How to be a flaneur in car-free Connaught Place
As Connaught Place gets ready for a pedestrian-only experiment for three months starting February, we draw up a list of three eclectic walks into parts that usually remain hidden
Who would have thought this day would come? Even though flâneurs longed for it, their wish was nothing compared to the influence of the car- and shop-owner lobbies. But the seemingly impossible is happening; a three-month trial from 1 February will see a ban on motorized traffic in the inner and middle circles of Connaught Place, CP in short, in the heart of Delhi. No motorbikes in the pedestrian corridor, where they are not supposed to be anyway. No sound of incessant horns.
The trial, ordered earlier this month by the Union urban development ministry, aims to reduce congestion. What impact this will have on the premier central business district is hard to say: There’s plenty of optimism from CP regulars who love strolling down the corridors, and an equal amount of pessimism from CP shop owners, who equate more vehicles with more customers.
The colonial-era shopping district has witnessed a dramatic revival in business in the past few years. There are now more restaurants, pubs and cafés than at any other time in its short history. It is so crowded on weekends that it’s impossible to walk along the circular pedestrian corridor. Will the ouster of motor vehicles mean a merrier expanse for people who love their dear old CP? Or will they find the walk to the inner circle from the outer circle parking lots “just too much, yaar"?
That remains to be seen. But we decided to explore three unusual “walks" that fall just outside the pedestrian-only and shopping-friendly limits of CP—to prove that traffic notwithstanding, where there’s a will, there’s a walk. Even if it’s not always too appetizing.
1. Before you start the “walk", step into the Wenger’s cake shop (in inner circle’s A block)—this place is getting worse! So many customers at all times of the day! Fortify yourself with shami kebab and butterscotch pastry, but avoid the cold coffee—it’s awfully watery. Then go out, turn left and stop at Keventers, and for the sake of your parents’ college days, gulp down a bottle of their strawberry milkshake. Keep walking, past the Radisson Blu Marina Hotel which, originally known simply as Marina, was one of New Delhi’s earliest hotels. Cross the outer circle—it will remain open to traffic, so good luck! If you reach the other side alive, you will see in front of you a lane sporting a cluster of painted signboards advertising a number of oddities, including an astrologer’s services. The smallest of these banners, the one you are most likely to miss, says: Dargah-e-Aliya.
Yes, the lane leads to a Sufi shrine.
Warning: This “walk" might be extremely disconcerting, in the pleasantest way. After all, it’s not easy to make sense of a marbled courtyard—so quiet, so serene—in the heart of Connaught Place. Rows of graves, rows of leafy neem trees. You could just as well be in the Rishikesh of guidebooks. And yet, we are still in central Delhi.
This is the shrine of Shah Abdul Salaam Faridi Chishti, a descendant of the famous Sufi saint Salim Chishti of Fatehpur Sikri. You can hear all about him from his grandson, who is there every day from morning to afternoon. Mohammed Umar Faridi, a resident of Old Delhi, sits in a monkish cell—the niches are stacked with prayer beads. He spends his hours in the dargah counselling distressed souls. The day I was there, he was providing spiritual solutions to a woman who had come with her teenage son. Her crisis: The son had stopped eating home-cooked food and had been possessed by “Chinese chowmein" sold on the streets.
Faridi says that the shrine originally encompassed 60 bighas (around 9.6 hectares) but has now been reduced to a mere 2 bighas. According to him, this area used to be called Baanskoli, a village that was eventually replaced by Connaught Place.
To be sure, piety is not the principal pull of this “walk". Try this to marvel at the serene spot that continues to survive in a bustling business district.
2. This has to be the craziest “walk" in Delhi. Actually, it is nothing but a little lane hidden behind the Regal cinema building. You might want to run away upon entering it, but this lane might also offer a treasure trove of materials to aesthetes who gravitate towards the derelict architecture of inner cities. Before you dive in, stuff yourself with Delhi’s best and arguably greasiest chhole bhature at Kwality restaurant in the Regal cinema building, off Parliament Street. Then walk past a blood test lab which, until a few months ago, was the historic A Godin & Co. piano shop, and turn towards the back lane we spoke about. The “walk" begins now. To the right is an office of Indiatourism.com—you can always spot a few foreign tourists and Indian guides hanging outside. A giant black plastic water tank stands next to it, while the upper floors are a jumble of overhanging cables and rusting air conditioners.
The setting becomes more derelict as you walk further, amid blocks of old, crumbling buildings with paint peeling off them, exposing the bricks underneath. At one, the windows, perhaps not closed for years, are entwined with creepers. The walls are plastered with printed notices warning that “trespassers will be prosecuted". As if.
This lane is home to a mix of businesses. There are a number of courier offices, the sequence interrupted suddenly by a shop named Cottage Industry. A wine and beer shop adjoins the office of a vaastu consultant and numerologist. Dutch courage before you learn your fate perhaps.
And just around the corner is the very respectable India Coffee Centre, which once used to supply freshly ground coffee from south India to Rashtrapati Bhavan. But before you decide to end your “walk" by buying coffee from here, look out for a lovely set of spiral staircases across the lane. That’s PVR Rivoli, the old single-screen theatre taken over by a multiplex chain in 2004. The other single-screen cinema hall in the area is Regal. Last month, according to a report in Hindustan Times, its owner said he might be forced to down shutters owing to a lack of business, accelerated by the after-effects of demonetization.
However this pans out, the upper floors of the building at least might attract crowds. London-based wax museum Madame Tussauds is set to open its first museum in India there later this year. If Regal closes, perhaps Madame Tussauds can immortalize it in wax.
3. First, sit down on the terrace of Indian Coffee House, adjacent to PVR Rivoli. Every year, it’s said this place is going to shut down soon, triggering a flurry of tearful newspaper articles and Facebook posts. But, the coffee place, with its turbaned stewards, is still there, serving coffee and sandwiches.
It’s time to move on. Take in the atmosphere, leave the building and turn left on Baba Kharak Singh Marg. The expanse outside the Hanuman temple is a delight for amateur anthropologists. On Tuesday evenings, there are long queues of devotees. On other evenings, you can see scores of women of all ages getting their hands painted by mehndi artists. Each makeshift mehndi stall comprises a chair and an album showing dozens of henna designs. The life stories of the henna artists, if you were to sit down and record them, might fill a book on the life of rural migrants in big cities.
At all times of the day, the area outside the temple is a hangout zone for the poor; Tuesdays are particularly popular as devotees distribute food to the destitute. Homeless women, men and children lie sprawled across the wide pavement. Many loiter with their beedis and bowls, like solitary planets, across a forsaken amphitheatre that must have been built perhaps with a more artistic aim.
Remember to have adrak (ginger) chai from the 16-year-old famous tea stall of Sagar Kumar. What makes this teashop unique is that it’s one of those rare places which serves tea in earthen, kulhad cups. The tea tastes exactly as it should—and the spectacle of this busy little business, with its boiling milk pan and mini towers of stacked kulhads, makes for a comforting pause in the walk.
Further down the road is one of the most entertaining places to hang out in the Connaught Place area. It’s a so-called garden, not of flowers and trees, but with traffic lights, zebra crossings, even a yellow bus stand. This is the Traffic Training Park, opened in 1964, where visitors can “learn about traffic rules and road safety norms in a practical and theoretical manner", but not on Tuesdays, when it is closed.
The walk ends at the glistening white Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, famous for its golden dome, said to be plated with solid gold. If you’re here in time for the next round of langar, the free meals served by the gurdwara twice a day, it will make for an extremely appetizing—and perhaps humbling, seeing the scale of charity—end to your walk.