Delhiwale: The magic realism of Paharganj

  • The architecture of Delhi’s hotel district is more wonderful than you might think
For decades, Paharganj had been known for its utilitarian inns and its western backpackers.
For decades, Paharganj had been known for its utilitarian inns and its western backpackers.
Published on Nov 25, 2021 01:28 AM IST
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ByMayank Austen Soofi

Two tiny shops, clinging tightly to each other. Atop lies what must had once been a house—now reduced to its skeletal frame. Wild brown grass has claimed the vanished roof’s still existing wooden beams.

Such ordinariness on the ground level, such extraordinariness above. Together, they might as well constitute what is known in art as magical realism.

The ever-dependable Wikipedia credits magic realism for painting “a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements, often dealing with the blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality.” And this sight in Paharganj’s Main Bazar encapsulates that same merging of fantasy with reality. Even more remarkable is the blasé attitude of the pedestrians who are walking past this exceptional place without giving it a second look. Maybe because the entire mile-long stretch of the market is crammed with such unusual architectural twinning, where the magical is married to the mundane.

By the way, the aforementioned first floor with its grass-covered wooden beams also creates a second series of magic realism with an adjacent multi-storey (see photo). Such wondrous scenes recur along the path. Further ahead, for instance, stands a guest house, the kind of boring looking lodges that populate this hotel district. But this glass-and-cement building overcomes its drabness by clinging tightly to a derelict house whose street-facing upper floor wall is distilled into a most melancholic beauty due its old-fashioned wooden doors. But something is not right here. Suddenly the penny drops. This upper storey ideally ought to have a balcony or a window—and not these dreamy blue doors, opening which might lead straight to a sudden fall into the street. A shopkeeper explains that the area was “renovated” during the countdown to the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. A part of the project, he says, included the widening of the Main Bazar road due to which some houses, which were encroaching onto the lane, had to be partially demolished.

If that is true, then these doors originally opened into rooms or balconies that no longer exist. Indeed, the market lane is replete with such structures ending abruptly into the air, as if a nose or an eye were missing from someone’s face. In one such scarred house, an elderly woman on the first floor is lounging casually by a door, her legs dangling into the street below, while she enjoys the warmth of the winter sun.

Some steps further, yet another plain-looking budget hotel, clinging to a similarly disfigured old building. Their coupling illustrate the union of magic with realism.

For decades, Paharganj had been known for its utilitarian inns and its western backpackers. It is time to celebrate its magic realist architecture too.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021