By Tripti Lahiri
One night this week I was having dinner with a friend at a tiny four-table restaurant in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village when a couple walked in, prompting us to have a classic displaced-New-Yorkers conversation.
“Oh my god, total hipsters,” said my friend rolling her eyes, even though she could be mistaken for one, what with her choppy short hair and large collection of Brooklyn Industries tee-shirts. I looked over.
“Should I give them a map pointing out where Williamsburg is?” I asked.
This is a joke popular with former New Yorkers who didn’t live in the Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to the world’s largest population of supercool, heavily ironic, vintage-clothing-and Converse-sneaker-wearing people. But it was totally out-of-date.
- Tripti Lahiri/The Wall Street Journal
- Middle-eastern bakery Kunafa is one of the newest arrivals to newly hip Meher Chand market.
Thanks to globalization, hipsters too have established outposts in different parts of the world. This is ironic, since globalization is something hipsters like to critique over cups of fairly-traded coffee.
But since hipsters also like irony, that’s cool. What’s more, hipsters are no longer mainly kids from dull New Jersey suburbs or Midwestern states who flee to New York City – there are Indian hipsters now.
Even in Delhi, possibly one of most hipster-unfriendly cities on the planet – for starters, they can only wear their skinny jeans for about three months of the year, the rest of time it’s a recipe for a yeast infection – there are now hotspots where hipsters, both homegrown and visiting ones, can feel quite at home.
It’s safe to say Hauz Khas, a village located around a medieval water reservoir that was absorbed by the expanding city, is probably the headquarters for Delhi’s hipsters.
Independent bookstore? Check. Store that recycles old saris and Indian clothes into funky frocks? Check. Lots of tiny bars and restaurants that aren’t part of a chain and often offer hard-to-get foods? Check. Honor system coffee shop? Check.
The area has had several incarnations, dating to its emergence as an art-and-design hub back in the 1980s, when fashion designers and crafts-promoter Dastkar set up shop here. Its hipster phase probably began with two hangout spots in particular – music lounge TLR, which opened in November 2008, and south Indian restaurant Gunpowder, which started operations the following year.
Their hipster cred seems pretty solid – Gunpowder’s Satish Warier is a rock band manager and former web producer, while TLR’s Gautam Arora has the requisite thick glasses and and a slouchy “I care not a whit for free publicity from big corporate media” attitude.
A former accountant who decided as he hit his thirties that he was bored of balancing the books, Mr. Arora now has a mini-empire of sorts in Williamsburg, er, Hauz Khas. Along with TLR, there’s Elma’s Bakery, the movie-watching café Iron Curtain and, coming soon, Edward’s, a sandwich shop to be named after the cat Mr. Arora and his wife own (Elma’s is named after their dog).
Mr. Arora said ending up in Hauz Khas was sort of accidental.
“This is a charming village. It had a certain vibe – the greenery, the water feature, and the lady that I met who is now my wife,” said Mr. Arora. “It was relatively spontaneous.”
It helps too that cars, except those of residents, are banned from the village – one of the first things you see when you walk here is a sign that says “Parking for The Village People Only.” (Just kidding, it doesn’t exactly say that.)
Walking around, you get the experience of finding unexpected shops or restaurants tucked into little nooks or up an impossibly narrow flight of stairs.
That’s a more charming experience than trawling chain stores located around a square parking area as SUVs blow their horns in your ear.
Of course, lately, the hipster vibe seems to be facing some challenges. Zo, a new sprawling formal-looking Mediterranean restaurant, seems like it should be in Greater Kailash-II, and the sprawling half-kilometer long line of cars crawling towards the parking lot at the entry to the village isn’t so cool either. Hauz Khas may be becoming a little too popular for its own good.
But other spots around the city are starting to beckon to hipsters as a wave of young designers and restaurateurs who don’t want to be in malls and can’t afford established markets look for space. That may end up taking some of the pressure off Hauz Khas.
Shahpur Jat is now where designers like to gather – Dasktar moved there from Hauz Khas several years ago — while the Khirkee area, a village where art collective Khoj is located, has become a base for several artists.
But the area that has perhaps been the fastest to gentrify is Meher Chand market, located pretty much at the halfway point between the Habitat Center and Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Older shop-owners here think their market appeared on real estate brokers’ radars with the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
It was once a fairly typical neighborhood market – albeit one that’s located streetside rather than tucked around a square as in most neighborhoods – with your passport photo shop, a few shabby fabric shops, and at the higher end, a few Rajasthani block print clothing and quilt shops.
Now, it has become a place where you can buy kitsch diaper bags printed with cycle rickshaws for 990 rupees ($18), 1,000-rupee mismatched dinner plates, or organic muesli for 380 rupees ($7). At Nourish organic café, you can eat zucchini hummus with flax crackers.
Gentrification was restricted at first to the stretch of the market north of the street leading to the stadium, but now it’s jumped to the other side too, with the Altitude organic store and French-Canadian restaurant Chez Nini.
Neelam Kumar, who runs a general store and whose family owns their shop – these spots were allotted in the 1960s to refugee families who came to India from Pakistan because of Partition – hasn’t been to any of the new shops.
“I don’t have the time,” she said. In any case, she considers the local Café Coffee Day, where a coffee can cost 100 rupees ($1.8), too expensive, even though it’s a lot cheaper than many of the newer arrivals.
- Tripti Lahiri/The Wall Street Journal
- After arty bookshop CMYK opened in Meher Chand market in 2009, a wave of new boutiques has followed.
But she thinks the gentrification will be a good thing. “The crowd will be better,” she said, adding that they were getting more walk-ins.
Here, the shop that probably drew the attention of other young designers was CMYK, owned by Roli Books and run by siblings Priya and Kapil Kapoor, of the family-run publishing business. Mr. Kapoor said they knew they didn’t want to be in a mall when they first started looking for space. Shahpur Jat and Khirkee were a concern because they’re zoned as “urban villages,” and sometimes it’s unclear what sorts of businesses are legal to run there.
Although Hauz Khas is an urban village too – and it’s already been through one round of trouble with authorities, in 2006, when bars and restaurants, including one run by former Olympic Association chief Suresh, were shut down – that doesn’t seem to have detered the newest wave of shops. But Mr. Kapoor said he wanted to be somewhere where the rules were clear and parking wasn’t an issue.
“The first time we saw it, it was like it’s too dirty, it’s too unorganized,” he said. But it was an unbeatable location.
“We realized we might have just stumbled across an opportunity,” he said.
“Because we were the only store, everyone stopped — it caught their attention,” said Mr. Kapoor. “At the same time, it wasn’t a place that people were just happening to walk around. We do a lot of events, we had to get people there and really make it a destination.”
Unlike Hauz Khas Village, where leggy girls can wear shorts to dinner and not look out of place, Meher Chand is still mixed enough that ladies will want to dress demurely so as not to attract untoward glances from men crowded around the government-run liquor store sandwiched between Chez Nini and Kunafa, a middle-eastern bakery that is one of the newest arrivals to the market.
But that is kind of the charm of the market, with families from around the area coming to eat greasy spit-roasted chicken and roomali rotis at roadside stands just down the road from where others are sampling duck confit and pork belly. That makes it feel a little less rarefied than Khan Market, or even Hauz Khas.
“It completes that experience of a Delhi street market,” said Mr. Kapoor of the market’s current mix, although he thinks it’s unlikely that many of the current owners will continue to run their mom-and-pop shops as people offer more money to rent their spots.
He’s hopeful, though, that new renters will continue to be one-off places.
“I don’t think there’ll just be lines of Nike and Reebok and those kinds of multinational companies,” he said. “I hope that it remains with a bunch of independent stores.”
So I take back that dig about that hipster couple the other night. And the next time I’m in Williamsburg, I’ll make sure I drop off a few maps of Hauz Khas Village and Meher Chand market.
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