the shop to them, gave a detailed map of where it was located and finally told them that I could smell the masalas in the air. The two perked up at once. "Oh, you mean, Sharmaji's masala shop," they said, in unison.
And then they guided me to the shop with the green doors. We walked up from Hauz Quazi towards Lal Kuan. We passed Sirkiwalan, and found the masala shop at the mouth of Kuccha Pandit. Shri Niwas and sons has been in business since the 1920s. The spices are popularly known as Qutub Minar masalas. The interesting thing about the shop is that it is a little lesson in secular harmony. The shop's masalas are used by all the Muslim bawarchis of the Old City for all kinds of non-vegetarian dishes. And those making the masalas are vegetarian Hindus. Prakash Sharma, who earlier worked for DCM, represents the present generation at the shop. And though a strict vegetarian himself, he keeps creating all kinds of exotic new masalas for die-hard carnivores. I have also picked up his masalas for aloo, rajmah and dahiwade, and found them excellent.
The first time I went to the shop I picked up a mutton korma and a stew masala. I followed the directions - written on the packet - to the last T and created the most delicious korma my friends said they had ever eaten. Since then I have tried out the aloo-gosht, chicken and fish masalas and have always met with critical acclaim, and, occasionally, a burping ovation.
I have been going there regularly, picking up masalas for my kitchen, and for friends. On one such visit, I couldn't stop myself from asking Mr. Sharma why his shop had no steel shutters. He replied: "Do you think people who love their food would ever destroy my place? We have a common heritage - and we are a part of the same, composite culture." He said this in his mix of Hindi and Urdu, and I can't tell you how beautiful his words sounded. Have I told you that I love happy endings?