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New Delhi, 1970s: It was just another day in Delhi’s iconic Connaught Place market. Shop owners were busy negotiating with customers, the first floor offices were abuzz with activity while the residents on the second floor were going about their daily routine. But for five-year-old Vaishalik Jain, time stood still. As he watched from his grandfather’s shop, Jain Book agency, a swish red Impala drew into the inner circle of CP. And out stepped Dilip Kumar. “He had come to visit our neighbouring shop, Taj Shoes. It was an event for us kids to watch out for his car.” The legendary actor, remembers Jain, now 48, ordered most of his shoes from Taj Shoes, then owned by HD Musafir, son of then Punjab chief minister, Giani Gurmukh Singh Musafir. Today, of course, nothing remains of the humble shop. In its place is a new façade, a new management, new brands and a new name — M&B Footwear.
Jain is a bit of a local celebrity. He is, after all, the third generation in the family to manage the famous Jain Book Agency, located in CP’s C block. Known for its law books and journals, the book store has been around since 1935, when Jain’s grandfather Shanti Prasad would lay out the books along the footpath. “My father used to tell me about Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s buggy passing by our shop. He often came into the shop,” recounts Jain.
The Jains are among the few shop owners who witnessed the transformation of CP from a showpiece of Lutyen’s Delhi to a bustling financial hub and today, to a chaotic, abandoned market. The neon-lit stores of brands like KFC, McDonalds, Levis and Tanishq manage to shout out to few customers while veterans such as Galgotia Book Shop and Mahatta & Co (a photo-imaging studio) quietly watch on. Some like Wengers and toy store Ram Chander & Sons draw on their legendary status to attract customers. Luxury and the affordable cohabit neighbouring spaces. So you have Tag Heuer, Longines, Planet M, Bata, Bentley, Pizza Express and Alka Electronics all within the same block.
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As CP completes 80 years, a handful of residents and original shop owners in the construction-heavy middle circle talk with wistfulness of days gone by. The character of CP today bears a stark contrast to when it was first built in 1931. Some feel that the constant digging, reconstruction and redevelopment led by the New Delhi Municipal Council has caused chaos and disruption in their lives.
“The gentry has gone down. Till the 70s, we were visited by foreigners, diplomats and bureaucrats,” says Mohit Jain, owner of Dhoomimal Art Gallery — one of Delhi’s first art galleries that came up in CP in 1936. “While we still have our loyal art connoisseurs, the numbers have gone down,” he laments.
He sifts through images of his grandfather, Ram Babu, who started the gallery as a platform for young artists. An image of Ram Babu with his daughter in CP’s famous Central Park calls for nostalgia — the park is lush green and serene without a volley of cars passing by. Mohit recalls a time when the gallery was the cultural hub for painters such as Jamini Roy and Amrita Shergill. Ram Babu was a stationer and also a Sunday painter. These artists would take paints and canvases on loan. “He would travel from Old Delhi in a dhoti and kurta and then change into a formal suit in the gallery,” recalls Mohit. Today, Dhoomimal has to compete with the swish art galleries of South Delhi.
His woes are shared by Vaishalik of Jain Book Agency. “It feels like the construction just goes on and on. They break one road, fix it and then break it again. The customers are constantly hassled,” he says. However, the Delhi metro, with a connecting station at Rajiv Chowk in CP, has brought in brisk business. “It has brought in a different class of customers.” This includes the students from North Delhi and a smaller number from South Delhi.
Located in a noisy lane in M block is one of its oldest shops, Modern Hardware. The constant traffic annoys its owner Rajesh Gupta who lives above his shop in a joint family of 16. There was a time, he recalls, when nearly 200 families happily coexisted on the second floor with the shops on the ground floor. But that was before the second floor was also declared a commercial space. Today, barely 10 to 15 families are left in the neighbourhood.
With no Resident Welfare Association to represent their concerns, the residents are a disgruntled lot. Gupta, for instance, complains that NDMC doesn’t consider the residents stakeholders in the redevelopment process. “Maybe that’s why our opinion isn’t sought in any matter.” He says that though residents pay house tax, they still have to pay a parking fee of Rs 1,000 while the newer shop owners (who are not residents) “don’t have to pay a rupee.”
When CP was built, builders considered themselves lucky to find tenants, says Gupta. “The tenant stayed on for the next 70 years,” he says. “After Partition, the rent here was Rs 100 for a shop. Today, only MNCs can afford the commercial spaces and, no one can afford to live here.”
“Earlier one felt like royalty while living in CP. One just doesn’t get that feeling anymore,” admits Sanjiv, 51, whose family has been living in CP since 1937. “The land was bought by my grandfather Bhishan Swaroop for Rs 3,000,” he says. He is nostalgic about his childhood when scores of children from the neighbourhood would get together to play football in Central Park. “I would come home from school and head to the ground which is now the Palika parking.”
Seated next to Sanjiv is his father LS Gupta, 77, who speaks of the famous Rambles restaurant and India Coffee House fondly. “We would often dress up and go there.” The restaurants, favourites with the crème de la crème of society, have now given way to the bustling Palika Bazaar. “I often spotted poets, writers and politicians like [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee there,” recalls Sanjiv.
There was a time when the rent for residential houses was only Rs 5 or so, says 57-year-old Shernaz Italia who lives on the second floor, opposite Odeon Cinemas. The house was rented by her grandparents and the tenancy has passed on to her. Born and brought up in CP, the tony neighbourhood is her home as she has known no other, she says. “I miss the distinct calls of the kabadiwalla and the dhuno wallah who came to fluff up the mattress.” She also misses the Republic Day parade passing from under her house. “It used to be such an event. Friends and relatives would plan their trips around that time. We would line up at the balcony,” she reminisces. “The Goa tableau used to be so interactive... we would go down and shake hands with the participants.” The sense of community dissipated when her mother died at the age of 88 in 2010.
Italia also chats about her uncle, fondly called “Canteen”, who is known to most shop owners in CP. “One day we were driving back late and wanted to have coffee. The nearby McDonalds was shutting for the day. My uncle just knocked and all the doors were thrown open.”
Italia is one of the few residents who feels the redevelopment in CP has borne positive results. “It is still a fun place. My only concern is that there are too many agencies involved in the redevelopment,” she says.
Will CP ever return to its days of charm and glory? “I don’t really know,” admits Italia.