In this sprawling country if the centre of power tends to get more than its share of attention that is but normal. Not many people would have heard of Moore Market of Chennai or Crawford Market of Mumbai and if the Johnny come lately, Khan Market of New Delhi did get undue attention, that is true to the tradition that has been established even if facts are somewhat distorted. History also gets to be written from such vantage positions. A Sukhi dhaba in St. Stephen’s College or Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Ganga dhaba become focal points of national debates but whoever had heard of Rawenshaw College in faraway Cuttack or Fergusson College in Pune though they might have produced a Jadunath Sarkar and a Jayant Narlikar?
When the prime minister mentioned in an election speech recently that Khan Market or Lutyen’s Delhi had not created his image he was both right and wrong. Even as a metaphor it was slightly off the mark. Khan Market is not the Madison Avenue or the hub of the universe. It was just a row of two-storey shops that had been set up hurriedly after Partition to house the people who had fled from the Frontier Province and hence the name. Till a few decades back, it was a modest shopping centre with a couple of book shops, selling Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie and Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, a sweetmeat seller, a Chinese shoe maker, a Chinese dentist and a few dry fruits shops, to keep up with the frontier memories. If you wanted to get the Times Literary Supplement or the New Statesman of Kingsley Martin, you had to go to the Central News Agency in Connaught Place.
Prime ministers in a hurry anyway tend to get things mixed up somewhat, as happened to a predecessor who, passing through Rafi Marg, remarked that it was interesting that the legendary playback singer has been honoured with a road named after him. Civic authorities hastened to write the full name of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai overnight.
Khan Market emerged out the pupa stage somewhere in the late seventies with the surrounding government colonies, with evocative names like Rabindra Nagar and Bharati Nagar and Sarojini Nagar (how they remembered the poets in those times) suddenly becoming prosperous due to the pay commission bounty. The Fifth Pay Commission headed by Justice Pandian, really broke the ceiling. While many state governments went broke, markets like Khan Market bloomed. These were boom markets of those decades. The modest halwai and the shoemaker and shop selling condiments from the South just sank. It was also the time a six-storey block came up nearby housing on the fourth floor and above wings of the Finance Ministry and Enforcement Directorate.
The Lok Nayak Bhavan’s ground floor had trendy showrooms displaying lamp shades, chandeliers and ethnic apparel with the Gandhi logo.
Into these government flats nearby moved in three star generals and police top brass and chief election commissioners and special correspondents of newspapers and when they came shopping, or their families, sirens blazed and windows shoppers were shooed away.
More eating houses sprang up, and instead of the shoe maker and dentist it was the Chinese and Lebanese cuisine that became the rage. The corridors gave way as the shops expanded and the winding stairs through the narrow lanes led precariously to the first floor where there were barbecues. There was also the palpable diplomatic presence nearby with the Spanish, French and Brazilian missions at shouting distance.
In the seventies, the hub of the intellectual activities were the India International Centre and later the Habitat Centre, just at walking distance, and opening to the Lodi Gardens. Nearby was the other red brick residential complex of Sujan Singh Park where the author Khushwant Singh held court and hosted ghazal singers and budding writers. A chronicler and son of one of the architects of the capital, he was a presence in the Lodi Gardens. When these bureaucrats and columnists began taking a stroll in the gardens that led to much exchange of ideas. But there doesn’t seem to have been any kind of intellectual discussions and it was farfetched to think that Derrida figured anywhere in their discussions. That French philosopher was probably discussed and furiously deconstructed at Ganga dhaba.
A little away was the Lodi Colony that was the barracks built hurriedly where the World War II soldiers were billeted and these structures became the quarters for the clerical staff. The occupants rode on cycles to the Central Secretariat that had sprawling cycle stands. On the side were again one-storey markets that catered to the staff, like tailoring shops, small eateries and typewriting and shorthand schools. These suddenly became a booming place at the turn of the century, with the opening up of the economy, Chidambaram’s dream budget and the Commonwealth Games. The Nehru Stadium was just a stone’s throw away. This market, named after the minister for rehabilitation after Partition, Meher Chand Khanna, now matches Khan Market in the range of shops and high end products, boutiques and services.
Even the concentric circles of the New Delhi that Lutyens designed had these segregations, and class character with the Man Nagar and Shan Nagar with their Type II flats and the modest Seva Nagar for the Class IV staff whereas the elite stayed at Wellington Crescent and Race Course Road (RCR) and Rao Tularam Marg (RTR) in bungalows with manicured lawns on two-acre plots. In the far flung areas were the nagars where the Partition displaced were settled, Lajpat Nagar and Malaviya Nagar and Tilak Nagar, shanty towns at one time and named after stalwarts of the freedom struggle.
Again in the seventies there were other marked changes. The names of these old freedom fighters gave way to that of the other leaders and thus the Nehru Yuvak Kendra and the Nehru Stadium and Indira Gandhi international airport and Sanjay Van and Rajiv Bhavan came up. The Connaught Place Metro station was named Rajiv Chowk.
Of all the seven cities that comprised the ancient city of Delhi only the one planned by Curzon and executed by Lutyens at the beginning of the last century turned its face away from the sacred river Yamuna. All the other rulers built their capitals taking into account the curve of this legendary river. The Nigambodh ghat with its bow-shaped curvature was as sacred as Varanasi even to these invading rulers. Into this river flowed 72 rivulets from the Shivalik ranges and at the time Khan Market was built, you could dig any place and hit ground water at four feet. All these rivulets have more or less dried up and now you have to dig 500 metres to reach the water table.
Delhi had its bards too, envoys from other countries like Malcolm Macdonald of Britain who had written a delightful book on the Indian birds in his garden. And there was the Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz who found Delhi’s ‘aesthetic equivalent’ in novels and not in architecture and wandering through the city he felt he was passing ‘through the pages of Victor Hugo or Walter Scott.’ His gaze, wherever he went, was inwards and for him all experiences including Mughal architecture were revelatory in one way or the other. Paz’s Delhi was culturally rich and poignant as Baudelaire’s Paris or Joyce’s Dublin or even TS Eliot’s London.
Not only was the bow shaped river and the seven cities built on the banks so richly endowed with water, it was also guarded by seven fakirs whose darghas stood sentinel, it also had seven Yogamayas and Bhairavas keeping a protective guard.
Curzon’s concentric circles recalling Dante had nothing to do with all that mysticism and romantic notions and he was quite pragmatic, his was a capital built to rule and establish its stamp of authority. Hence the power that exudes from Khan Market that probably forms the seventh circle. So much so even a mild shower around India Gate gets so much of television space and time that when three-fourths of Assam was under water or only the spire of the Bhadrachalam temple on the banks of the Godavari was above water these did not get even the briefest of mention.
There is something peculiar about the new medium and the digital world as well. The small frames, the colour and sound all tend to magnify things and make them convincing and authentic, but this comes at a price. There is no sense of perspective and the images get erased in no time; that is till the next exciting event is projected. With no memory and no sense of perspective one wades through a miasma.
Khan Market is one such miasma, a line drawn on water and like the boom towns of California or Detroit, they fade away with the obsolescence of the aerospace industry or the automobile segment, or wait for the next migrants from whatever disaster and conflict zone or drought region. The opinions formed in such places are also likely to be as transient. As a stranger to this Chakravyuha - that favourite term of retired diplomats - it is not surprising that metaphors here tend to get mixed up sometimes.
The views and opinions expressed above are those of the author.