Khan Market started in 1951 with 154 shops and 75 flats. The shops were on the ground floor, the flats on the first. Until the 1980s, all the flats served as homes.(Mayank Austen Soofi)
Khan Market started in 1951 with 154 shops and 75 flats. The shops were on the ground floor, the flats on the first. Until the 1980s, all the flats served as homes.(Mayank Austen Soofi)

Delhiwale: The market innards

  • An unusual perspective of an iconic hangout
By Mayank Austen Soofi, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JUL 17, 2021 05:11 AM IST

Chimneys painted in funky yellow and red. Long AC ducts of varying lengths, spreading out like the pipes of a plumbing system. Black water tanks perched like giant insects. The whole thing looks like the post-modern panorama of some industrial landscape. It is beautiful and ugly at the same time.

This is Khan Market, Delhi’s opulent shopping district. But from this vantage point you won’t see that familiar bazaar of bookstores and boutiques, cafes and restaurants, the rich and the rich VIPs. The aerial equivalent of the market’s gutters, this is the world of Khan Market rooftops, as seen from a showroom’s second floor roof—its door lying accidentally open on this cloudy afternoon. The scene is curiously picturesque. From such height, you feel metaphorically uplifted too, far from the distractions of the shops and consumers. This zigzagging world of colourful chimneys and AC ducts stands like an artists’s representation of a secretive high-tech back area, that keeps the enterprise running smoothly. Some of the long metallic AC ducts seem to meander along a building’s entire wall, very evocative of the famous red stairs of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

To be sure, a lot many cafes in the market have second floor spaces, but from there the views are of the front lane or of the back lane, and don’t reveal the whole perspective of the market’s backstage. This view of interest is accessible only from the roofs looking over the Middle Lane, and these are usually barred to shoppers.

Among these rooftops, one looks less flashy, less consumerist. It’s one of the few surviving homes here. Khan Market started in 1951 with 154 shops and 75 flats. The shops were on the ground floor, the flats on the first. Until the 1980s, all the flats served as homes. Then commerce crept up the stairs. Most families moved out after selling or renting out their homes. The drawing rooms, the bedrooms, the kitchens and the courtyards turned into cafés and showrooms. The market is left with half a dozen homes—the one visible from this rooftop belongs to the Bamhi family that runs a legacy bookstore on the market’s front lane. (The others are of the Chhabras, the Sabharwals, the Dudhanis, the Durgadas, and a Talwars, respectively.)

At this moment, the absence of any humans fills up this entire panorama with a kind of brutalist architecture—all bare and structural. On coming down and returning to the dressy crowd of the lanes, the market appears more complicated, and more strange in the light of what you just saw.

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