An Island of Exception

Words: Samanth Subramanian | Photos: Harikrishna Katragadda 

Giving directions to the Hauz Khas Village neighbourhood, in south Delhi, is not complicated.

You turn off the arterial Aurobindo Road and follow a narrow avenue past a blinding white temple and then a stretch of dark city forest. If it is evening, you’re advised to park in the first vacant spot along this avenue; driving further in, trying to reach the official parking lot, is likely to enmesh you in foul traffic. Stroll the rest of the way, past the boom barrier that regulates—imperfectly— the entry of cars and trucks into the village. Walking and talking is difficult; the village is almost always crowded. Once you are at a table in a bar, on the village’s central strip or in one of its many three-person- wide alleyways, you can finally get down to conversation. These conversations might revolve around the village itself; many conversations in south Delhi are about the village— its seductions, its despoilment, its vivacity, its rapaciousness, or its impending demise, which is always just around the corner.

In the very name of Hauz Khas Village is inscribed the reasons for its fame and fortune. First there is the Hauz Khas, or the Royal Tank: a four-metre-deep reservoir full of jade water, originally excavated in the early 14th century by the sultan Alauddin Khilji. The lake is now the reflective heart of a complex of monuments, including the remnants of an Islamic seminary founded in 1352 by another Delhi sultan, Firoze Shah Tughlaq, who built a tomb for himself here, a square, severe structure, with quotations from the Quran loping about its domed ceiling. Firoze Shah was a pacific ruler, liked by both his Hindu and Muslim subjects, and fond of creating architecture and infrastructure. “Among the gifts which God bestowed upon me, His humble servant, was a desire to erect public buildings,” he wrote in his memoirs. His Hauz Khas seminary flourished as a centre of learning, and its buildings, with their sandalwood doors and white walls and domes finished in beaten gold, were planted into the midst of a sprawling garden. In the 14th century, after a Persian poet named Mutahhar of Kara first encountered the Hauz Khas complex, he described it in sumptuous praise:

“The courtyard was soul-animating, and its expanse was life-giving … There was greenery everywhere, and hyacinths, basils, roses and tulips were blooming and were beautifully arranged as far as the human eye could reach … Nightingales, so to say, were singing their melodious songs everywhere. It appeared as if they had lutes in their talons and flutes in their beaks.” Then there is the village, just outside the walls of the Hauz Khas complex. A visitor, digesting the humming bars, expensive boutiques and automobile fumes, might conclude that the neighbourhood was dubbed a “village” by some administrator’s sense of irony. In fact, this was rural land until even half a century ago. In Firoze Shah’s time, the village—then named Tarababad, or “City of Joy”— used to supply food and servants

to the seminary, and through this close association, it acquired wealth and cultural refinement not found in Delhi’s other villages. Its farms unfurled eastwards, but the village remained small and compact. In this fashion, it muddled through the centuries, through the rise and tumble of assorted empires, until 1962, when the first Delhi Master Plan (DMP) was crafted. In that year, as per the recommendations of the plan, the city’s “urban villages” fell out of the ambit of both law and time, and Hauz Khas Village embarked upon its singular path out of obscurity.

In 1962 also, a large battery-operated radio arrived in Hauz Khas Village. “It was about this big,” said RK Dhingra, a man in his early sixties with suspiciously black hair, describing in the air a rectangle the size of a mini-fridge. The radio was installed in the choupal, the village square. “India was at war with China back then, and every evening, at seven o’clock, we would gather in the choupal to listen to the news. They would give us instructions on how to save ourselves in the event of a bombing.”

Dhingra is a Hauz Khas Village landlord, a species that has grown newly and enormously prosperous in the span of two decades. His cramped office is tucked into the back of the second floor of a three-storey building; he owns the building, as well as the one adjacent, and he leases the space to more than a dozen upscale restaurants and shops. Dhingra’s family settled in Hauz Khas Village in 1947, in a pocket-sized house with two bedrooms that stood upon this very parcel of land. His father first milked buffaloes and then ran a poultry farm— rural work, and dramatically different from what Dhingra does during a day at the office.
When I stopped by to see him, he had arranged himself over most of a couch, talking on one of his three cellphones. In the basement in one of his buildings, leaking water was eating away at the plaster of a wall.

“You need to put in a new cement sheet,” Dhingra was saying to an invisible contractor. “That’s the only thing that will stop the water.” In the early 1960s, as Dhingra remembered it, the families of Hauz Khas Village farmed and tended to livestock. The occasional van of foreign tourists would shuffle into the village, on a visit to the monuments, but otherwise they received few visitors. Then the DMP, trying to organise the future development of India’s capital, suggested that agricultural land within city limits be purchased by the government. Dhingra’s family had to sell its land to Delhi, he told me, for half a rupee per square yard. It wasn’t enough, he complained, but the government’s compensation enriched Hauz Khas Village’s residents, even enabling some of them to buy larger and cheaper swatches of farm in the neighbouring state of Haryana.

The DMP’s more pronounced effect lay in how it handled urban villages like Hauz Khas Village. In 1908 these cores of habitation were labelled by revenue authorities as Lal Dora, after the red thread that was sometimes strung around them, to demarcate them from the adjoining farmland. Stripped of their agricultural livelihood, these Lal Dora villages might have imploded entirely were it not for the DMP, which allowed for mixed-use development in these areas. Further, in 1963, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi exempted the villages from construction bylaws and regulations. The owner of a square of land was, peculiarly, not allowed to sell his property; it could only be passed on to his heirs. This formality apart, owners were at liberty to throw up the most flimsy of buildings, without requiring the municipality’s clearance, and, furthermore, to lease these buildings to whomever they chose.

Within these freedoms, though, was secreted a desire to cut off these villages from the city, to banish the rural altogether from the urban. The head of a Ford Foundation-funded team of American consultants to the Master Plan was Albert Mayer, a planner who believed it was his duty to “bring order to the urban landscape”. Mayer thought of cities in Platonic terms: they were home to very specific kinds of activities, and the rural enterprises of Delhi’s villages, he wrote in an unpublished note, “cast an unhealthy influence on the urban setting”. The passages of the DMP that deal with Lal Dora villages sound as if they were written with wrinkled nose and curled upper lip. “Village-like” occupations are frequently referred to as “noxious” or “obnoxious,” and repeatedly the authorial presence behind the DMP stresses, in variations of the same sentence: “Village-like trades and industries (viz. keeping milch cattle, pottery, tannery etc.) will also be moved out of the city to urban villages.” Mayer’s rigid vision of the city, said Gautam Bhan, a scholar at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, was remarkably in step with that of the urbane Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. “The Nehruvian idea was that the city had to be developed, and that Indians had to be taught how to be urbanites,” Bhan told me. “And these villages just had to be left out of it. They had to be left to their own rural lives.”

Bhan grew up not far from Hauz Khas Village. He spent many evenings rambling through the monuments or playing cricket in the gardens. Other urban villages, such as Shahpur Jat, close to Bhan’s home, were hives of commerce, with vegetable sellers, fruit stalls and grocery shops. But beyond a rank of buffalo sheds, Bhan saw no such bustle in Hauz Khas Village. “It was pretty nondescript,” he said, of the village with its small ground floor or two-storey dwellings. “There would be old men sitting outdoors on charpoys. And that was pretty much it.”

One March day in 1987, Bina Ramani stumbled into precisely such a bucolic scene. At the time, she ran an embroidery workshop that was fast spilling out of an apartment nearby, and she was scouting for new space. Ramani had driven past the solitary road leading into Hauz Khas Village several times, wondering always what lay at the other end. “When I finally turned in that evening, the road became a dirt track, and I started to worry: ‘Will I be able to turn around at the end? Is it too narrow?’ And then I arrived at the opening of the village. There were little houses with arched doorways, a line of cowsheds, a gigantic tree where the choupal was, and five or six men in dhotis and turbans, sitting on charpoys and smoking hookahs.” Ramani was enthralled. The village headman mistook her for a tourist, but when she told him she was looking to rent, he promptly led her to a low building where sacks of wheat were being stored. The building’s outer courtyard offered
a sweeping view of the Hauz Khas.

“The sun was just setting over the lake,” recalled Ramani, “and it was so beautiful that I burst into tears.” In the narrative that has congealed over the last quarter-century, it was Ramani—now one of the city’s pre- eminent designers and socialites—who pulled Delhi into Hauz Khas Village. She set up her workshop and then a boutique, paying 3,000 rupees a month to rent 2,000 square feet. Her friends among Delhi’s well-heeled—diplomats and their spouses; politicians; families  with old money—beat a path to the village, first to buy from her store and then, having fallen for Hauz Khas’ quaint charms, to begin enterprises of their own. One politician, Suresh Kalmadi, opened the Village Bistro, promising the sort of fine dining that was rare in Delhi at the time. The liberalisation of the Indian economy was only four years away, but in 1987 it was still closed and statist, so Hauz Khas Village drew its commercial tenants largely from Delhi’s elite, who had both money and time to invest. Through the 1990s, a shift occurred. New businesses and independent entrepreneurs, buoyed by India’s resurgent economy, began to seek offices and warehouses. Merchants rented some of the village’s houses to use as storerooms. Travel agencies, packing firms and educational coaching institutes moved in. The crowds grew younger. Ramani, who left Hauz Khas Village in 1996, remembers this period with distaste: “The purity of the original vision got diluted when all this commerce came in.” But the transformation was organic, even inevitable. “Earlier, only our ground floor was in great demand,” Dhingra told me. “Then the demand rose, so we put up a first floor. Then we put up a second floor. Then we put up a third floor.”

A prolonged lull set in at the turn of the century, followed in 2009 by an even sharper frenzy of activity than characterised the 1990s, one that has not yet abated and that has transformed the village into an enclave of gourmandism. Depending on whether you count the four-table cafés squirreled away in the alleys, the village has anywhere between 20 to 40 restaurants and bars. A shiny new one seems to open every week, and on a recent Tuesday evening, there wasn’t a free table to be spotted in any of the establishments on the main strip. Rents have soared. Notwithstanding the high failure rate of restaurants, the clamour for space is unabated, as it is in a bubble of any kind. Even an old hand like Dhingra professes a certain befuddlement. “I never expected this much demand for the village,” he said. “Nobody expected it.”

The formal reason ascribed to the boom of Hauz Khas Village is its designation as an urban village—its exemption from municipal laws that allows for mixed- use development and multi-storey buildings. As Delhi’s population grew, space in its regimented residential and commercial zones became scarce, said Sudev Sheth, a doctoral student in urban history at the University of Pennsylvania, who lived in Hauz Khas Village between 2010 and 2012. “This made villages important again, since they are the last areas left within the city where one can buy, sell and rent space with most flexibility and informality,” he said. Freed of the necessity to seek building and zoning approvals, Hauz Khas Village is able to respond rapidly to market forces. The only obstacles facing a restaurateur aiming to convert a third-floor walk- up apartment into a steakhouse are the girth of his budget and the building’s landlord.

But none of Delhi’s other Lal Doras has developed in quite so breathless a fashion as Hauz Khas Village, even though they enjoy the same lack of regulation. Other factors are at play—among them, Sheth said, the Hauz Khas itself, the languorous lake, monuments and gardens that roll behind the village. The road leading in to the village is flanked on one side by an immense swathe of forest and on the other by hushed housing colonies, which can make a terrace bar, even on the village’s most strenuous Saturday night, seem like an oasis of calm within this congested city.

More than in any other Lal Dora, the original residents of Hauz Khas Village have also contributed—often gleefully—to the reconfigurations of their property, turning a neighbourhood officially dismissed by the city as rural into the heaving centre of Delhi’s urban life. Gautam Bhan explained to me how this happened, and why it is only localised to Hauz Rani Village. “There were only around 300 households here, compared to 10,000 or so in a village like Hauz Rani,” elaborated Bhan. More than half of those 300 families have happily leased out their property and moved elsewhere. “And there was no economic activity actually happening here, so there were never any poor craftsmen to displace or anything like that,” added Bhan. “If the villagers worked, they worked elsewhere. This is why it could be so completely taken over. In another Lal Dora like Shahpur Jat, for instance, it would be very difficult to open bars, because there’s a very strong sense of whom the village belongs to.”

Popular debates over Hauz Khas Village return, again and again, to the evils of gentrification and displacement. But neither term is, in this context, quite accurate. Hauz Khas Village’s resemblance to other gentrified localities is, for instance, only partial. “Yes, the use of the neighbourhood has changed. Yes, an erstwhile access to affordable housing has disappeared. Yes, there’s a certain market-induced displacement because property values go up,” conceded Bhan. “But the original occupants of the village continue to be owners, and the people who are being displaced are not those owners but tenants.” Added to which, Hauz Khas Village was never a particularly low-income area in the first place. “These families had some money and land, even if they lived in what was called a village.” Rapidly now, small stores and restaurants are being priced out by corporate chains, a process that underwent a recent moment of scrutiny when an alternative bookstore was forced to relocate to another part of the village because of a steep hike in rent. Bhan smiled when I brought this up with him. Some of the village’s tenants are his friends, so this was a ginger subject. “There is a truth to it, that people who put their own money into their businesses are now losing their spaces to big companies,” he said.

“But sometimes these distinctions can seem whimsical, as if we’re comparing poor white artists in Brooklyn with rich white artists in Brooklyn.” I asked Dhingra about this too. He heaved a great sigh. He paid 1.5 million rupees every month in electricity bills for both his buildings, he said, and he had recently refurbished one of them at a cost of 20 million rupees. “Obviously, then, I will want to lease to those who can pay higher rents,” he stated. “I can’t afford to take on gyms and small restaurants and offices. I need the big restaurants.” Rents on the village’s main strip can now touch 900 rupees per square foot. A landlord owning a slim, three-storey building can in practice collect five million rupees in rent every month. Tenants speak with unconcealed anger about what they see as the boundless greed of landlords. It has always been this way, Ramani said.

“Even back then, in the 1990s, the landlords made and broke the laws as they saw fit. They went back on a contract or arbitrarily demanded more rent. It’s like a little kingdom here.” Mahenjit Singh, one of the two genial proprietors of Krishna at Choupal, a handicrafts store that has been in the Village since 1987, told me: “I’ve survived here by being very careful, always with my tongue between my teeth.” If a landlord ordered him to move, he moved; if a lease was peremptorily revoked, he found another space. It has prompted unethical codes of practice amongst landlords, as I learnt from the owner of a popular bar. “Five- and seven- year leases were not honoured,” she said. “We took them to court, but they subjected us to such emotional and mental harassment. If you’re paying reasonable rent and they sense that they can get more, they just want you to leave right away.”

Quite possibly, as somebody told me, market forces will, in time, even out these disproportionate rents—the peak will subside. But, being an island of administrative exception, the village faces other, more threatening problems. A sum of 100 million rupees, released a couple of years ago by the Delhi government to spruce up the village, has, according to rumour, mostly lined the pockets of ward council officials. Meanwhile, the parking continues to be chaotic, the road is poorly laid, and thick electricity cables hang low, like menacing asps, over the heads of pedestrians. Good building practices are routinely flouted. Four-storey structures stand upon foundations designed to bear only two floors. Once, I found myself in a basement space created after the rest of the building had been constructed. Elsewhere, a boutique owner angrily told me, while gesturing around her: “This building is made so poorly, it doesn’t even have its own wall. It actually leans on the next building’s wall. It’s crazy how unsafe it is.” Fire hazards abound. The floors are often thin as paper: in Dhingra’s office, I could feel the carpet vibrate beneath my sandals; the restaurant below was running its air conditioners. “Do you have a good view of the village from the top of your building?” I asked Dhingra. “Yes, yes,” he said, ordering an assistant to escort me upstairs. Afterwards, this assistant—a young man, barely in his twenties—also led me, out of an excess of zeal, to Dhingra’s other building, where two more floors were being constructed on top of the existing three storeys. Still more restaurants; yet another terrace bar. I walked with hesitation across a sheet of tin that had been laid down over a massive gap in the terrace floor while work progressed. There was no safety scaffolding, equipment lay haphazardly about, and great waves of heat swept onto the terrace from the air conditioning units on the building next door.

“I see you’re building new floors on your second building,” I mentioned to Dhingra, when I returned to his office. For a moment, he looked disconcerted, and then sharply told off his assistant: “What was the need to take him there?” Then he told me, his voice defensive: “That isn’t my building, really. That belongs to my brother.” Then Dhingra seemed to remember that he had nothing to be guarded about. “In any case, I don’t need any permission from anybody to build these floors. This is a Lal Dora. You can build whatever you want.” Later, I asked Dhingra whether, as one of the original residents of the Village, it ever saddened him to see how it had changed, and if that was why he had moved his family out to another south Delhi colony.

“Oh, we moved because my son got married, so we needed a bigger house. And there is a lot of commercial traffic here at night, which is a disturbance if you’re living here,” he replied. “But sad? Why should we be sad? We’re making so much more money now. Who is ever sad about making more money?”

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