City Hangout – Pandemic-Era Paharganj, Central Delhi
A place without its soul.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Sapna means dream and now, indeed, it seems just like a dream.
It is Monday noon and the shutters of the Sapna Travel are down. Some steps ahead is Appetite German Bakery. The glass doors are open, but it’s empty inside. The place hasn’t been serving since the pandemic hit this part of the world in late March. The bakery would make Delhi’s best honey-ginger-lemon tea (which went so well with its almond cake).
Truth be told, the Main Bazar in the hotel district of Paharganj is still milling with local people—not many, but some—and yet it is looking ghostly. After all, what is Paharganj without its so-called Videshi Babas, or foreign backpackers? In the BC (before corona) era, before the international travel came to a halt, the locality would teem with foreigners in long matted hair and colorful tattoos. Dressed in all sorts of eye-catching costumes, they would be chilling out in one of the many cafes, or looking for a travel guide in an used bookstore, or staring at us, Indians, who would be staring back at them.
But there are no foreigners any more in Paharganj. A shopkeeper — his leather goods store is open — talks of the early days of the lockdown, when “big buses came from foreign embassies to take the foreigners to the airport.”
They all went.
Here is Madan Cafe, shuttered. Known for its yummy masala chai, it used to be filled with hippie-like travellers. Sam’s Cafe, famous for its rooftop, is also closed. And here’s the dining hall in Ajay Guest House—it made such tasty Shakshuka, the Israeli dish. This moment, the place is submerged in darkness, the tables are empty, and no staff is to be seen.
In the tourist season, every Paharganj cafe would show-off at least one backpacker, either sitting with a guitar, or a notebook, or some such artsy stuff that people carry when they go to far-off lands to find themselves. That’s all history, now.
The Jackson’s used bookstore is shuttered down as well. (A quick investigation reveals that the bookstore has opened but remains closed on Sunday and Monday).
Nearby, a most poignant sight. The shutter on a closed shop is painted with a bearded man’s face, with the caption—Videshi Baba.
In search of ‘Videshi Baba’