City Hangout – Brown Break Bakery, Paharganj
A pandemic-era life.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Once upon a time, Paharganj’s heart used to pulsate in two cafés. True — the entire Main Bazar in this hotel district of backpackers teemed with foreign backpackers. But it was in this pair of cafés that a great many of them would let go of their backpacks to hibernate into ease. There, these long-haired tattooed folks would spend hours chitchatting with fellow backpackers, exchange tips on best bike routes to Dharamshala and Pushkar, and share notes on bakhsheesh, Benares, Delhi belly, and Shatabdi Expresses. The less extrovert might play a guitar, or read a novel for hours. For Delhi locals, to hang out in these cafés, and be hemmed in by a blab of Hebrew, German and French tongues, would be like being air-lifted to a foreign land.
And then the coronavirus arrived. The foreign tourists vanished. The two cafés closed. One of them, Apetite German Bakery, later reinvented itself into an upscale grocery, with window displays stocked with chips packets and soda bottles. The other, Brown Bread Bakery, stayed shut.
It reopened last week, without creating any fuss.
This morning, there are the same glass-topped wicker tables as of the pre-pandemic era, the same noisy ceiling fans, the same female mannequins in long gowns and sun glasses, and yet the dimly lit place feels profoundly different. The familiar staffers—Pooran, Dilip, Neeraj—are nowhere to be seen, the shelves are bare of used books. No traveller is here writing postcards to friends back home. No meditative tourist is performing Padmasana on the back sofa. The place is empty, save for a cat. “We have started serving a few items such as cinnamon rolls, breads, veg sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, as well as tea and coffee,” says attendant Mohan. Only a few customers trickle in these days, he mentions, and they tend to be Indians staying in the area’s hotels. While India has re-started issuing tourist visas, Paharganj is still awaiting its crowds of foreigners.
Now a women steps into the café. She settles down in front of the cake counter. “I’m Yuka, from Siberia, in Russia,” she says (see last photo).
Old place, new start