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A day at the Circus

Connaught place was once the Capital’s hottest shopping destination. But now most old landmarks are making way for food chains. Mayank Austen Soofi takes you around.

delhi Updated: Oct 03, 2009 00:07 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi

Nirula’s — the most preferred dating point —is now the family-friendly Haldiram’s. Connaught Place, the place I knew, is gone now.

Look around Central Park: couples on the slopes, college students in the amphitheatre, and families on the cement pathways. The place is sanitised but this was once a refuge for ‘anti-socials’.

Then the Delhi Metro barricaded the park, felled trees, dug the ground, and set up a rail terminus below and a garden above.

When the park re-opened in 2006, the familiar ‘eye sores’ — the charsis (drug addicts), eunuchs, prostitutes and the homeless — had vanished. Also gone were the lonely people who would come here for casual sex. The ear cleaners, masseurs, kheera wallas (vendors who sell cut cucumber) and the tea vendors also went missing.

Where are they now, after Delhi’s izzatdar (decent) people have claimed their sanctuary?

And where are all the books that lined the shelves of The Bookworm? The B-block bookstore visited by the likes of Satyajit Ray closed last year.

From a booklover’s point, the Bookworm never had the best collection in town, but the spiral staircase, a revolving bookcase, jazz and the charming cashier gave the place its ambiance. The owner blamed the demise on the discount-friendly chains that took his patrons.

The chains have changed the CP experience. In Rai House, next to Shivaji Stadium, Bhartiya Sahitya Sadan bookshop made way for a shoe shop, which gave way to Café Coffee Day (CCD).

In the pre-internet age, the Thai Airways office at A-12, Inner Circle, was always crowded with backpackers looking for cheap tickets. KFC sells its Zinger burgers there now.

Similarly, a travel agency at A-21, next to Baskin Robbins that replaced a Vimal showroom, has closed. There’s a CCD now.

In B-3, there was the office of a property dealer. The coffee chain has taken over this plae too. Nearby, B-24 was the site of Capital Boot House, now it has McDonald’s.

In the same block, Rakesh Chandra is running his New Book Depot for 35 years. “Change is the only constant in life,” he says.

“The chains have deep pockets but I'll survive as long as people buy books.”

Most independent showrooms are surviving because they are paying rents based on original quotes, far cheaper than the present.

Shahnaz Husain’s beauty parlour in B-49 was where women went for facials. But now noisy teenagers go there to have coffee at CCD. Metro Shoes was in F-16. It shut down to make way for a TGIF, which shut down recently.

In the Outer Circle, shutters rolled down on the Raymond showroom at N-11 and rolled up for CCD. At N-16, Barista patrons perhaps have no idea that TVs and stereos, not brownies and biscotti were sold there.

In the Regal Cinema Building, a branch of the Punjab National Bank is a McDonald’s. The fast food joint is also at P-14 in Shivaji Stadium where a press used to print books.

Close by is the Rivoli cinema, once an independent theatre and one of Delhi’s oldest, now run by PVR Cinemas, which also runs the Plaza in CP.

In place of Rangoon Photography Studios at 58, Janpath, there’s a Pizza Hut outlet.

Sometimes changes are made to recreate the past. This year the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) began restoring the façade of the CP’s colonial corridors. Windows are being replaced, walls re-painted, pillars and jaalis (wire mesh) restored. Can NDMC bring back the lost charm?

No doubt cinema, fast food, apparel chains are clean and convenient but their uniformity has taken away CP’s identity.

The old showrooms, bookstores, printing presses, eateries, theaters, and ‘anti-social’ areas embroidered Delhi’s most scenic commercial district.

But some threads survive — order the Chicken Stroganoff in D-block's Embassy restaurant (circa 1948), or watch a movie at Regal, or buy a piano in A Godin & Co., or get a paperback outside Wimpy’s, or hop over to the L-block where the pigeons remain.