Delhiwale: Our lady of Khan Market
Even during the best times of the pre-Covid era, Khan Market was a bleak place in early mornings. There would be no crowd, and only a few cafes would be open for an early-hour breakfast.
The market is looking bleak this morning, too. Doubly more so because the cafes that used to be open by this hour are still locked. In any case, the coronavirus pandemic forbids table service in restaurants. At least two cafes have already shut down permanently because of their inability to pay high rents to Khan Market landlords.
The only human sighting on the market’s middle lane is of a showroom security guard changing his blue long-sleeved shirt into a casual T-shirt—his night shift must be ending.
There’s actually another figure further ahead, down the lane: A masked woman in red top and shorts. She is strolling slowly, carefully looking at closed shops and cafes on either sides. The woman could easily pass off as Ms Marple, the famous mystery sleuth of Agatha Christie mysteries, probably on a lookout for clues to solve some Khan Market crime.
But Joban is no literary character. Even so, she is an equally rare specie—one of the very few persons on Earth who call Khan Market a home. Delhi’s most upscale shopping destination began as a low key bazaar with shops on the ground floors and residences on the upper floors, allocated to Partition refugees. Over the years, most of those flats owners sold away their homes or raised them on rent as commercial outlets.
What were houses turned overnight into expensive restaurants and fashion houses. Only 7 homes out of 74 survive. Joban’s is one of them.
The lady ambles up to the end of the middle lane and turns towards her door. She gestures up at the lush pink bougainvillea creepers falling down the front of the building, saying, “My mother, Harbans, planted it many many years ago, as a twig, with no roots.”
Joban is 76 and divides her time between Khan Market and Scarsdale in New York. A single person, her two children live with their families in Europe. Her father, Avtar Singh Dugal, a doctor, migrated from hometown Lahore after the Partition.
“We were given the flat in Khan Market in 1952.” Eventually, the doctor settled into a cosy life in this central Delhi locality with his home upstairs and the clinic directly below. He died in 1984. What used to be the clinic was leased out to a business.
Joban confesses that it’s the first time in 50 years “that I have spent the summer in Delhi.” She arrived in February for her annual trip and had her return ticket to the US booked for March-end when coronavirus hit worldwide and disrupted her travel itinerary. The pandemic is also obliging her tenants to finally call it quits.
This has given Joban a new opportunity. She has no intentions to rent out the property to the highest bidder, but has other ambitions. “I want to turn this place into a light house for each person navigating to their authentic self to find safe harbour.” Inspired by the ideals of economist Sardar Tarlok Singh, the first private secretary to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Joban plans to create a space that will “help the youth of India become the architect of the modern world.”
Gazing up again at the bougainvillaeas, she hopes that her ambitious initiative will take birth sooner than later and “grow organically with time,” just like “mummy’s plant.” Later in the evening, Joban is spotted again walking in Khan Market. This time she is dressed more formally, as she steps inside a long-time shop run by a fellow Khan Market dweller.