It's 6pm and there is a maddening rush of commuters at Rajiv Chowk Metro station. As trains arrive and depart almost every minute, a multitude of people presses in and out of the trains' crowded compartments.
But a few metres away from the platform, Café Coffee Day — separated from the circulation area by a glass wall — emits a serenity of sorts. Here, people — mostly youngsters, professionals, and couples — are seen engaged in soft, genteel conversations, working on laptops, or just relaxing on the sofas as they fiddle with their Blackberries.
On a table near the entrance, Sarita Verma, 20, is cutting a birthday cake in the company of her friends, Divya Sharma and Nikhil Malhotra, also in their 20s. The decision to celebrate the occasion at the Rajiv Chowk Metro station café was deliberate.
"While I live in west Delhi, my friends live in east Delhi. It is quite easy for all of us to come together and celebrate at the station while returning home from college. In fact, we often meet at Metro stations. It's so convenient; you eat, meet and take the train home without wasting a minute. Besides, I find Metro stations a very interesting space to hang out," says Verma.
Delhi Metro is no longer a mere comfortable means of commute; for an increasing number of Delhiites, its stations are fast turning into a social space.
And stations like Rajiv Chowk and Kashmere Gate that have several restaurants and cafés are a favourite place to catch up with friends and relatives.
Radhika Arora, 35, an IT professional who lives in Noida, had been trying to meet her cousin, who lives and works in Gurgaon for the past few months. But it did not work out because of their tight schedules. So this past week, they decided to catch up at Rajiv Chowk station, which Radhika now calls the city's ‘underground social hotspot'.
"I love the energy of the gleaming, cacophonic interiors of Metro stations; The energy and human traffic of this underground urban space is amazing. It's pretty interesting meeting someone over coffee at the station as you see people waiting, meeting, rushing in and out of the trains. Besides, this is one of the few places where women can feel safe in the city," says Arora.
K. Ramakrishnan, president, marketing, Café Coffee Day, agrees. "Our outlet at Rajiv Chowk Metro station has an average daily footfall of 600-700 people, mostly professionals and students. Then there are those looking for a cup of coffee and quick bite. Many students and professionals going to and from their colleges and offices are our regular clients," he says.
Metro stations are also turning into love nests. In fact, it is not unusual to see young couples hanging out at Rajiv Chowk and Kashmere Gate stations as early as 7 in the morning.
"I often meet my girlfriend at Rajiv Chowk station. At times, the two of us just take a long ride in the train. It's cool and comfortable, and there is no moral police," says Mohit Gupta, 24, who lives in Saket.
"About 1,200 people, mostly young couples, spend quite a while here every day," says Ajay Kumar, manager, Nirula's restaurant at Kashmere Gate station. The eatery has over a dozen restaurants and takeaway kiosks in the city.
Sam Miller, the author of ‘Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity', feels it is only natural that Metro stations become a social space in the Capital.
"Apart from malls, Delhi does not have many social spaces. Metro stations are air-conditioned. Plus, it is convenient to call someone at a Metro station than at a place with a complicated address. These stations should not just be a means to get in or out of trains; they should play a social role too," says Miller.
Indeed, life in Metro has never been so exciting.