Obituary – Connaught Place, Central Delhi

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Romantic Delhi

The British-built district’s distinctness has disappeared.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The dating point Nirula’s is now the family-friendly Haldiram’s. Connaught Place, the place I knew, is gone. Look around Central Park: couples on the slopes, college students in the amphitheater, families on the cement pathways. The place is sanitized. Once this was a refuge for ‘anti-socials’.

Then, in 2007, the Delhi Metro barricaded the park, felled the trees, dug the ground, and set up a rail terminus below, a garden above.

By the time the park re-opened, the familiar ‘eye sores’ – the charsis, the eunuchs, the prostitutes, and the homeless – had vanished. Also gone? The lonely people who would come here for casual sex. Also, the ear cleaners, the masseurs, the kheera wallas, and the chai wallas.

Where are they now that Delhi’s izzatdar people have claimed their sanctuary?

And where are all the books that lined the shelves of The Bookworm? The B-block bookstore visited by the likes of Satyajit Ray closed last year. From a booklover’s point, the Bookworm never had the best collection in town, but the spiral staircase, a revolving bookcase, jazz and the charming cashier gave the place its ambiance. The owner blamed the demise on the discount-friendly chains that took his patrons.

The chains have changed the CP experience. In Rai House, next to Shivaji Stadium, Bhartiya Sahitya Sadan bookshop made way for a shoe shop, which gave way to Café Coffee Day (CCD). In the pre-internet age, the Thai Airways office at A-12, Inner Circle, was always crowded with backpackers looking for cheap tickets. KFC is there now. Similarly, a travel agency at A-21, next to Baskin Robbins that replaced a Vimal showroom, has closed. There’s a CCD now.

In B-3, there was the office of a property dealer. Today there’s a CCD. Nearby, B-24 was the site of Capital Boot House, now McDonald’s. In the same block, Mr Rakesh Chandra is running his New Book Depot for 35 years. “Change is the only constant in life,” he says. “The chains have deep pockets but I’ll survive as long as people buy books.” Most independent showrooms, in fact, are surviving because they are paying rents based on original quotes, far cheaper than the present.

In B-49, women had facials in Shahnaz Husain’s beauty parlour. Now there’s a CCD. Metro Shoes was in F-16. It shut down to make way for a TGIF.

In the Outer Circle, shutters rolled down on the Raymond showroom at N-11 and rolled up for CCD. At N-16, Barista patrons perhaps have no idea that TVs and stereos, not brownies and biscotti were sold there.

In the Regal Cinema Building, a branch of the Punjab National Bank is a McDoanld’s. McDonald’s is also at P-14 in Shivaji Stadium where a press used to print books.

Close by is the Rivoli cinema, once an independent theater and one of Delhi’s oldest, now run by PVR Cinemas, which also runs the Plaza in CP.

In place of Rangoon Photography Studios at 58, Janpath, there’s a Pizza Hut.

Sometimes the changes are made to recreate the past. In 2009 the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) began restoring the façade of the CP’s colonial corridors. Windows are being replaced, walls re-painted, pillars and jaalis restored. Can NDMC bring back the lost charm?

No doubt cinema, fast food, apparel chains are clean and convenient but their uniformity has taken away CP’s identity. The old showrooms, bookstores, printing presses, eateries, theaters, and ‘anti-social’ areas embroidered Delhi’s most scenic commercial district. Some threads survive. Order the chicken stroganoff in D-block’s Embassy restaurant (circa 1948), or watch a movie at Regal, or buy a piano in A Godin & Co., or get a paperback outside Wimpy’s, or hop over to the L-block where the pigeons remain.