Memo from Paharganj – Ready for 2010 Commonwealth Games
Reporting from Delhi’s backpackers’ district.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Forget the deluxe hotels, Delhi University’s makeshift tourist hostelries and the city’s Bed & Breakfast lodges. The chief lodging destination for many visitors of Commonwealth Games (CWG), being hosted by Delhi in October 2010, may still be the guesthouses of Paharganj, traditionally the most popular haven for foreign backpackers.
The bustling market and its alleys, opposite New Delhi railway station, have been witnessing renovation for months. The encroaching stores have been demolished. The main road has been widened. The hawkers, touts and mannequins have been removed from the sidewalk. The pavements have been tiled. The shops, some of them, have been newly painted.
“Earlier the place was shabby,” says Muhammad Sharif, a vendor, who sells small Buddhas. “Now the road is broader and you breathe more easily.”
The area’s overhaul has come with a cost. “I’m happy for the wider road,” says Swapnpriiya, a bohemian woman who stays on-and-off in Paharganj hotels. “But what about hawkers who have been evicted from the streets? Where have they gone?”
The local hotel industry has its own concerns. “Our regular business has fallen because travel agents are warning tourists not to go to Paharganj due to the construction mess,” says Baljit Kumar, manager, Hotel Rak International. Situated near the Chowk Bowli, the 19-room property is hopeful about the Games. It has spruced up the interiors of its rooms and has asked its staff not to take any leave till the Games are over.
To be sure, the renovation work in the area is far from over. The labourers are on the job. There are scaffolding on many mansions. When The Delhi Walla was there, a giant digger was dangerously moving around in the main street while pedestrians dodged its backhoe as an everyday nuisance.
Famous for its spinach lasagna, the hole-in-the-wall Everest Café, popular with backpackers, was renovated in May 2010. “We removed a table, introduced a second refrigerator, replaced the bulbs with Chinese lamps and built another lounge,” says Madan GC, the café assistant. “We are expecting lots of tourists for the Games.” The French diners relaxing in the café’s new lounge were less enthusiastic. “We’re not impressed by Paharganj’s renovation,” says Diane who talked on the condition that I would not disclose her last name. “There are still too many people and the place is noisy and dirty.”
To some, this very chaos that refuses to disappear is the charm of Paharganj. “When the authorities started renovating Paharganj, I feared for its soul,” says theater director Rudra Chakravarty who lives in one of the market’s back alleys. “Many foreigners like this rambling look of peeling walls, pavement cafes, overhanging wires and wandering cows. The small-town neighbourhood feel is also very addictive. If the renovations means the end of it all, what will be the charm left?”
Mr Chakravarty need not worry. The wires are still hanging. A few hawkers, touts and mannequins have again hijacked the streets. The cows are still there. Yet there is something beautiful emerging here. “It will look good when it’s finished,” says Kaari Fchlebach, a tourist from New Zealand. “I can tell the difference from last year when I was here. Then walking down the street was difficult. Though it’s a bit chaotic right now, but where the work has been completed, it’s spacious. You don’t feel as if you’ll be run over by a car.”
On the main street, a foreign woman is walking breezily with eyes so dazed as if she is in an anthropological museum. Suddenly a bullock cart appears behind. She steps aside and clicks her camera button. Paharganj memory is preserved.
The work is going on
The business doesn’t stop
Everest Café, old wing
Everest Café, new wing
Gai & Gori, the soul of Paharganj