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Full Circle

The Metro may have pierced its heart, but Connaught Place is still ticking round the clock. Well, almost. The Delhi City Limits Ed does the rounds

Full Circle
Full Circle
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Once there were flowers here, and trees. There were birds and dogs and squirrels. Grass and ants. Picnics and romance, cruising and sex. There were madmen, and touts dunning idiotic tourists. Maalishwalas and ear cleaners. In the centre there were subterranean ‘public conveniences’, and above them an admittedly hideous fibreglass sculpture. But on good days even that was obscured by the fountains. Once, you could lie down in Central Park and the entire city would spin around you.

This was New Delhi 1. But for the past few years it’s looked more like Ground Zero. Now the turrets of the Metro station peer out at the devastation like the conning towers of triumphant enemy submarines.

Well, I surrender. And I’m here to make my peace.

At 1 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon I’ve parked my car on the outer circle of L Block and checked into Nirula’s Hotel to spend 24 hours in CP. There is no plan. I will eat, drink, shop. I’ll meet some friends, maybe make some new ones. I’ll visit old haunts and hopefully raise my spirits. At some point I’ll take my first ride on the Metro. But mostly I will walk around—in circles.

I start with the southeastern quadrant: M, N, F and E blocks. Curving clockwise along the rim opposite Super Bazaar, it strikes me—for the first time—that the colonnades of the outer circle (Connaught Circus) have twinned pillars while the Inner Circle (Connaught Place), as well as the radial roads, have individual columns. My cellphone rings, my mother wants to know where I am. "M Block in CP," I tell her, and she asks me to look out for Poornima Saris. "That’s where my father bought me my first sari, in 1948," she says. "It was damn expensive—75 rupees for just a small gold border. I still have it."

Poornima has left the building. But now my head is spinning with memories of my own rites of passage: My first football boots from Pioneer Sports. My first spectacles, from Optical Corner. Platform shoes (Aieee! The ’70s!) from Baluja’s. My first suit, from Vaish Bros. My first job, at India Today. My wedding ring, from Kanjimull’s. A first edition of The Naked and the Dead, from Anand Book Stall. My first car, from Sikand & Co, and within seconds, my first challan, from the Delhi Police. Oh, and hearing my first bomb blast (there would be more). It went off right outside Nirula’s.

Yes, I’m that kind of Dilliwalla. I grew up in Bengali Market. CP was the heart of town for me. Ring Road the outer perimeter. ‘South Delhi’ meant Defence Colony. The markets of Southaxe or Geekayvun, on the horrid fringe, still reduce me to sociopathic hysteria. Take me to Gurgaon or Dwarka or Noidea, and I think I’m in some dystopian nightmare generated by The Matrix.

But CP is Zion. And I am Neo—Neo Palladian. Ah, but it’s not funny. The CP I knew was dying, and of late I’ve come to believe, I want to believe, in the resurrection. The metro has done its worst, Barakhamba is a road again, Marina Hotel will soon be a Radisson, two cinemas have been PVRed, new restaurants and bars have opened and the ‘Great CP Sale’ is on. It must be working, because my next call, just as I get back to the hotel, is from Nayantara, my suburban friend from Saket. She’s having lunch at United Coffee House but she’s here to buy sweaters at the Jainson’s sale.

I catch up with her for a beer at UCH, the best-preserved of CP’s classic restaurants. It’s reassuringly full and Jainson’s is similarly thronging. But after a swift raid on the Chinese woollens, Nayantara returns to her provincial existence, and I resume my trail, walking anticlockwise now, and inevitably, further back in time, until, in the corridor of G Block, I reach the stuccoed signature of Spencer’s caterers. Freshly painted, it’s now emblazoned meaninglessly above a Music World outlet, but I’m glad it’s still there. On C Block I stop at Delhi Stationery Mart, which still displays more eminent signatures on letters of appointment as Official Stationers to Presidents Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishan, and Zakir Hussain. D Block, and Ramchander & Sons, sometime purveyors of toys to Me. The incongruous and dated modernism of Satish Gujral’s murals on the façade of Odeon Cinema. On the corner of B Block I peer into another delightful anomaly: the secluded courtyard of Moti Masjid, whose Meccan alignment disrupts the geometry of this chalky Caucasian circle.

Oh yes, the goras. Lest we forget: CP was named after HRH Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria and an Uncle of George V. But it was first conceived by W.H. Nicholls, Chief Architect of The Imperial Delhi Committee, in 1913. Inspired perhaps by the 18th-century Circus in Bath, Nicholls wanted a three-storey crescent surrounding an enormous plaza and opening directly onto a new railway terminus. But Nicholls left in 1917 and the project was handed over to Robert Tor Russell, Chief Architect of the CPWD (who also designed the Eastern and Western Courts on Queensway or Janpath) and the Commander-in-Chief’s residence (Teenmurti House). When CP was completed in 1939, the crescent had shrunk to two storeys and the railway station was shelved (the New Delhi Station in Pahar Ganj was rebuilt and expanded in 1956). But Nicholl’s ghost still stalks CP’s underworld. He must be chortling in his grave at the subterranean trains trundling into Rajiv Chowk Station.

Now curiosity gets the better of me and I take the plunge down the first available ramp of stairs to the Metro. The shock of the New! My brain reboots to plot this gleaming catacomb onto my map of CP. At the end of the passage I can see the trains sliding purposefully in and out as though they’ve always been here. A young woman trundles past me, having an angry conversation with her cellphone. "Shut up Neha! Bloody bitch!" It’s an unsettlingly contemporary moment, instantly etched into my cache of Unclassifiable Memories.

I emerge to catch my breath at a reassuringly familiar institution: Wenger’s pastry shop (estd. 1926, as soon as A Block was ready) and comfort myself with an English doughnut. And then, on the pavement just outside Wenger’s, I find a vintage talisman. A Spirograph set. For 20 rupees I get six acrylic cogs, and my own mystic mandala of Connaught Place. Circles within circles, but in the right hands they can generate intricate, beautiful and infinite patterns.

It’s my favourite visual metaphor for this place, but having traced my first circuit of CP on foot and in memory, I’m faced with a messier reality. Perhaps it’s just the peculiar perspective of my generation, but it seems to me that CP was most vibrant in the days of a mixed economy and the import substitution chic of Jeans Junction, The Shop, The Cellar, Nirula’s Hot Shoppe and Khadi Bhandar. I drop in to visit Satish Sundra of Ramchander & Sons and he gives me his own chronology of the cycles of boom and bust: "The best period commercially was up till 1965, then it was tough for 10 years, then good till 1995. Then came globalisation, the metro and dishevelment." He confesses that six years ago he contemplated branching out to suburban malls but came away convinced that CP would rise again. "This is a heritage mall. The others are just mushrooming like weeds in the grass," he says, mixing his metaphors in disgust.

Later, I call my friend R. Sriram, CEO of the Crossword bookstores to berate him for failing to open a CP outlet. "We wanted to open in CP," he protests, "but the rates were astronomical, Rs 250 per square foot per month. In Gurgaon and Vaishali it’s Rs 50-70. CP only works for small, high-value boutiques not for mass-market retailers."

Under a staircase in C Block I find living proof of Sriram’s argument at Adarsh Typewriter Repair. It’s been here as long as I can remember and I’ve watched the proprietor age but never spoken to him before. He’s wary but garrulous, and a little manic. Born into this business, he found himself faced with obsolescence but clung to life repairing lighters, spectacles, telephones—anything with tiny springs and screws in it. Now his hopes are pinned on antique typewriter restoration. His shop is a warren, littered with dismantled machines. It’s no boutique, but it is small and he understands High Value. There’s a battered Remington on his desk for which he wants six lakhs. "Yeh to koi foreigner le jayega!" he says, and the cataract in his eye glitters defiantly. I don’t know whether to laugh or applaud.

In the evening my wife joins me at Nirula’s, and along with three friends we head off to Qba, the enormous bar and lounge that occupies two floors of E Block. It’s depressingly empty for a Saturday night but we settle down on the terrace, above the Inner Circle. Out here, in the company of friends, the glimmer of candles, the noodling electronic music, a large shot of Jack Daniels and a cool breeze, the atmosphere is utterly intoxicating. With all the terraces in CP you have to wonder why no one has opened a place like this before. No other city has a space quite like this grand circus. Unfortunately the prices are frightening—at least if you’re picking up the tab for four thirsty women intent on a long night. So we move on first to the utterly deserted Barcode on the Outer Circle and then the slightly livelier Spirit, above Berco’s. Finally, we wind up at Blues, which is packed with a raucous young crowd. The drinks are cheap and the DJ is in thrall to an enthusiastic young dancer in a spaghetti top who directs his playlist—Ek gilasi, dus bahane… My entourage gets up to dance but I’m drifting off again to nostalgic visions of CP’s nightlife. I’ve remembered a recent conversation with Madhavi Mudgal who was born and brought up in a flat on the Middle Circle, where her father had established the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. "It was a lovely big flat with two aangans," she told me. "All the great musicians stayed with us." Then she broke into a breathless reverential chant: "Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib, Pandit Omkar Nath Thakur, Pandit Vinayak Rao Patwardhan, Gangubai Hangal, Hirobai Barodekar, Ustad Ahmad Jan Thirakawa… Oh, there were concerts through the night!"

The ladies return, flushed from their exertions, and in the drunken din we exchange fond smiles laden with unspoken memories. Three of us shared a flat in Brooklyn in the 1980s. We haven’t had this kind of ambulatory bar-hopping night out together since. But when we shuffle out after midnight, hoping to move on to dinner, we realise that this is not New York. It isn’t even New Jersey. This is downtown New Delhi, and it’s turned back into a pumpkin. Not a snack in sight. Our friends depart for home-cooked meals while Malini and I try to wheedle room service into rustling up some dinner. They do: toast.

So we spend our first night in a Delhi hotel room—a vast windowless chamber. "Perfect for a couple, sir—very private!" In the morning we have breakfast at Potpourri and stroll down to Costa Coffee for a slightly more authentic cappuccino. We do finally ride the Metro and pop up in the labyrinth of Chawri Bazaar. Riding back to CP I am caught up in the enthusiasm of the joyriding citizenry. So maybe Central Park has turned into a theme park, but I’ll get over it.

When I reclaim my car, the parking attendant punches his hand-held register and the bill pours out in an alarmingly long scroll. He tears it off and hands me a curling circle of paper: Rs 360! I start to argue but then I remember my geometry and the pleasing circularity of the number disarms me. At least the NDMC knows how to turn a profit in CP. It’s a small price to pay for a happy ending.


This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, February 28, 2006


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