For some affluent Delhiites, posh Khan Market is like a second home. For a very, very few, Khan Market is home. But this will soon end.
Consider 43-year-old Ravi Gulati. He was born in Khan Market. His first-floor house (No. 13) is sandwiched between Café Coffee Day and the Apartment 9 showroom. The entrance stairs are from the market’s middle lane. The drawing room window looks on to the front lane. The study is built on the roof. A money-plant creeper climbs around a black Sintex water tank. If you stand in the quiet courtyard, it is hard to believe you are in the heart of India’s most expensive retail destination.
“We are among the last of the Khan Market residents,” says Gulati, “and we are leaving Khan Market this year.” His mother, who has lived here since 1953, is resting on the sofa. His sister is busy on a desktop computer. The maid is making parathas in the kitchen (a plate of parathas at the neighbouring Café Turtle costs Rs.415).
Gulati’s father ran the market’s legendary Sovereign Dairies, which closed with his death in 1995. The family rented out the shop area and today it is home to Oma, a house of luxury accessories.
Named after the freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s elder brother Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, Gulati’s address is Delhi’s most exclusive space. Here people come to live the dream. An economic downturn can never burst this bubble. Women walk in Jimmy Choo shoes. Young men strut around in Ed Hardy T-shirts. Foreign diplomats rush in to get away from the rest of India. Volkswagens, BMWs and Pajeros line the free parking area. Sonia Gandhi has been sighted here, so has Orhan Pamuk.
In 2011, an annual survey by global real estate consultants Cushman & Wakefield ranked Khan Market as the world’s 21st most expensive shopping street. Positioned between Toronto’s Bloor Street and Athens’ Ermou, it was graded five ranks below Beijing’s Wangfujing. According to the firm’s March figures, Khan Market’s monthly rent of Rs.1,200 per sq. ft is higher than that of other premier shopping destinations in the Capital such as Connaught Place (Rs.650), South Extension (Rs.600) and south Delhi malls (Rs.450).
Khan Market started in 1951 with 154 shops and 74 flats. The shops were on the ground floor, the flats on the first. Until the 1980s, all the flats served as homes. Now, commerce has crept up the stairs. Most families have moved out after selling or renting out their homes. The drawing rooms, the bedrooms, the kitchens and the courtyards have turned into cafés, restaurants, bookshops and showrooms. A key aspect of Khan Market that gave it the charm of a sleepy neighbourhood bazaar has disappeared.
Well, almost, because the market is still left with about 10 families. A directory of their addresses might one day become Khan Market memorabilia. No. 16 is the home of Mrs Boota. At No. 25, Mrs Sabharwal lives with her grandson. No. 59 is the residence of Uma Marwah, who runs the Faqir Chand book store.
“We purchased this house in the 1950s for Rs.19,000,” says Raj Berry of No. 37. Crammed between the Levi’s showroom and Choko La restaurant, the area, according to real estate agents, will today sell for more than Rs.10 crore.
At 82, Berry is one of the oldest surviving residents of Khan Market. “I saw it being constructed,” she says. “The government built it for Partition refugees and it was ready by 1951. Through a lottery, some refugees got shops, others flats. We bought this flat from its owner, who lived in Civil Lines.”
Most residents were hard-working middle-class Punjabi entrepreneurs. The most well-known, though, was a politician: Jag Pravesh Chandra, the former chief executive councillor of Delhi, who lived in what is today the Urban Café.
Rarely going down to the middle lane today, Berry is a mine of information on the old Khan Market. The names of former inhabitants—Neeta Arora, Kanta Sethi, Urmila Ahuja, Shashi Grover and so on—roll off her tongue as if they were still living there.
“Once the old owners leave the scene, the remaining houses will probably be disposed of by their children to be turned into shops,” predicts Anuj Bahri Malhotra of Bahrisons Booksellers, whose second Khan Market outlet is in what was once the house of a certain Mr Kapoor.
While Khan Market was always patronized by the privileged as the grocery bazaar closest to upper-crust areas like Golf Links and Sundar Nagar, it retained a genteel middle-class flavour because of its first-floor residents. Fruit sellers brought in their carts. Shopkeepers sold on credit. Children jumped across roofs to visit each other’s houses. Boys played cricket in the middle lane. “Uncles” and “aunties” were known by their house numbers. “No. 6 aunty used to give us imported chocolates,” says Gulati. The parking space in front of the back lane was a community park, complete with a fountain.
On special occasions, a family would order pakodas and coffee from Raj Sweet Shop. The other mithai landmarks serving the market and the neighbourhood were Goyal’s Sweet and Bengal Sweet Shop. Today, Khan Market has a French bakery—that makes classics like madeleine—and not one mithai shop.
“There still exists among the few remaining residents a common cultural heritage of having been displaced as a result of the Partition,” says Gulati’s 63-year-old mother Indira, “and of having built our lives together in those uncertain times.”
“The arrangement of houses upstairs and shops downstairs was working smoothly until a complete contempt for the law, along with the administration turning a blind eye, transformed Khan Market into a pure commercial space,” says K.D. Singh of The Book Shop in nearby Jor Bagh Market. He opened a branch of his book store in the front lane in Khan Market in 1982; it became so iconic that it was visited by the likes of Gabriel García Márquez. “I closed it in 2006 when the landlord raised the rent to a level I could not afford,” he says.
According to Singh, Khan Market’s residents started leaving their flats once real estate prices soared. That, he says, happened following the dawn of the video age in the late 1980s. “Almost every store stocked video cassettes and the footfalls increased. The growing popularity pushed the rent rates. The Barista chain, that opened its café in the 1990s, was the first to pay an exorbitant monthly rent of about Rs.35,000.”
Berry says that during the 1980s, a few residents, wanting to move out because their families were expanding, sold their two-room flats for mere thousands of rupees. That figure gradually increased to lakhs. Those who were not tempted by yesterday’s fantastic amounts are sitting on multi-crore gold mines. “I will never leave,” says Berry, who confesses to having never tasted the famed blueberry cheese cake in the neighbouring Big Chill restaurant. “I have been living in Khan Market for more than 50 years and I cannot adjust anywhere else.”
On how it feels to live at the top of India’s richest shopping street, Gulati, who runs Manzil, an NGO to educate children, says, “I’m not interested in shopping.” Showing the book he is reading—How Much Should a Person Consume? by historian Ramachandra Guha, Gulati says, “I suspect that the people who come to Khan Market do not know the larger picture of what is happening elsewhere in India, both politically and ecologically.”
Preparing to move out this year, he says: “We will raise this house on rent and move somewhere closer to the mountains to live an ecologically sustainable life. There I will use the wealth I obtain from Khan Market for social good.”
And we, the Khan Market consumers, will patronize the Gulati home, which will probably be turned into a fancy coffee shop or showroom.