City Hangout – Main Bazaar, Paharganj
Sights of the world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The Main Bazaar in Paharganj is a clutter of cafés, second-hand book stores and a few atmospheric broken-down mansions. Close to the New Delhi railway station, the bustling district has traditionally been a haven for backpackers for whom Delhi serves as the starting point to the rest of India.
Although lately in vogue with the city’s hipsters in search of the next cool place in town, Paharganj remains firmly captive to the taste of foreigners. Its eateries serve Continental breakfast, Mediterranean platter, and health salads; many offer authentic cuisines from lands as varied as Israel and Italy. The customers include Israeli rabbis and American hippies (yes, they still exist, at least in Paharganj).
Let your first stop be My Bar. The place is popular among Delhi University students for its inexpensive beers and whiskies but the watering hole has not let these young things compromise its character, a mix of the adventurous and seedy.
The bar is long, not wide, and dark. The only affected showiness (think Hauz Khas Village) is on the wall decked with posters of Bollywood films, including the hippie classic Haré Rama Haré Krishna. During the day, most of the clients consist of foreign tourists. By evening, they give way to young office goers and college students who chat over beer/whisky/vodka and greasy Chinese fried dishes.
After leaving My Bar, go to Madan Café. All day long you see long-haired travellers seated in this cramped place with books and newspapers. Some actually read, while others watch the scene on the street outside — teeming with beggars, sadhus and dogs — with so much fascination that even The Delhi Walla ended up looking at these everyday characters as dream exotica — as long as I was lounging at the café.
Further down the same road is Jackson’s Books — Delhi’s best second-hand book store, which also has an in-house palmist (I have written about the place here). The shop sells novels, travelogues and guidebooks. There are books in more than 10 languages, including German, French, Korean, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese and Finnish. Sandwiched between a shaded alley and a small mosque, it principally serves Paharganj’s foreign backpackers, which explains the presence of the many Lonely Planet guides. There is a ladder to climb to an attic filled with these guidebooks. The soft-spoken store owner exchanges used books with his foreign customers so the collection includes paperbacks from across the world — some titles I have never heard of but appeared worth reading.
From there, go to Ajay Guest House’s Brown Bread Bakery, the hotel’s coffee shop, offers minimalist pastas, among other things. The mezze platter consisting of hummus, pita and falafel was on the heavy side. Baba Ghanoush, the dish of mashed aubergine, was divine. The breakfast buffet with a range of salads and dips is filling. The carrot salad is a must-try. The fresh juices are served in large glasses — the orange juice is like God’s heaven. An in-house bakery is stacked with cheeses and jams, and white and brown breads — the mango jam is lovely. So is the Patate al Forno in which baked potatoes are dressed in olive oil (lots of it), whole garlic cloves and rosemary leaves. The bakery has a cyber café, a boutique, and a shelf stocked with lacklustre volumes on Buddhism. End the experience with the coffee shop’s frothy cappuccino.
Now head to Chabad House. This is Delhi’s little Jerusalem. The Chabad House (pronounced Khabad), headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, US, is a centre to disseminate traditional Judaism. It has branches across the world. Chabad House’s presence in Paharganj is explained by the fact that the district is a popular stopover for a large number of Israeli backpackers on their way to Manali and Goa (in fact, Hebrew-language graffiti can be seen across the Main Bazaar).
The centre in Paharganj is cozy, with well-worn sofas, Hebrew prayer books and Hasidic Jews in their customary three-piece suits and wide-brimmed black hats. In the cramped prayer room, you must look out for the menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand. During the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the rabbis light candles not only inside, but also on the street, where they offer the traditional challah bread to passers-by.
Although the Chabad House doesn’t bar entry to non-Jews, it reserves the right to admission on account of security concerns.
Finally, make Appetite on the main road the perfect place to wind down with a cup of tea. Though it replaced its weather-beaten old tables with disconcertingly glossy furniture in the name of renovation, the café’s character remains unchanged. It is very sunny. In winter, daylight streams in through the glass door, filling the entire place with sunny optimism. Guests can be seen writing diaries and letters; some read novels. The food is fine, though the popular Spanish Breakfast with its cheese-filled omelettes has nothing Spanish about it. The bread rolls are baked in the nearby Everest Café. The ginger honey tea is refreshing. So is the fresh papaya juice. I love their aloo parathas too. The Nepalese Thali is worth ordering.
If you are into chess, meet the cashier. He thinks he is a champion and loves challenging his guests.
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