City Hangout – Pandemic-Era Madan Café, Paharganj
A place for backpackers.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The cafés are once again crowded with backpackers. The paves are full of the blab of Israelis. The touts too have surfaced. Paharganj is back in business.
If only. But this is what businesses in Delhi’s hotel district are dreaming for. Especially from this week as India reopens its doors to foreign travellers for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, by resuming the tourist visas.
Paharganj’s Madan Café is optimistic. “We closed on the first day of the first lockdown and remained shut all these months because our primary customers were foreign tourists,” says Aditya Madan, the founder’s 30-year-old son. “We reopened on the auspicious day of Diwali.”
In the BC (before Covid) era, the café was the closest Delhi had to those ubiquitous street-side eateries sprinkled across European cities. Tucked at the western end of the Main Bazar, any number of tables were placed out on the pavement. Here foreign tourists would leisurely gaze upon cows and dogs, pedestrians and whatever else turns up on the lively street. A calmer place to enjoy the café was deep in its tunnel-like interior where you’d feel far removed from bustling Delhi. The minutes would move slowly.
This afternoon, the minutes are still moving slowly in the café. The front tables are empty.
Madan Café traces its roots to 1947 when partition migrant Chunnilal Madan, from Gujranwala in present-day Pakistan, set up a tea-and-salt shop on this very site. His grandson, founder Naveen (Aditya’s father), converted it into a café in the 1970s, when Paharganj started teeming with hippies.
“Other markets in Delhi are back to life but Paharganj must wait for its foreigners,” Aditya remarks.
For now every inch of the café is permeated with the memories of those much-missed foreigners. One evening, in the pre-pandemic era, The Delhi Walla had met a photographer from New York sitting on the table outside—turned out he had authored a book on the Indian Himalayas. Another evening a couple from Croatia readily recalled their memories from the last Balkan war. The place used to be so packed with backpackers that Aditya even arranged foreign extras during the film shoot of Julia Roberts-starrer Eat Pray Love in nearby Haryana in 2009.
And now, suddenly, something magical happens. A tall foreign woman in a long skirt appears. With a striking resemblance to actor Gwyneth Paltrow, she settles down discreetly on the back table and orders dal-chawal, while smiling all the while (see photo).
The café opens daily from 7am to 11pm. The lounge-like bench outside is an idyllic spot to read a novel over endless cups of cardamom-flavoured chai.
Back to eat pray love?
Scenes from the pre-pandemic era
A scene from the pandemic era