Neighbourhood Guide: Khanna Market

The cover of a trader’s association booklet about Khanna Market from the 1990s.

Each of the four big markets in the quadrangle of land bound by Lodhi Road, Nehru Stadium, Aurobindo Marg and the railway line has its own special charm, from the leafy literary appeal of Jorbagh, to the sleepy specialty stores and restaurants of Lodhi Colony Market, to Mehar Chand’s mix of haute and hoi polloi.

But of all the neighbourhood shopping centres on that fringe of central Delhi where the colonial city ended and the refugee city began, the one I visit most often and find most endearing, is Khanna Market. Between the lofty imperial archways of Lodhi Colony and the scattered, built-over remnants of an older city—the Aliganj area, with its Shia graveyard of Karbala, and the Shah-e-Mardan dargah; and the 18th-century tomb of military commander Najaf Khan—Khanna Market provides a prismatic view of the moment when Delhi became the capital of newly independent India, born from the labour of Partition.  It is also immeasurably convenient for erranding.

The oldest and most famous inhabitant here is Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel, an unassuming South Indian joint with roots in the area going back to 1930, well before the market existed. The original Chidambaram, from the town of the same name in Cuddalore, was the cook of a cabinet minister transferred to Delhi. Chidambaram wanted to join the military, but was drafted instead to run a mess for the officer’s quarters at Lodhi Colony, newly built by the British as they cemented Delhi’s position as capital, little knowing it would their last residential project in the city.

C. Kumar, who now runs the restaurant with his brother, says their father “brought idli-vada to Delhi”, and used to feed “100 bachelors”. According to him, the elder Chidambaram believed that “selling food is a sin.”  Over half a century later, the prices and flavours are still gluttony-inducing. Faced with this  sweet trespass—idli encrusted with gritty red masala or deep-fried ‘kurkure’; golden vada threaded with onion; creamy dahi-vada topped with crunchy boondis, chillies and beetroot; lacy rava dosa folded over shredded coconut confetti or slathered with garlic paste—the loyal regulars demand their sin again and again, washed down of course with tumblers of steaming filter coffee.

Manmohan Arora, of Arora Store
Manmohan Arora of Arora Store

Chidambaram was one of the first to set up shop in Khanna Market when the area was developed for Partition refugees in the early 1950s, under the auspices of market namesake Mehr Chand Khanna, the politican who eventually headed the Department of Rehabilitation. At Arora General Store, a kirana dukan enlivened by a colourful selection of embroidered borders, Manmohan Arora recalls coming here with his family from Gujranwala in 1947. “We did footpath business also,” he says, “until we got the shop in 1957.”

Arora’s store is tucked away in a neglected crook of shops next to a tiny park across Najaf Khan Road and beyond a cluster of tentwallas, in the so-called “New Khanna Market”. His mine of memories about the market’s heyday include a the festivities of the passing Phoolwalon Ki Sair, the four large gates of Karbala always thrown open, and a victory parade for a young Dara Singh. Back then, it was “four bananas, one anna,” he says.

There are still cheap, filling thrills to be had though, starting from Rs 5 for boiled anda at wholesaler Malhotra Egg Sales. The chhola-kulcha seller behind Trilok paan stand is the most popular of several; sample at your peril the tandoori momos at car-o-bar friendly Peshawari, or the snacks at Ram Singh Bhoj, Krishan Sweets or Bangla Sweet Corner. Burning a bigger hole in the pocket is air-conditioned restaurant Hot Chimney (North Indian, Chinjabi), which has deep ties to tourist taxi drivers, who take advantage of the market’s free parking and eat the same food from the same kitchen at cut-price Dawat next door. Meanwhile, market stalwart Golden Bakery has a vivid selection of cookies, cakes and snack foods.

The Hakim may or may not be in.
The Hakim may or may not be in.

For home baking needs, there are two chakkis, and the woebegone but chatty owner of Chabbra Floor Mills (sic) was once kind enough to grind almond flour for me on request. (The smaller Bansi Mills is more efficient, but less accommodating.) The meat shops include a reliable Green Chick Chop, but  it’s really Khanna Market’s well-stocked and reasonable produce stores that tip the scales in its favour compared to other markets. My go-to is Puri Brothers, which carries everything from bamboo stalks to banana flowers, and whose owners  provides cooking suggestions for unfamiliar seasonal vegetables like fuzzy “barsati karela”. There are also two decent wine and beer counters.

Other market gems include the famous Devan’s South Indian Coffee and Tea in New Khanna Market, which has perfumed the environs with the aroma of roasting coffee since 1962. Bhatia Musicals, run by the knowledgeable Sandeep Bhatia, is packed to the roof with lustworthy imported guitars, classical instruments, and technical equipment (don’t miss the giant vinyl record on the ceiling). A bit further off the beaten track is a mysterious staircase leading to the Bareilly Surma Centre, an eye clinic run by Hakim M. Riasat Qadri, who shuttles between Bareilly and Delhi ministering to clients of every faith. The market’s three opticians  and half-a-dozen chemist shops supplement these services. (The hakim’s surma is purely medicinal.)

Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.
Behind Khanna Market, a vision of Delhi in BK Dutt Colony.

There are cosmetic shops, a mehendiwalla, the salon services of Madonna (established 1978), as well as old-fashioned barbershop Ajanta Hairdresser. Plus a photo studio, shoe shops and appliance dealers and repairers. One of several textbook and stationary shops, Adarsh Pustak Bhandar displays both Raj Comics and Akbar-Birbal stories. Sahib Bhai Patang Wala’s shiny hole-in-the-wall is currently stuffed with Holi supplies but changes its wares depending on the festive season.

Khanna Market’s cloth shops sell everything from blankets to bolts of fabric, snugly fitted next to tailors with decades of experience in the crisp lines of sarkari office-wear. Keep an eye out for phulkari dupattas, fifty-rupee blouses, and sharp, pinstripe suits. The dozen or so tailors range from sewing machines on a table to full service shops that also sell fabric. There’s even a cute little dry-cleaning service, Roxy, that advertises four-hour service.

Despite this abundance, Khanna Market is a relatively peaceful shopping experience, perhaps because it’s still the sum of its parts, not a destination. The shopkeepers wouldn’t mind a bit more business though. Kamal Kishore of Kamal Cloth House, which he opened on Republic Day, 1966, told me that his stock of Vardhaman yarn brings in knitters from far and wide in certain months, but the rest of the year is lean. A stone’s throw from the Swacch Bharat-supported Lodhi Colony street art initiative, the little park outside his store, which the shopkeepers once “maintained beautifully with trees and flowers” is now a tentwalla dumping ground.

Sitting in his loft office above a trinket-stuffed Archies, Ravinder Grover, president of the Khanna Market Trader’s Association, told me about the market’s low-key “revamp” plans. A few shops have constructed second storeys, and others have the NDMC’s approval to do so. It’s unlikely though that Khanna Market will see anything like what one shopkeeper called “the hijacking by Khan Market people” of Mehar Chand, which is largely unauthorised. According to Grover, Khanna Market has long survived by catering to the needs of civil servants for things of use. He would know; his father Chamanlal fed breakfast to “500 to 600 regular customers” at his restaurant in Lodhi Colony Market. Grover’s ran from 1945 to 1974, he said, with milestones like Delhi’s first jukebox and an early “expresso” machine.

Grover’s also finds mention in an article in the Indian Review by journalist R.A. Padmanabhan, recalling the day of Gandhi’s assassination. Padmanabhan “had taken my son Mohan, three years old, to the lawn [now Veer Savarkar Park] in the middle of Lodhi Colony where I was put up. With a big rubber ball I was playing with him, when I suddenly noticed some restive crowd gathered around the radio in front of Grover’s Restaurant before the lawn. A number of Sikhs, with kirpan hung by their sides were talking loudly. It was evident they had something of importance and were discussing it seriously. Taking the child and the ball, I moved on near to the crowd. What I heard stunned me.”

This stunning news finally stifled the flames of communal violence, allowing rehabilitation in the wake of Partition to begin. This resettlement involved nothing less than the creation of a new city, with almost double the population of the old one, and this neighbourhood is where the two cities overlapped. Where Grover’s Restaurant once dispatched dal to Jawaharlal Nehru, Guppy by Ai now serves sushi to the grandchildren of those refugees. But Khanna Market still provides a glimpse into that fragile history.

Enjoying life at Chidambaram's New Madras Hotel.
At Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel.

Adarsh Pustak Bhandar 52A Khanna Market, 2469-2206.
Arora General Store 132 Khanna Market, 2469-4804.
Bareilly Surma Centre First Floor, F-5 New Khanna Market  (near Union Bank ATM), 2464-5314. Open from the 19th to 29th  of every month.
Bhai Sahab Patang Wala 32 Khanna Market (to the left of Bangla Sweet House).
Bhatia Musicals 2 Khanna Market, 2463-1562.
Chhabra Flour Mill 1 Khanna Market, 2461-5469.

Chidambaram’s New Madras Hotel 7 Khanna Market, 2461-7702. Meal for two Rs 500.
DCCWS and DSIDC Wine & Beer Shops 80 and 31 Khanna Market.
Devan’s South Indian Coffee & Tea 131 Khanna Market, 2469-4467.
Golden Bakery 101 Khanna Market, 2469-4314.
Kamal Cloth House 125 Khanna Market, 2469-1872.
Jagdish Studio 91 Khanna Market, 2464-7700.
Malhotra Egg Sales 31A Khanna Market, 98919-72531.
Puri Brothers 10 Khanna Market, 2464-0549.
Roxy, 45 Khanna Market, 98190-40769

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, March 23, 2016.