“Room chahiye? Want room?” The irritating sales pitch hits you in the face the moment you set foot on Paharganj Road that begins its journey from the New Delhi railway station. It sets the tone for the hustling you’re going to face all the way down the crowded road.
Paharganj retains its old image of a dirty, seedy road where mothers wouldn’t want to send their daughters by themselves. It’s a place full of hippies and junkies, they would rant. All of that is still there. But it’s also backpacker heaven, which makes several things sold on this road cheaper than in most other markets. And that’s why it’s emerging as the new Sarojini Nagar, where funky t-shirts and quirky accessories are drawing more and more of Delhi’s daughters — and sons.
A touristy air hangs low on the potholed road. You get to hear shouts of “Hallo friend” and “Yes, what you want?” from all directions. And the shopkeepers might just answer you in English even when you ask in Hindi.
Now, Paharganj is not just the new Sarojini Nagar for its prices, it’s also the edgier Janpath for its designs.
You can get ‘export quality’ strappy gladiators or cool Roman sandals in styles and textures you wouldn’t get elsewhere.
And the best thing is that many of these shops can customise the footwear for your pocket and preference.
Naresh Manchanda, owner of Meenu Traders, one such shop situated a three-minute walk from the station on Main Bazaar Road, says he is glad that more and more Delhiwalas are thronging the area.
“Earlier, only some design students would come. Of late, a lot of the ‘hip crowd’ is coming to us,” he said.
And why not? Apart from footwear, there’s a wide range of junk jewellery available here. And clothes too.
Go to Janpath, and you’ll get harem pants in, say, six different solid colours, tied at the ankle.
In Paharganj, you’ll also find them in prints, that too in three different styles. All this is packed into serpentine lanes with Purani Dilli names such as Shorah kothi and Chandiwali Gali.
When you are exhausted from all the shopping, you can take a break at one of the most popular eateries here, the 16-year-old German Bakery near Khanna cinema. Also called Ajay Café, it serves tasty bites such as Turkish pizzas, cinnamon rolls and huge beagles and freshly-baked doughnuts. The big portions come at decent prices that start at Rs 30.
In its vicinity is a chic store called Bubbles that attracts you with a huge, carved-wood mirror garlanded with red fairy lights.
It sells ‘export surplus’ garments under European brands, apart from some appealing bags and shoes.
Ellie, the stern and pretty co-partner of the shop who refuses to divulge anything but her first name, adds to the ambience with some Hebrew soft rock music.
“I play this music when I feel homesick,” says this Israeli who ‘settled’ here four years ago.
Ellie is waiting for the planned Paharganj facelift. “Have you seen the new plan at the Town Hall? It’s so nice. Once it happens, it’ll be amazing. It can become a hub for creative minds,” she says excitedly.
One hopes the new plan has place for old gems such as the adored Sitaram Chhole-bhature-wala at Chuna Mandi. It’s famous for it’s aamla achar (sour gooseberry pickle) and the gram pea curry that comes with a strong pomegranate tang. You can also nibble at the pakoras served by the road near the timber market next door.
One of the reasons Paharganj has become a talking point in posh living rooms has nothing to do with its shops. It has to do with Dev D, parts of which were shot in the ultraviolet glare of some the area’s haunts.
Some were filmed at Club India Café on Chheh Tooti Chowk. Along with regular fast foods, the place serves Lebanese, Italian and Japanese cuisines too. The covered rooftop café offers a brilliant view of the bustling market and its loud signboards.
As you climb the stairs, you realise that the walk was not quite the ‘emotional atyachaar’ it seemed to promise at first.