The new night life in the shopping district.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
There they are! Just 2 minutes of walking through a deserted block, and The Delhi Walla spots the party-ready midnight’s children, who confirm what we had suspected all along—CP still has pull.
I had spent 2 hours at the A- block Starbucks in Connaught Place with a woman friend. The upper floor was empty but for a love-struck couple and an artist-type strumming his guitar. Downstairs, people shared tables as they continued their usual relationships with their mobile phones.
The wait was for the clock to strike 12, at which hour we would ambush Friday night CP with our camera and questions.
Exactly at midnight, then, we step out of the coffee shop and turn left towards the Inner Circle, our destination. The male mannequin in the fashion store show window appears determined to rise above his circumstances—the abstract art canvas of paan-stained white walls and pillars.
Not a soul is visible. We feel a bit deflated. Then we spot a cheerful group of four—two couples dressed for a night about town—walking towards us. They have just come out of My Bar, having celebrated the start of the weekend, and will now drive back home to Vikaspuri. A few smiles for the camera, a thumbs-up sign, and they’re gone. We move on.
It’s hard for anyone to remain immune to claims of how unsafe Delhi is at night. To a great extent, it applies to most parts of the city. Connaught Place, however, is not like any other place.
People in their 60s talk wistfully of it as their college-life haunt, a time when they would hang out in restaurants that hosted jazz bands. For the next generation, CP was a no-go place after a certain time, though groups of friends and families still converged at Nirula’s for the famed Hot Chocolate Fudge. In the late 1990s, CP would look forlorn as early as 9pm. The Central Park would empty out even earlier, except for men cruising for quick love.
Then came the construction of the underground Rajiv Chowk Metro station. For years, the whole area was dug up, for the Metro, pedestrian underpasses and new pipelines, and the city’s central business district slipped into almost terminal decline. The crowds moved to other parts of Delhi.
Eventually, the dust settled. Trees and bushes in the park made way for water features, trimmed greenery and an amphitheatre. Today, the park’s highlight is a gigantic national flag.
CP began to breathe. The Metro made it easier to reach it and the crowds began to return.
Though some things never change, the most remarkable change for a CP regular is the illuminated signs going up for new restaurants and gastro-pubs every so often. A great many of them have opened along the Inner and Outer Circles. Beautiful people sip cocktails at the terrace bars till late. Happy crowds spill out of narrow doorways that lead to vast, quirkily named food and beverage ventures.
This month, a “lifestyle hub” called The Colonnade will open in B block; it will have 25,000 sq. ft of cafés and lounges. Weekend evenings in CP have become so crowded that it’s hard to take two steps without being jostled.
Tonight, our midnight stroll is along the Inner Circle, to see how women feel and act in this revived space at this hour.
The encounter with the Vikaspuri quartet has lifted our spirits considerably. A few minutes more and we’re at Wenger’s, the cake shop. My friend, a fan of the bakery, leans towards the collapsible grill guarding the closed door, as if to smell the goodies.
Just round the corner, Keventers, the milkshake kiosk, is doing roaring business. It’s teeming with customers clutching flavoured shakes, among them a burqa-clad woman.
Across the radial road is an ice-cream vendor with a hairstyle similar to that of Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion (see photo 9 below). He will stay for another hour, and will reach home in faraway Sonia Vihar only early morning.
At B block, a small group—two women and a man—is cutting a birthday cake on one of the many cement benches that dot CP. The birthday girl’s face is being smeared with cream. One of the friends has come straight from his office in Gurgaon, adjacent to Delhi, and another took the Metro from Noida, also near Delhi. They often meet on Friday nights, this being the intersection for the Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines. Since the service shuts down at 11.30pm, they’ll go home by autorickshaw. But not anytime soon. Three isn’t a crowd; it’s a party.
It’s the store guards who provide a surreal touch to night-time CP. Many lie sprawled on chaadars (bedsheets) spread out on the floor right outside the glass doors of showrooms. The ironic contrast of makeshift beds and the luxuries showcased in window displays is haunting. One guard uses a brick for his pillow. Another talks on his cellphone, oblivious to two black dogs cuddling next to him. A third eats paratha and mango pickle, with a dog waiting for titbits. While photographing all this, we get a stern look from the guard outside a jewellery showroom—his rifle is impossible to ignore, but he does allow himself a flicker of a smile a moment later.
Near Farzi Café, two couples are trying to get the perfect selfie. They’re from Kirti Nagar, and occasional visitors to CP on Friday nights. With so many new restaurants and pubs in the area, they’re interested in trying out one on every visit.
Outside the Louis Philippe showroom, there’s a fantastic example of jugaad, a folding bed neatly covered by a mosquito net that’s held in place by CP’s colonial-era columns. In D block, there are two people with their own open-air bedchambers, the leaves of a peepal tree fanning them.
Of course, no Friday night exploration would perhaps be complete without booze-loving college boys. We bump into a group of Delhi University students. “We get drunk, we always get drunk,” says one happily. Another adds, “We don’t know where we’re going… and that’s a challenge!” For people who frankly admit they’re drunk, their behaviour is exceptionally sober.
Thanking us profusely for taking their photographs for thedelhiwalla.com, they walk away, swearing good-naturedly to each other.
A short stroll brings us to two women, who are taking each other’s photographs on their smartphones. One is in a stylish maxi dress. Their husbands are talking business nearby. The two couples are from Tagore Garden and Gurgaon.
We meet two more women resting on a bench near Odeon cinema. They have come from faraway Rohini “to enjoy with the children”. The family joins them soon and everyone poses for a photograph.
The most puzzling person is a middle-aged woman in a plain red salwar suit. Holding a plastic bag, she shyly follows us as we speak to the revellers, but when a question is directed at her, she mumbles, “Unse baat karo (talk to them),” glancing at a group nearby.
The saddest sight materializes towards the end. No, it’s not that jasmine seller hawking his flowers vainly at car windows. After all, he still manages to grin sheepishly as he throws his plastic water cup into a hedge. It is a young couple with glum expressions most unbecoming of the Friday night spirit. Has he just got fired? Has her father said no? We shall never learn of their troubles, for they walk on, not stopping to chat.
By 1am, the moon has risen behind Gopal Das Bhawan (see photo 12a below). CP’s corridors are getting even more crowded. People dressed trendily file past closed storefronts. The restaurants are perhaps emptying out. But the Domino’s pizza outlet at N block is packed. Further along, two men ride their bikes in the Outer Circle corridor with superhero attitudes, never mind that they’re breaking every traffic rule in the book.
Women in long flouncy skirts and short bodycon dresses walk by or stand idly. There isn’t a woman—as far as we can tell—who’s there without a male friend or relative. But they’re all completely relaxed and evidently having fun. This time of the night, this day of the week, women seem to have reclaimed CP.